Aspen Nordic skiers Simi Hamilton, Noah Hoffman talk World Cup, Olympic season |

Aspen Nordic skiers Simi Hamilton, Noah Hoffman talk World Cup, Olympic season

Aspen's Simi Hamilton, left, and Noah Hoffman talk during Friday's annual Nordic fundraiser at Belly Up Aspen. Both World Cup skiers have eyes on the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times |

Simi Hamilton hung out with some of the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club athletes. Noah Hoffman pounded pavement alongside the Aspen High School cross-country team ahead of its trip to the state championships.

In short, the Olympians both enjoyed being home for a change.

“It’s just so nice to be back on trails that are familiar. This is home. I can’t help but smile when I’m here,” Hoffman said. “It’s few and far between, but I cherish the moments, for sure.”

Hamilton and Hoffman, accomplished Nordic skiers raised in Aspen, were able to explore their old stomping grounds last week when they returned home for the annual Nordic fundraiser, held Friday evening at Belly Up Aspen. The event is the unofficial local kickoff to the Nordic World Cup season — and this year the Olympic season — with the local stars.

On top of bringing in valuable funds to support the athletes, it’s a chance for them to reconnect with a community that has had their backs from the start.

“Even at the highest level of racing cross country in the U.S., you still rely on the generosity of your local community to help you and support you along the way,” Hamilton said. “We rely on all these people and families we grew up with who are big fans of ours and have watched us progress throughout both of our careers.”

With the World Cup season less than a month away, each skier offered up his thoughts on the upcoming winter. They both have similar end goals in mind despite starting in much different places.

Hamilton hopes third time is the charm at Olympics

Hamilton, 30, is again an “A” team member for the U.S. national team. He competed in both the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics and is coming off a strong season in which he finished 30th overall in the World Cup standings and ninth in the world among sprinters.

The season highlight came when he and teammate Erik Bjornsen took fifth in the team sprint at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Finland, the best finish by an American male duo in the event in its world championship history.

“If you look even beyond last season, I feel like I’ve been progressing every single year,” Hamilton said. “I’m not guaranteed a starting spot on that team, but I think if I stay healthy and my training goes well throughout the rest of this fall and the rest of the season, I think I’ll be in a really good spot for throwing down at the Olympics.”

While a successful World Cup season is again on the agenda, Hamilton certainly has his eyes set on February’s Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Outside of Bill Koch in the ’70s, the U.S. Ski Team hasn’t found much podium success in the Olympics, something Hamilton believes this group can change.

Led by Minnesota’s Jessie Diggins, the women’s team in particular could be in position to bring home that long sought-after Olympic medal in Nordic skiing.

“To feel that momentum, not only with the girls but just as a collective team in general, is really cool,” Hamilton said. “Even if I don’t win a medal, I think the most important part that I can do is go to the Olympics knowing I did everything in my power to try to achieve that goal. Regardless of what happens, regardless of how fast I race, I think I’ll be proud of myself and I hope my local Aspen community will be proud of me.”

At the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, Hamilton and Bjornsen combined to take sixth place in a classic team sprint. Hamilton’s other Olympic highlight came when he finished 29th in a classic sprint at the 2010 Games in Vancouver.

A healthy Hoffman looks to prove he still has it

Hoffman, 28, had big goals in mind for the 2016-17 season. When healthy, the 2014 Olympian has more often than not proven himself to be one of the country’s top distance racers and he brought his training to a whole new level last summer, looking to build off the successful winter he had the year prior.

That extra training, however, proved to be his undoing.

“I got into the season and things just weren’t clicking. It was so close, but it never was there. In hindsight it’s very clear I was overtrained,” Hoffman said. “It was a really challenging season and it was so clear I wasn’t handling the training load.”

Hoffman became ill multiple times during the season, including a bout of influenza right before world championships that eventually turned into pneumonia. He finished the World Cup season ranked 33rd in distance and 51st overall.

Unfortunately for him, the top 50 is the general cutoff to make the U.S. Ski Team the next year, meaning Hoffman lost his full-time team status for the 2017-18 season. This has by no means changed his goal of competing on the World Cup and hopefully making it to his second Olympic Games in February.

“I didn’t get the nod for the team, which is OK because as a consolation prize I got start rights for the World Cup for the first four weekends this year. Basically, it’s a chance for me to prove I belong there,” Hoffman said. “Coming off such disappointment last year and not being renamed to the national team, it almost takes some pressure off. I still expect myself to ski at that level and I’ve skied at that level before, but nobody else necessarily expects me to be there.”

Hoffman will have four World Cup stops between Thanksgiving and Christmas to secure a spot on the team for the remainder of the season, which he hopes will include the Olympics. If the first month of the season doesn’t go his way, Hoffman understands it could bring a sudden end to his winter.

“If I don’t ski well, then that’s going to potentially be the end of my season and the end of my ticket to the Olympics,” he said. “I’ve had some really good time trial tests in the last couple of weeks that have shown good fitness. I’m more excited this year to start racing than I have been since the last Olympic year, at least. I think that’s a really good sign.”

Olympic fears?

Much of the talk this season is about the rising tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world, including the United States and Olympic host South Korea. The resort town of Pyeongchang is located only 50 miles from the demilitarized zone separating the two countries.

Does this worry the two athletes? It’s a concern, yes, but neither is putting too much thought into it.

“I still truly believe the Olympics transcends all these weird political things going on and these conflicts between countries,” Hamilton said. “I’m really optimistic and encouraged that all the international leaders can look beyond that and use the three-week period of the Olympics to be able to come together and enjoy watching great athletic performances.”

The end of the road?

Both skiers understand the end of their career is not far off. Hoffman is hoping to make it through this season before making any decisions on his future. Physically he said he is ready for many more years, but needs a lot to come together to make that happen.

Unlike Hamilton, who has already been through college, Hoffman hopes to get in the classroom as soon as he says goodbye to being a competitive skier, whenever that may be.

“It really depends on how I’m going to ski. I can see a scenario where if things really aren’t clicking that I’m done pretty quickly,” Hoffman said. “The lifestyle is amazing, but there is a lot else I want to do.”

Hamilton hopes to have a few more years, but made it clear the 2022 Winter Olympics in China isn’t going to happen. He said next winter, which includes the 2019 World Championships, could be an ideal stopping point.

“Ski racing has been a really, really cool thing for me to take part in, but I can tell my head is kind of getting ready for something else,” Hamilton said. “Right now we are just playing it by ear, but I’m psyched to start writing a new chapter in my life pretty soon.”

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