2014 Sochi Winter Olympics Spotlight: Liz Stephen | ParkRecord.com

2014 Sochi Winter Olympics Spotlight: Liz Stephen

Liz Stephen climbs up a slight incline during the 30-kilometer classic race at the 2013 Nordic World Ski Championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy. Sarah Brunson/USSA

For Liz Stephen, who made the switch from alpine skiing to cross-country skiing while attending high school in Vermont, the hardest thing to get used to with her new sport was the footwear.

Though Stephen, an avid runner, was familiar with the lightweight performance aspect of shoes made for long distances, she was used to another style entirely while on snow.

"The biggest challenge, and to this day it’s still challenging, is that the boots for cross country are quite different than the boots you use for alpine," she said. "They’re like running shoes on really skinny skis with no edges. It’s tough going from basically combat boots that are locked in at the heel to that. That’s been a pretty challenging transition for sure."

But, she made the transition work for two reasons. One, she was enjoying herself and the endurance challenges of cross-country skiing, and two, she needed to ski to stay at the school she loved.

"I went to Burke Mountain Academy [in Vermont]," she said. "I actually went there as an alpine skier and to be an alpine racer. I spent two full years there as an alpine skier."

When she started losing interest in alpine, she decided to make the switch.

"To go to school there, you have to ski," she said. "They only have two options – cross-country and alpine. I loved that school, so I figured I would try cross-country and see if I liked it. I’d always been a runner and loved the endurance aspect of sport. So I tried it out and I just never really looked back. I love it."

Eventually, Stephen would climb to the upper level of the sport, moving to Park City to train at the USSA Center of Excellence and earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team heading into the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.

But, injuries would hamper her training, leading her to finish in a disappointing 49th place in the 10K freestyle race.

"I had plantar fasciitis in my feet that I wasn’t able to get rid of," she said. "I couldn’t run for a year, year and a half, leading into the Games or do any sort of plyometric training. So I kind of tried to add some more strength training to my program that year. It just didn’t transition for me as well as I hoped it would."

She learned a lot from participating in her race and watching other elite athletes compete, though.

"I just wasn’t fit enough," she said. "But it was a great experience in Vancouver and, going into Sochi, it will be nice just to have had the experience of going to the Games and how to handle the extra stress that goes into the Olympics."

And Stephen’s 2012-13 season, in which she finished fifth in the 10K freestyle and she and her teammates took fourth place in the 4x5K relay at the 2013 Nordic World Ski Championships, was her best ever. She’s hoping to carry that momentum into this season ahead of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

"This year, I feel like I can really focus on the actual races at the Olympics," she said. "The first time experiencing anything is just to get the knowledge, gain some experience and enjoy yourself."

That doesn’t mean she won’t enjoy her time in Russia. She’ll just enjoy them more once her races are over.

"I don’t think you should ever attend an Olympics and not enjoy it," she said. "But I can see focusing more on results and goals and trying to work my way up."

As for current races and training leading up to the Games, Stephen has a simple motto – have fun and work hard.

"I really love skiing, I love sport, I love being outside working hard to achieve things with a team," she said. "I love to run – it’s a huge part of my training – and I love focusing on technique. It’s a lot of work, but if I didn’t enjoy what I am doing in sport right now, I don’t think there’s a way I could be the best I can be. I really enjoy doing what I do."

Every week until the start of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, The Park Record will profile an Olympic hopeful with ties to the Park City area. Check back next week for a story on Nordic combined athlete Taylor Fletcher.

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