Tom Kelly: The importance of team in a tumultuous season
It was a nice spring day in Sun Valley on Sunday, fitting for the final cross-country ski race of the season for Parkite Sydney Palmer-Leger. Over the 10k skate course she pushed herself to the limit, hoping to take home yet another win to cap a season of highs and lows.
At 19, she has emerged as one of America’s next generation of ski racing stars. Like her fellow athletes around the globe, this past season has been anything but normal.
Palmer-Leger grew up in Park City, enjoying biking, skiing and hiking like most locals. She was born four days before the 2002 Olympic Games opening ceremony. A few weeks later, mom had her in a backpack at Soldier Hollow watching cross-country skiing and biathlon.
“I don’t remember any of it because I was only a couple days old,” she said, laughing. “But it was cool to know that story.”
As a young girl, her progression was quick with Park City Nordic and The Utah Nordic Alliance. At 11 she decided to pursue racing. “I just loved having the adrenaline of racing with other kids around the country.”
At the same time, she grew to become one of the top mountain bike riders in her age across the nation. But two years ago she decided to focus on skiing. Last year she qualified for the Youth Olympic Games in Switzerland, finishing fourth twice. She was also part of a team silver medal at the Junior World Championships. And she was recruited by the three of the top NCAA ski programs before settling on Utah.
She maneuvered through training in Sun Valley, where she had gone to school for several years. As winter approached, she connected with new teammates as a freshman at the University of Utah. She had strong results at collegiate and U.S. international races in January, setting the stage for her appearance at February Junior Worlds in Finland.
Palmer-Leger, along with her friend, roommate and athletic rival Novie McCabe, went into Junior Worlds with significant medal opportunities. Then it all came to a skidding stop. On their arrival day, a bus ride with a separate individual who tested positive put them in quarantine — despite everyone wearing N95 masks. The verdict: 14 days in isolation.
Teammates from around the world rallied around them virtually. The good news was that Palmer-Leger and her roommate McCabe, who had been racing together since they were 11, were permitted to quarantine together.
“It was definitely a hard couple of days — a lot of crying and wondering why this was happening to us,” she said. “We could have done super well. This was our year. But then we tried to have a good mindset, like these are just some small races and this would be just a good training camp at sea level. Then we’ll come back and finish our college season.”
As the reality set in, she got on her skis. “The day after I found out, I went for a two-and-a-half-hour ski over the tourist trails,” she said. “It was really pretty. And the snow — it doesn’t feel real in Finland. The trees are covered in snow. And there’s like a little bit of sun, not like our Utah sun.
“It was pretty incredible being there, even though we were in quarantine.”
She put it behind her, as well as what would have been her debut World Cup when the subsequent event in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, was canceled. Her focus turned back to collegiate racing with the Utes.
It was a quick turnaround back to Soldier Hollow for the late-February RMISA Championships, matching the best collegiate powerhouses in the West.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “I just wanted to go out and race as hard as I could. I had to trust my training, pushing as hard as I could and having fun, because this is my first experience as a freshman. I was really enjoying being there with the team.”
She won the opening 5k classic, with McCabe second. In the 10k skate, they swapped places. The Utes kept their perfect season intact, winning over Colorado.
Two weeks later, Utah headed to the NCAA Skiing Championships in New Hampshire. For the 14th time in history, they came away with the title — thanks in a big way to Palmer-Leger who skied to back-to-back victories. It capped a perfect season with a pair of freshman — McCabe and Palmer-Leger — leading the way.
“Sydney is an amazing young woman and probably the most competitive person I have had on my team in 20 years,” said Utah Director of Skiing Fredrik Landstedt. “She just hates to lose and pushes herself so amazingly hard every time.”
Her success the past two seasons will open new doors for her from the World Cup to an opportunity to qualify for the Beijing Olympics now just over 10 months away. She’s anxious for those opportunities, but also has settled in to life in the Utes’ ski team house near campus and the future with her collegiate teammates.
A day after her Sun Valley win, she was back to campus life, taking a break from racing. “I love going to Whole Foods, getting a bunch of ingredients and cooking crazy recipes,” she said. “Lately I’ve been doing a lot of curries and Indian dishes. It’s crazy how when you make it yourself it tastes so much better. And as an athlete, you have to be super self-conscious about what you’re putting into your body.”
The men and women live just a few streets apart and team dinners have helped build camaraderie. Though just a freshman in a tumultuous season, she’s learned the value of team and the support factor that teammates bring.
“Cross-country skiing is a pretty individual sport, so having your races mean something for the whole team was an incredible experience,” she said of her role in the Utes’ NCAA title. “When I found out we won the overall national championship, it was so cool to celebrate with my whole team.”
Wisconsin native Tom Kelly landed in Park City in 1988 (still working on becoming an official local). A recently inducted member of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame, he is most known for his role as lead spokesperson for Olympic skiing and snowboarding for over 30 years until his retirement in 2018. This is his 51st season on skis, typically logging 60 days in recent years.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of national championships the Utah ski team has won.
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