Admiring the journey: Snowboarder Zoe Kalapos finally gets to Olympic Games
Avon family’s sacrifices made Olympic dreams possible
VAIL — Jan. 24, 2022, is a bluebird Colorado day at Copper Mountain. After gazing downhill at a busy Interstate 70, Zoe Kalapos peers down the halfpipe at gawking tourists with their phones ready, and turns up her music. Future’s “Never Stop” starts blasting as she tilts her Giro helmet toward the horizon line and prepares to thrust off the lip of the icy pipe’s wall.
Meanwhile, somewhere east of the Eisenhower Tunnel, Maria Kalapos isn’t worried about the trick being landed. Her biggest concern is whether or not her husband, Steve, will have one of his rotating meals — tacos, hamburgers, homemade pizza, or Thai fried rice — ready when the busy Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy sophomore, and her brother, Ian, get back to their Avon home.
As the setting Sunday sun reminds her of another week’s burdens, Maria wipes away a tear or two and pulls into Denver International Airport. After reminding herself why she was sacrificing so much — “for the greater good” — the Detroit, Michigan, K-5 teacher boarded a Spirit flight back to her family’s home in the Midwest. She’d be back next Friday.
At this point, followers of 24-year-old Zoe Kalapos are likely aware of her family’s temporary split when she was 13, a necessary life decision that allowed the Kalapos kids to pursue their snowboarding dreams at Ski and Snowboard Club Vail. You’ve heard of how Maria remained at her Michigan teaching post while Steve ran the Colorado home, which she visited every weekend for the final five years of her public education career.
“It was grueling but I just got into the routine,” Maria described.
The immense sacrifices are relatively unique. What makes Kalapos a local treasure has more to do with her open recognition and deep appreciation for who made those sacrifices and how they’ve shaped her character.
Snowboarding pre-requisites: Skiing
On Zoe’s first birthday, her dad gave her the gift that would change her life: her first snowboard. “My main inspiration started with my dad — trying to ride like him,” the 2022 Olympian stated.
“And she’s been snowboarding ever since,” Steve declared.
Between running a start-up during the day and bartending at Hockey Town at night, the Ferris State University alumnus also operated the family’s snow guns set up in the backyard. “Mt. Kalapos” allowed Zoe and Ian to hit a rail under the homemade spotlights before and after school.
“My dad worked so hard. I think that’s probably where I got my work ethic and the ‘follow your dreams,’” she explained about her father’s entrepreneurial, driven spirit. Maximizing one’s potential was a desire he successfully handed down to his kids.
“Our feeling was (of) setting a goal and a dream and then going after it and then working really hard to get there,” he said of the greater purpose he and his wife sought to ingrain in their kids. “The things you would be instilled with along the way made the sacrifices worth it even if you don’t make it to the Olympics.”
Maria echoed the sentiment. “We had structure, we had goals. I think that was just instilled in me at a young age and I knew that’s how I wanted to raise my children.”
Even though some of that “raising” occurred over a cell phone connection while one party flew down a road and the other flew into the air, there was never any regret about the arrangement.
“Never once did we say this is not going to work,” Maria said, crediting her support system for helping the family along the way. “But what was really important to me were all my neighbors and close friends and family kept us going. Everyone believed in Zoe and Ian and embraced us and did everything within their power to help us create this dream come true for the kids.”
Zoe, who would receive multiple calls each day from her mom as well as handwritten notes on those dreaded Sundays where she would have to leave, quickly comprehended the immense sacrifice being made.
“I’m not the only one who made sacrifices, so I wanted to put in that extra work to make sure that my family’s sacrifices paid off,” she said. “I just gave up a normal life that a teenager would live and that was kind of hard for me in the beginning, but then I just realized you have so many opportunities that people would kill for. When I realized how grateful I am, it was easier to ride my best. I realized how lucky I am — where the sacrifices don’t really feel like sacrifices.”
About her mom’s epic weekly commute during those formative years, Kalapos said, “She was a saint for doing that.” During rough stretches on the board, when she would sometimes see competitors’ parents being congratulated, she’d think of her own mom and dad.
“That would just fuel me. I’d be like, my parents deserve to have people come up to them and be like ‘congratulations, your daughter did so good,’” she remembers.
The low moments — often spent without the physical support of her mom, who would watch the European competitions between preps or during a lunch break at Jane Addams Elementary — built her mental fortitude and revealed a true love for her craft.
