At Their Peak

With the November sun arcing westward behind the mountains surrounding Bear Hollow, aerialist Joe Pack flipped through the air, unaware that his seamless ascension to the U.S. Ski Team and beyond was about to hit its first mogul.

Pack had just landed his second on-snow quadruple-twisting triple backflip, and this November day in 1997 was shaping up like most days lately for the 19-year-old freestyle skier: perfectly. Two seasons before, the former ski jumper had dazzled freestyle judges, winning the Junior Worlds aerial contest. Less than 12 months and thousands of practice jumps later, Pack flew to the top of another podium, this time winning his first World Cup competition.

It was only natural, then, that this up-and-comer with the blue eyes and blond hair of magazine covers would take his winning ways to the highest level of Olympic competition. Although U.S. Freestyle Team coaches wait until just two weeks before the Olympic Games to fill their rosters, Pack appeared to have a lock on the 1998 team's third position, behind Britt Swartley and eventual Olympic champ Eric Bergoust.

"I was coming off a pretty good season the year before, so I had a pretty good shot to go [to the Olympics]," Pack, now 21, recalls.

Those plans and dreams, however, exploded along with Pack's left knee on that November day. After he sailed off the biggest jump at the Sports Park at 40 miles per hour, he flew more than five stories into the air and then landed off balance.

With a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament, and damaged meniscus, the only jumping this future Olympian would be doing for some time was onto crutches and into classes. After taking a few courses at Utah Valley State College, Pack hobbled his way to the University of Utah and took on a full schedule, including sports psychology. The textbook was written by University of North Carolina professor Dan Gould, who had worked with Pack and fellow U.S. Ski Team athletes. In fact, it was Pack's familiarity with Gould, combined with his athletic background, that helped get the freshman admitted to the popular class.

"The class helped me keep my focus," Pack says.

He spent the quarter nodding his head, recognizing how the subject matter related to his life, from pre-competition concentration to returning from an injury. "A lot of things were clicking," he says.

Determined to regain his pre-crash performance level, the Park City High graduate incorporated his skiing experience, motivation, and newfound classroom knowledge. His form and confidence slowly returned. As soon as he was able, Pack traded his crutches for skis and his backpack for back flips and was once again soaring off jumps.

A third-place finish in last year's World Championships confirmed what the headlines in his hometown paper suggested: Pack was back! He followed up his third with a win in the U.S. National Championship last spring on the very hill that claimed his knee in '97.

"I focused everything on my landings, and once that became second nature, I could think about arm placements, twists, and everything else," he says.

Head U.S. Freestyle Coach Wayne Hilterbrand sees good things on the horizon for his mended aerialist. "He buried any problems about his knee long before [the World Championships]," says Pack's coach. "Joe's a phenomenal athlete."

Pack's roommate and teammate on the U.S. Freestyle Team, Mariano Ferrario BS'99, managed to juggle the demands of life on the World Cup circuit while gaining a degree in sports psychology. With a University of Utah diploma safely tucked away somewhere behind his worn-out skis and stinky boots, Ferrario is now a U graduate concentrating on sticking his landings instead of landing a job.

Of the 34 athletes named to this year's national A and B Freestyle Ski Teams, seven name the U as their school. Watch for Utes Shannon Bahrke (moguls), Brian Currutt (aerials), Sean Christiansen (moguls), and Emily Cook (aerials). Ute Maria Guarnieri is a three-time acro (formerly called ballet) champion, but the sport is not included in the Olympics. Snowboarding Utes Sondra Van Ert, who finished 12th in the Nagano Olympics, and Jeff Archibald are also potential Olympic riders.

Never hurts to try

One of Pack's classmates at Park City High was another skier named Steven Holcomb. After transferring to and then graduating from the Park City Winter Sports School, Holcomb headed down Parley's Canyon to begin working toward a mechanical engineering degree at the U. During the summer preceding his freshman year, Holcomb entered a bobsled push competition at Skyline High with other athletes who had heard there might be a place in an American bobsled for people with the right combination of build and talent. Impressed by this small-at 5'11" and 180 pounds, Holcomb was dwarfed by other athletes in a field that included several U football players-but athletic youngster, the U.S. bobsled coaches invited Holcomb to compete in the National Push Championships in New York.

