Italian ski mountaineering rising star spends summer in Summit County
FRISCO — After most of Team USA’s contingent returned home this past winter from the International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Championships in Switzerland, Summit County local and U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association national team member Sierra Anderson decided to stick around.
Anderson spent nine weeks in Europe traveling and racing, including at a couple of ski mountaineering World Cup and Italian Cup events. It was at those events where Anderson got to know the members of the revered Italian team.
“I kind of kept showing up at these random races,” Anderson said. “And the girls were like, ‘What the hell are you doing here? She must be serious.’”
Anderson got to chatting with the group and casually mentioned that any of the Italian girls were welcome to visit the U.S. ski mountaineering community in Summit County. Samantha Bertolina, an unassuming 18-year-old from the northern Italian mountain towns of Valfurva and Bormio, spoke up.
“She was the only one who (perked) up among the girls and said, ‘I want to come. I want to come this summer,’” Anderson said.
From there, Anderson thought of young American ski-mountaineering star Grace Staberg, of Silverthorne. Staberg, 17, had competed for the U.S. national team at the World Championships in Switzerland. She raced in the cadet division, one age group younger than Bertolina’s junior division. While at the world championships, Staberg took sixth place in the girls individual cadet race with a time of 1 hour, 15 minutes and 46 seconds, about 10 minutes behind Bertolina’s second-place pace (01:05:51) in the girls individual junior race on the same course.
Despite racing in the same place at the same time, Bertolina and Staberg didn’t get to know each other during the world championships. But they grew close after Anderson introduced them in April via Instagram, and the Staberg family welcomed Bertolina to stay with them for the first half of the summer.
After Staberg and Bertolina exchanged pen-pal type messages via text, Bertolina arrived in mid-June. It was with the Stabergs and Anderson that Bertolina first encountered the reality of exercise at high-elevation, with the Stabergs taking her for a run on the Frisco Peninsula and Anderson taking her for a mountain bike ride in the Horseshoe Gulch area. Lingering snow made the bike ride twice as long as Anderson expected, but Bertolina was a trooper, she said.
Also during her time here, Bertolina hiked Mount Royal and competed in the Gold Run Rush Summit Mountain Challenge mountain bike race in June.
“I think your people are really crazy,” Bertolina said with a laugh. “Because in downhill, they went really fast. And I like downhill. But before I came here, I broke my arm with the bike, and now I am slow and not so fast like the people here. But the race was really fun.”
Bertolina also finished in fourth place among men and women in the 10K trail race at the July 13 Power of Four at Aspen Snowmass.
In terms of high-altitude endurance sports, Bertolina didn’t shy away from much, though she opted not to ski even with Summit’s lingering snowpack. To Bertolina, June to November is a time for summer sport training, such as hiking and mountain biking. She found it funny when she tagged along with Anderson and Staberg on a day of skiing and a day practicing their ski-mountaineering transitions off snow at Anderson’s home.
“Samantha was sitting there laughing and filming us, sending it to all of her Italian friends, ‘You crazy Americans,’” Staberg said.
The Stabergs and Anderson also introduced Bertolina to other members of the Summit ski mountaineering community, namely in Breckenridge. Bertolina saw Summit Endurance Academy practices hosted by American coach Joe Howdyshell and athlete Jaime Brede at places like Gold Hill and Beaver Run.
Outside of sports, the main thing Bertolina learned is that Rocky Mountain weather can be extremely fickle, much more so than in the northern Italian Alps near her home.
“I really like this place,” Bertolina said. “But it’s funny. Like, the weather changes really fast. One day it snows, the day after it was, like, really hot and summer.”
As their time together draws to a close, Staberg said she’s appreciated learning about Bertolina’s life and culture back home, told in part by the little wooden bowls Bertolina gifted to the Stabergs. They were made by her carpenter brother back in Italy. As for training, Staberg said it was eye-opening to see Bertolina’s focus on shorter, high-intensity running as opposed to the long-distance running the Summit High School cross-country star Staberg typically undertakes.
Anderson said she’s proud of how Bertolina grew out of her more shy, quiet presence to blossom into a member of the county’s tight-knit endurance sport community, vastly improving her English along the way. Then there’s also the element of Bertolina’s journey inspiring Summit locals her age to do something similar.
“When you see one person doing it, it feeds confidence and the courage to do it yourself,” Anderson said. “I see the bridge being built through these connections.”
Women’s Nordic combined will not be in the Olympics in 2026, preventing the Winter Games from reaching gender equality. The International Olympic Committee elected to not add the sport to the schedule on Friday.
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