“There were definitely hard points,” Kalapos recalled. “When I would get really sad or cry after contests, I did that because I cared. Because I cared so much about snowboarding and knew I had more to give than what I showed everyone that day.”
“I was always the hardest on myself,” the self-described perfectionist admitted.
“My drive to keep one-upping myself is what keeps me going.”
When her dad’s sufficiency as a snowboarding role model tapped out, Kalapos turned to Hannah Teter, Kelly Clark and Jamie Anderson. At Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy, the covers of her binders contained Snowboard Magazine photos of the trio.
“I’d be in school looking at the photos of them and just wanted to be exactly like them when I grew up,” Kalapos said.
A few years later, she was competing against them.
“It’s just wild to have your childhood idols become your friends,” she said.
Every Olympian is perpetually driven, and Kalapos was no different.
“I think I valued a lot of different things and grew up really quick compared to the kids I was in school with,” she said. Despite the temptation, she eschewed the regular parties and potential distractions.
“I remember at the time, it was really hard, being a young kid and like, ‘I really want to go to this,’ but I have been putting myself in a ‘you can do more than this,’ place. I kind of understood that if I follow this path and I really wanted my dream as bad as I knew I did, you can make something of this.”
Those habits continued through her college years, where she balanced 12-18 credits a semester as a full-time student and full-time professional athlete.
Her parents see many of their daughter’s core values in the accomplishment of acquiring a degree.
“Zoe’s always had a strong work ethic and I think she proved herself when she graduated this past spring with her bachelor’s degree in business,” her mom said. “It’s very difficult to be a professional athlete and solely focus on your sport, but to be able to go to college full time as well as train in the gym, on snow, travel, compete, is something to say about her character.”
The balance actually zeroed in her athletic focus to an even higher degree.
“I didn’t want to jeopardize that one extra workout or miss that one trampoline session or that one time riding where I could have learned a new trick,” she said about her monastic five-year collegiate career. “So, it really helped me focus on school and snowboarding.”
Of course, a zeal for being on snow is another ingredient to Olympic success, and she had that, too. Though he rarely traveled to her early events, Steve once went to Laax, Switzerland, for one of the then 15-year-old’s competitions. He distinctly remembers a viciously windy and brutally cold practice day. Despite the conditions, one athlete forced the event staff to keep the entire halfpipe open because she just refused to leave: Zoe Kalapos.
“She’s still like that to this day,” he said. “Whether it’s a good day to practice, a cold day to practice — I’m trying to peel her off the mountain by the end of the day.”
The passion is something Zoe has always felt.
“I feel like it’s a deep internal drive I’ve had since I was young to just keep going,” she said. “It’s momentum from a very young age. Where it’s like you hop on this train — and I’ve been on this train for so long now – and I just have something inside of me where I’m like, ‘I need to keep going, I know I have more to give than where I’m at now.’ That was a big thing for me.”
The long road to Beijing
As fireworks rocketed over Mammoth Mountain during the 2018 team announcement, Zoe vowed to never again experience the feeling of being left out.
“I don’t want to be an onlooker at the next Olympics,” she remembered saying to herself.
“I’m going to work my butt off to make sure that I’m there next time.”
Being so close was a big push.
“You can do this, just work hard these next four years and that can be you,” she told herself.
“Well, it’s been a long road to get to this point,” Maria stated about her daughter’s nomination to the Olympic team. “We’re just over the top thrilled and couldn’t be happier. Just really happy to see that all of her hard work and dedication and perseverance has paid off for her.”
With the dream realized, her parents, friends, and family will congregate in Avon for a watch party. Considering the immense sacrifice they’ve made, the daughter knows they deserve more.
“I think it is hard because everybody’s parents have given so much to allow them to do this sport,” she said about not having family present in China. “The parents do deserve some of their own limelight, which they can get at the Olympics. It’s hard that they don’t get any of the recognition.”
With her focus now on Beijing, Zoe will rely on her amplitude and personal style to wow the judges.
“Doing other tricks that are just as hard but more unique – switch tricks, switch-airs, air-to-fakies, stuff that other girls aren’t really doing in their runs but that I’ve been doing from a young age,” she said.
When asked what will be swirling through her mind as she stands at the top of the halfpipe in China, she provides a predictable answer: “I’ll just be trying to think about doing my best.”
A writer can’t help but wonder if she’ll look out at the horizon and let her mind fly back to the top of Copper. Perhaps she’ll imagine looking down at that interstate, remembering her own road, and thanking those who made her journey possible.
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