Holcomb soon was juggling the demands of his first semester of college with trying to sprint, lift, and push his way onto the American bobsled team. The pushing paid off, and a week after his father had written a tuition check for Holcomb's first semester at the U, Holcomb had withdrawn from school to go on a sponsored trip around the world. Holcomb earned a seat in the USA 1 sled, thanks in part to teammates' injuries less than six months after his tryout. He has since shown similar skill in the ice-sliding sport of skeleton, which is similar to luge, only the sled is piloted headfirst at 70 miles per hour down the icy track.

Holcomb currently holds the skeleton start record at the Utah Winter Sports Park, has pushed on the national championship-winning four-man bobsled, and is in the midst of his second full year on the World Cup bobsled circuit, pushing the USA 2 bobsled. He recently joined a National Guard World Class Athlete Program that pays athletes to slide for the government.

Fellow headfirst ice slider Tricia Stumpf BS'94 of Park City rocketed to the top of the U.S. skeleton team ranks after discovering the sport last winter. The former junior alpine ski racer enrolled in one of the first how-to schools for skeleton at the Utah Winter Sports Park and was immediately hooked. She has since finished second at the national championships held last spring at the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics and is the reigning U.S. skeleton push champion. When the International Olympic Committee finally approved skeleton for inclusion in the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, Stumpf ditched her full-time marketing job in Park City and put all her time and energy into training. She spent this winter competing on the burgeoning World Cup skeleton circuit and finished eighth at the first World Cup of the year in Calgary, despite being diagnosed with mononucleosis. She is an odds-on favorite to compete on her home track come 2002.

Along with skeleton, women's bobsled was added to the 2002 schedule, creating another good chance to see some Utah red going for Olympic gold. Jill Bakken, a member of the U.S. Women's Bobsled Team since its inception in 1994, currently pilots the USA 2 bobsled and is ranked among the top five drivers worldwide. Bakken won bobsled silver in 1998 in her hometown Park City's World Cup, and holds the push record on the same track. She kicked off the 1999-00 World Cup season with a gold and a silver in Calgary.

Skinny skis, strong legs, large lungs

The U's strongest connection to the upcoming Winter Olympics can be attributed to a Ute ski program that has produced 10 national championships and finished no lower than the top five in NCAA competition since 1965.

Two former Ute Nordic skiers and roommates, Marcus Nash BS'95 and Justin Wadsworth, have four Olympics between them and currently are ranked first and third, respectively, in the United States. Nash recorded the first top-20 American World Cup finish since 1995 last season, and has three World Cup top 30s. Wadsworth, a two-time national champion, finished 25th in the 50-kilometer World Championship classic-style race and is now studying at Central Oregon Community College. Nash and Wadsworth will be competing against another standout Nordic skier, U sophomore Rob Whitney, a transfer student from Alaska-Anchorage. Instead of joining the U.S. Nordic Ski Team, Whitney chose to ski for the U, in part because of the ski program's tradition of excellence.

"It's a really solid program that has provided these athletes a foundation to move on to the highest level of the sport," says Kevin Sweeney, interim director of the U ski team and head cross-country coach.

Another factor convincing Whitney and other top Nordic and alpine skiers to ski for the U is its membership in the competitive Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association conference, which includes Colorado, Denver, Montana State, Nevada-Reno, New Mexico, and Western State College. Instead of traveling to Europe for World Cup races, Sweeney says his skiers can face some of the top international competition twice a week in collegiate events, while also getting a Utah education.

The Utes finished fourth in last winter's NCAA Championship and will host the event at future Olympic venues at Park City Mountain Resort and Soldier Hollow March 8-11. Although the cross-country team lost numerous standout skiers, including three-time All-Americans Rune and Frode Kollerud, the team remains strong with skiers such as junior Pat Casey, a two-time NCAA Championship competitor.

On the alpine side, look for U of U skiers with backgrounds ranging from foreign national teams to collegiate programs to junior race programs to vie at the collegiate level with the hope of scoring the results necessary to compete for world honors.

With a future mechanical engineer on the ice, a potential sports psychologist in the air, and a full contingent of Utes on the snow, it's a safe bet that Utah's got 2002 Olympic game.

—Dave Fields BA'94, formerly of University Communications and The Park Record, works at Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort.

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Copyright 2000 by The University of Utah Alumni Association