Future Parkite Kathleen O’Connell looks to make her mark at Continental Cup
Come Saturday at the Continental Cup in Park City, Kathleen O’Connell will stand at the top of the Utah Olympic Park’s ski jump.
She’ll be strapped into her skis with her hands on the bar, knowing that there’s no backing out at the point. According to her, the only way down is to raise your hand, and quite literally fly through the air until she’s safe on the ground.
“It’s definitely intimidating being up that high, looking down at what you’re supposed to be doing,” O’Connell said. “The best thing about being up there is knowing that there’s only one way down. … And I’m not going to crawl back off the bar and walk down. I just got to stand up, have my coach flag me down and fly down.”
While this may seem like an ordinary thing to do for someone competing in a Continental Cup with some of the best Nordic combined athletes in the world, this flight down the mountain is anything but ordinary for O’Connell.
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This will mark her first major jump ever in a major competition, something she never anticipated or saw coming when she gave up Nordic combined as a high school sophomore six years ago.
As the youngest of four, O’Connell began Nordic combined because it’s what she knew. It’s what her family did so for her, she knew that it’s what she wanted to do. But a change from Nordic combined to Nordic skiing by her older sister helped up O’Connell’s eyes to what could be.
“I grew up doing Nordic combined with all of my siblings, but I eventually switched to just Nordic skiing,” O’Connell said. “At that time, there wasn’t much of a future in Nordic combined, and I wanted to go to college on a scholarship. So from then on, I took up Nordic skiing and eventually it led me to Montana State.”
At the present time, and as she reflects on her journey cross-country skiing, O’Connell believes the switch was the best thing for her. Not only did it get her to college where she’s been to the NCAA championships twice, but her journey as a cross-country skier also took her to Switzerland two years ago for the World Junior Championships, where she finished in the top 20.
But things began to change for O’Connell three summers ago.
She was in Steamboat Springs training at Howelson Hill on the Fourth of July when she heard about the Ski Jumping Extravaganza as part of the day’s celebration. Thinking it looked fun, and having a rare moment of nostalgia, O’Connell signed up.
“That was such a fun and crazy day,” O’Connell says of ski jumping in Steamboat Springs. “I ended up borrowing ski’s, somehow found a jumpsuit and decided ‘what the heck.’ I did the ski jump that day. … And have done it once a day, once a year and only on the fourth of July in Steamboat.”
Despite her brief amount of fun back ski jumping, O’Connell stuck with cross-country skiing, but kept her eyes and ears out for any more information regarding ski jumping and Nordic combined. And when she heard that Nordic combined was getting its own World Cup circuit, O’Connell began to think about transferring back to her original sport.
That idea began to take shape when on her way back to Montana State from Steamboat Springs this past summer, at the urging of her father, O’Connell stopped in Park City to visit with a friend and meet with Bill Demong, the executive director of USA Nordic.
“I had a meeting with Billy and we talked as if I was going to be doing Nordic combined, which included the upcoming Continental Cup,” O’Connell said. “I honestly didn’t expect that from him, just expected him to be like, ‘okay cool,’ but he was the one who actually suggested I compete in the Cup. I’ve had zero ski jumping since the fourth of July, when I did it that one day, but I’m going to make it work.”
The support of Demong, along with that of her family, has given O’Connell the courage to make one more change, this time back to Nordic combined.
Following the Cup, O’Connell will return to Montana State to finish her senior season with hopes of winning a national championship. But once that’s done, she plans on taking a gap year to fully commit herself back to Nordic combined.
She plans on moving to Park City upon graduation, and throwing herself fully into the sport. She’s hoping to score points to make the U.S. national team and compete on the world cup circuit next season, something she believes she’s capable of accomplishing.
“I think even if it doesn’t go well for me at the Continental Cup, I’ll still do it afterwards,” O’Connell said. “No matter what, this will put me in a good position for next year. It’s really cool to be given this opportunity to come back after a long break, and hopefully do really well and see where it takes me.”
O’Connell is expecting her new roommate in Park City to help her adjust to full-time training. Especially because he’s looking to accomplish the same thing she is.
“My twin brother Fin is going to be moving here with me and focus on Nordic combined as well,” O’Connell said of her brother, who currently skis for the University of Vermont. “My brother is my best friend so it makes it so much more exciting knowing that we’ll be living together and doing the same thing.”
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It’s going to be at least another month before Summit County’s high school athletes have any chance of getting onto the field again.