Noah Hoffman retires from cross-country ski racing, readies for next phase of life | AspenTimes.com

Noah Hoffman retires from cross-country ski racing, readies for next phase of life

There was a hint of sadness in Noah Hoffman's voice, but no regret. He had long since made peace with his decision.

"It feels very right, though there are mixed emotions," Hoffman said Thursday while gazing at Aspen Mountain. "I'm going to miss the people. I'm going to miss the competition. But I'm not going to miss the roller skiing. At least for a while I'm not going to miss all the travel. It's time. This was not out of the blue. It's been a long time coming."

Hoffman's stay in Aspen, the place he has considered his home since moving here from Evergreen before the third grade, was brief. He was en route to Montrose, where his parents now live, and eventually Park City, Utah, where he plans to set up base camp, at least for a while. Only a few weeks into retirement, Hoffman is still struggling to find his new place in the world. The 28-year-old identified as a professional cross-country skier even before he graduated from Aspen High School in 2007. With that life now being set aside, there is a lot of uncertainty facing the two-time Olympian.

"It's bittersweet because we lived vicariously through his triumphs and disappointments through the years," said Maggie Blatz, Hoffman's sister. "His career hasn't been in an upward trajectory for the last couple of years. It's been a question that he has been grappling with. We definitely knew it was on the horizon, but now that it's here it doesn't feel there was preparation for it. It's a huge change."

beginning of the end

By most standards, Hoffman's career has been hugely successful. He's competed full-time on the World Cup since the 2010-11 season and earned his first World Cup points back in 2009 in Whistler, Canada. He has 127 individual World Cup starts to his name. He's competed in every World Championships going back to his first in 2011, and was part of Team USA for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

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"For a lot of years he was the best distance skier in the country and had some great results on the World Cup circuit," said Aspen's John Callahan, a 1992 Olympian who coached Hoffman since middle school. "He's doing it the right way. He's ready to move on. Once he made that decision he's sticking with it and not looking back. I've seen athletes who can't seem to finish up and wrap up and they just sort of wither away."

Hoffman has one official World Cup victory, when he won a stage of a 2013 15-kilometer freestyle pursuit race in Kuusamo, Finland. He won the 30-kilometer classic race at the 2012 U.S. Championships, and finished second in the 15k classic race at the under-23 World Championships that same year.

But since the 2014 Olympics, where Hoffman was 11th in a team relay and 26th in a 50k mass start, he has struggled to find that same success, injuries and illness often hindering his path.

"Obviously it wasn't all roses. The last four years since the Sochi year have been a struggle. It's not been what I hoped it would be," Hoffman said. "I wanted to be the best skier in the world. I had a couple of days where I was the best skier in the world, but I didn't make it happen consistently. But it isn't about the results anymore for me."

past his prime

Ahead of the 2017-18 season, Hoffman wasn't officially named to the U.S. Ski Team, although he was awarded starts in the early-season World Cup races. While his season results weren't overly impressive, he did enough to stay relevant, although a spot on the U.S. Olympic team was far from guaranteed.

In the weeks leading up to his selection, Hoffman stayed with his sister, who now lives in Sun Valley, Idaho. While he was hopeful about a return trip to the Olympics, there also was a small belief that his career might already have ended.

"We started talking about it back in December. At that point we had to make the decision on whether he wanted to keep going throughout the winter," Callahan said of Hoffman's pending retirement. "We came to the decision to keep going and go to the Olympics. He wasn't having a great season. He was always in it to be the best, and once that wasn't happening anymore and he hit a high point for himself, he said it was time to go."

Hoffman's 2018 Olympic results weren't noteworthy, but the experience will last a lifetime. With the pressure off his shoulders, he was able to enjoy watching Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall, who he says are like sisters to him, win the first Olympic gold medal in U.S. cross-country skiing history.

He also was there to see fellow Aspenite Alex Ferreira win Olympic silver in the men's ski halfpipe. And more than anything, it's his ski family he is going to miss the most.

"One of the things I'm most scared about is losing that community. I hope not to. I think there is a way I can keep it," Hoffman said. "I'm lucky that I've had a bunch of people who have gone through this transition that can guide me a little bit. But it's not going to be easy."

fantastic finish

While Hoffman's career may have peaked sooner than he wanted, it did come with somewhat of a storybook ending. He went public with his retirement announcement in early March, just before the final race of his career in Oslo, Norway.

The Holmenkollen Ski Festival and its noted cross-country ski race is one of the most prestigious stops on the World Cup and can bring in more than 100,000 spectators. That same course also hosted the 2011 World Championships, which Hoffman called the "start of my career."

"To come around full circle and finish my career at the same venue with the same unbelievable crowd was just so cool," Hoffman said. "Skiing into the stadium, to my surprise, my entire team was out there and they made a bridge for me with their arms. I was pretty emotional because I was not expecting that."

Hoffman only finished 51st in the March 10 race, a 50km mass start, but that didn't matter. His father, Mike Hoffman, and coach, Zach Caldwell, made the trip to Norway to see him race one final time. All of his U.S. teammates were there to celebrate with him at the finish.

"I felt so grateful to be a part of that group," Hoffman said. "It was the perfect way to end. Not every athlete gets to script their ending like that and to have that opportunity was a really cool experience."

the next phase

Late last week, Hoffman hiked Mount Sneffels, a fourteener near Telluride, with his sister. For a world-class athlete like Hoffman, this is hardly worth mentioning. But for so many other reasons, it's a major step toward his new life.

"That never would have been possible if he were still thinking about his career. On a personal selfish note, I am so excited to be able to go on adventures with him anytime of the year," Blatz said. "I am really excited for him in the next stages of life. He always had a lot of potential in a lot of different areas and he is an incredibly hard worker, which his career has been the proof of that. It's exciting to see what is going to happen next for him."

Hoffman looks forward to getting to do all the things his career and training regime didn't allow, like mountain biking, tennis and soccer. In Park City, he plans to find a somewhat sedentary lifestyle and wants to begin work toward a college degree. He's applied to numerous schools and hopes to start taking classes in the fall.

It'll be an adjustment from his previous lifestyle, but it's one he's ready for.

"I feel like I can do anything because there are so many people who believe in me and who are helping me and invested in my success beyond skiing. That was more than I was expecting," Hoffman said. "I'm lucky to have all the opportunities I did have and I'm really looking forward to the next chapter in life."

acolbert@aspentimes.com