Lauren Macuga, 16, makes US Alpine team
Just three women have joined the U.S. national Alpine ski team for the first time this year. Lauren Macuga, a 16-year old student at the Winter Sports School, was one of them.
For Macuga, it came down to the final race of the season on April 17.
She had started the season with no International Ski Federation ranking, and received the default 990th. But she had worked her way closer and closer toward 450th, the magic number that would qualify her for the U.S. team. As the season had progressed, it looked likely that her rapid improvement could secure a position earlier, but the weather had other plans. The penultimate race was canceled, so there would be no cushion.
On April 17, she stood in the gate at Mammoth Mountain for her last run of the season and her last shot at capping her debut FIS year by earning a spot on the U.S. team.
Macuga and her coach, Park City Ski and Snowboard’s Jay Hey, knew it would be for the prize she had set out to win in March, one that had been a dream in her idle moments as a young skier years ago but that now seemed to be so close. Hey said Macuga handled the situation like few could, pushing the thought of points out of her mind.
She was there to feel the wind on her face.
In that state, she gained speed enough to take third and earned a spot on the U.S. team.
It hadn’t been so long ago that she had first dreamed of donning the red, white and blue.
Macuga, born and raised in Park City, was seven when she started skiing, but didn’t compete with a club until she was invited to compete at the NASTAR nationals in 2011, at the age of 8. To her and her parents surprise, she won her age group.
“It was a great experience and it really got me into racing,” Macuga said. “When they announced my name I couldn’t believe it because we had no idea what was going on.”
She joined the Park City Ski Team (now Park City Ski and Snowboard) the next season, and has competed with the team ever since.
In 2013, she and her three siblings, who are all competitive skiers in different disciplines, started talking about their goals. Her older sister Samantha, a national team ski jumper, immediately mentioned the Olympics, and the goal has stuck with Lauren ever since.
“All of us were drawn to that,” Lauren Macuga said of the Winter Games. “That’s where you could show the world who you are.”
But Macuga said she wouldn’t have that goal if she didn’t enjoy skiing for what it was – the simple joy that comes from the act of rushing down a mountain and attacking the fall line.
“I just love just making that perfect turn,” she said. “When you’re going really fast and that wind is on your face, it’s just so satisfying. It’s the best feeling. It just makes me happy.”
This season was the first where Macuga was eligible to race in FIS sanctioned events. Her training reflected that shift. She moved from PCSS’s U16 team to the PCSS FIS women’s team and started training under Hey.
He described her season as “amazing.”
Macuga was coming into Hey’s tutelage as an athletically talented skier, but the coach said Macuga had been relying on her talent and size to win races in the past.
From the start of their training in June, Hey said his goal was to help make his new pupil “understand the concepts contextually when it came to what she was trying to do technically and tactically on her skis.”
Hey said he needed to impress upon Macuga the intensity it would take to reach the next level, and needed her to start training up to that standard. Macuga took that lesson to heart.
“In dry land, he just knew I could do so much more, could lift so much more weight and run so much farther,” she said. “On the snow, he could help me get the angles and push my limits past what I was afraid of. He could help me get the angles, the speed that he knew I could achieve but I didn’t.”
When the results of her training started to materialize, Macuga said she started to see the end goal that her coach was pushing for and the level of skill he had in mind.
“It was kind of eye opening just to realize that there’s a whole other step to take,” she said. “And if I didn’t take that step, I wasn’t going to be going anywhere.”
She had her work cut out for her.
FIS competitions are seeded by results – those who finish highly start high in the next race. Macuga had no history, and thus had the lowest starting position possible. In her first official race of the season, a slalom at Snow King Resort in Jackson, Wyoming, she started 98th out of 100 racers and moved up to second.
“From there it took off, there were really no lulls in the season,” Hey said.
There were some events she placed lower in – 29th at a slalom race in Steamboat, followed by 12th the next day – but there wasn’t an event where she wasn’t a podium contender in at least one race. She took 18 top-10 finishes in FIS races before getting a shot at the NorAm level, where she would race against current U.S. national team members, and other international competitors from Canada and France.
In March she took the gate at her first NorAm, a downhill race at Sugarloaf in Maine. She took 12th and 10th overall in two races in a field of 30. She competed in two Super G events at the same NorAm and took 11th and 15th, then took ninth in Alpine Combined.
“She really opened up some people’s eyes as to who she was as a skier,” Hey said.
Three days later, Macuga went to the national championships at Waterville Valley, New Hampshire, and took 19th in slalom and 25th in giant slalom. On March 27, two days later, she competed at the junior national championships at the same resort and took fifth in giant slalom and second in Super G (held at Mittersill Cannon Mountain).
Her ranking was improving, but she was still on the far side of the magic number, 450, that separated hopefuls from national team nominees.
After another 10 days of FIS events, she still needed another podium finish.
Her whole season came down to that spring morning in California.
“There were no more opportunities left,” Hey said.
Macuga said she remembers standing at the top of the mountain waiting for her turn.
“I had to clear my head to focus on skiing well instead of meeting points,” she said. “Once I got into the gate, I wasn’t worried about it. … That whole run just felt so good, and I guess it worked.”
She took third overall, enough to put her at 445th.
“When I got to the top after the race and saw my coach up there, I just had a feeling inside that I did it,” she said.
But the decision ultimately comes down to the coaches, and so Macuga waited for a call. A week went by, then another and another. Still no call.
“For a month or so I was on edge,” Macuga said.
Then it came. On a day like any other, the voice of U.S. Ski and Snowboard Alpine development director Chip Knight came through her phone, telling Macuga she had made the team.
“I got all teary eyed,” Macuga said. “I was so excited, right after the call with him, I called my parents. It was so unbelievable.”
She thought it would be another year or two before she made the team, but during her first season at the FIS level, she’d done it. She’d made the cut.
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