Idaho’s Duke all smiles after milestone day |

Idaho’s Duke all smiles after milestone day

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” Scores of animated youngsters, markers at the ready, were clamoring for her autograph. Crowds rose to their feet to applaud her. After a stellar first slalom run ” her best ever on the World Cup circuit ” she led Swedish phenom Anja Paerson in the standings.

What a difference a year makes for the U.S. Ski Team’s Hailey Duke.

In Sunday’s Aspen Winternational finale, the 23-year-old qualified for a

second run for the first time in her six World Cup slalom starts. This time last year, she was toiling in relative obscurity in alpine’s minor leagues.

“We were out in the fields in the middle of nowhere,” the Sun Valley, Idaho product said of one Europa Cup race last season. “A farmer came over to the lift and he told us ‘good luck.’ He was the only person there.”

She had plenty of company Sunday. Parents Larry and Jane, and her grandmother made the trip. A group of University of Utah Ski Team members, many of them childhood friends, took a day off from training in Summit County to join the large crowd surrounding the finish area.

So, too, did local middle schoolers. During a trip to the Aspen District Theatre on Tuesday, Duke promised a packed house of students that if they showed up on race day, she would qualify for a second run.

They showed up. She delivered.

“This is a little different,” Duke said, smirking, “but I think I can get used to it.”

The daughter of ski instructors, Duke took her first turns on Sun Valley’s Dollar Mountain at age 2. Two years later, she raced for the first time in a Kindercup event ” “I actually had to do it twice because my first go-around I missed the finish to go hit my favorite jump,” she wrote on her website.

When her father took over a ski racing program in McCall, Idaho, then 8-year-old Duke was a willing participant.

“I said ‘Sure. Why not,'” she remembered. “It was something I always did and always wanted to do.”

That commitment led to a decision to pursue racing full time at the expense of college and a promising taekwondo career. (Duke finished third at the U.S. team trials at 15 and took part in multiple national martial arts competitions as a teenager.)

In 2004, she joined the Park City (Utah) Ski Team as a post graduate. In November, 2007, she made her first World Cup start ” a slalom at Panorama Mountain Resort in British Columbia.

“I had a good top split,” Duke said, “but my coach would say that after that I ran into a water buffalo.”

Her performances on the NorAm, International Ski Federation and European Cup circuits last winter were far more encouraging ” 10 podiums and five wins. She won European Cup slaloms in Lenggries, Germany, on Jan. 26 and 27. She won a silver medal at the 2008 National Championships at Sugarloaf in Maine and finished second in the season’s final NorAm slalom standings.

“I wasn’t a skiing prodigy. … I was a late bloomer,” Duke said. “But it all worked out.”

Because she finished in the top 45 in the world in slalom last season, Duke was awarded a coveted spot on the U.S. Ski Team’s Alpine B squad. Consequently, she will be a regular in World Cup slaloms during the 2009 season.

Her first start of the new season came in Levi, Finland, on Nov. 15. While teammate Lindsey Vonn picked up a victory, Duke failed to qualify for a second run.

“Again, I had a good start,” she said. “My hands got back, though, and it went downhill from there.”

Given that result, Duke’s goals before Saturday’s race were modest: Ski smart, give herself plenty of room for error and keep her hands up.

Duke said she accomplished all three. She negotiated the 58-gate Lower Ruthie’s Run course cleanly, finishing her first run in 51.49 seconds ” good for 16th. After a conservative second effort, she wound up 21st out of 30.

Still, she was more than satisfied ” and so was the home crowd.

“I was a little more relaxed and skied a little too conservatively, but I made it,” she said. “I looked into the stands and waved. … They were cheering for me. There aren’t a lot of Americans [at my races], so I usually don’t get that.”

In the moments after, Duke conversed with a group of Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club members and appeased some eager photograph seekers.

Then, she huddled with friends and family.

Jane Duke loves to boast about being the first to let her daughter off her ski leash. Hailey Duke and all of her supporters have been enjoying the ride ” and the milestones ” ever since.

“I figured I’d eventually get here. Each year I was getting a little closer,” she said. “I haven’t gotten this smile off my face all day.”

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