Hailey Duke 

When the skiing feels effortless

Hailey Duke looked out the window while talking to Boise Weekly, and surveyed the scene.

"It snowed quite a bit overnight," she said.

Duke wasn't describing conditions at an Idaho ski resort. Instead, she was looking out the window from her home-away-from-home, seven time zones away, in the Austrian Alps town of Stubai, southwest of Innsbruck.

Idaho native Duke will be spending a lot more time in Europe this winter than at home as she has through much of her young life.

By the time she was 23 years old, Duke had been named to the U.S. Ski Team, competed in World Cup events across the globe and picked to join Team U.S.A. at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

But adversity followed in the form of injury and being cut from the national team. Instead of retreating, Duke and fellow Olympian Megan McJames started their own team, called Independent Ski Racing. And on the eve of her first World Cup event of the season, Duke said she's skiing better than ever and has the best motivation possible: skiing for herself.

When will you be in the starting gates for your first competition of the season?

Saturday, Nov. 10, in Levi, Finland.

Do you build toward Nov. 10 or could you compete tomorrow?

I'm getting pretty anxious at this point. I would love for it to be tomorrow. But there's always time for improvement.

What would you like to improve between now and then?

Continuing to build consistent, solid runs, making sure my speed is up to par. But I can tell you that things are going pretty well.

You just celebrated your 27th birthday in September. Where are you, age wise, compared to the other women on the tour?

You have the really young ones who pop out early, and you have the veterans in their 30s. I found out after so many years that age doesn't really matter.

Was there a downside to accomplishing so many of your goals by the age of 23?

Once you come up, you have to come down. The last three years have been really hard, trying to get my skiing to come back. I was with the U.S. Ski Team for five years. And now, I'm out on my own.

What led to your being cut by the U.S. Ski Team?

Lack of result. But there are so many variables with skiing. In the end, you see the numbers and I know there were some things that went wrong. But it's not as if I forgot how to ski overnight.

Did you immediately know you needed to get back on that mountain to compete?

I knew that I needed to have faith in my equipment and myself. And I found it.

How is your Independent Ski Racing team getting its message out in order to encourage donations?

It helps once the race season starts. When the snow starts falling, people get very interested. My message is that I'm heading out to perform at my best. It has nothing to do with what team I'm with. Hopefully, we can inspire people in that we're putting the politics aside and just getting out there to ski.

Are there politics in the world of the U.S. Ski Team?

There's going to be politics with everything, no matter what you're doing, no matter what sport you're in. You're never, ever going to get away from it. But you can figure out how to deal with it and to keep the right things in mind.

How would you characterize your current relationship with the U.S. Ski Team?

There is absolutely no animosity between me and the U.S. Ski Team. What we're doing, getting out here on our own, I think shows a lot of character and determination. It's definitely not easy on your own. But for the first time, I'm skiing for myself and not anyone else.

I'm guessing that your new independence has piqued quite a bit of interest from your peers.

Absolutely. I just don't think we need only one way to the top of ski racing. It should be open for anyone to go after.

Did you suffer significant injury the last couple of years?

It was more of a slow deterioration. I had shoulder surgery from a previous ski fall. And as my shoulder started getting worse, I experienced back problems. I had to stop and get everything back together. And not just my health, but my head back on straight, too.

Where are you today with your strength and conditioning?

The best I've ever felt. It's amazing when you're happy in what you're doing. I love taking on the responsibility of my conditioning and all the other aspects of my racing. I have total control in knowing what works for me. I'm pretty excited.

Just a few weeks ago, I saw that you came back to Boise to attend Capital High School's homecoming with your dad.

I missed my own homecoming when in high school because of all of my training. Ten years later, I asked my dad to be my date.

Did you go to the homecoming game and dance?

Definitely the game. I still don't know if Capital is ready for my dancing.

How difficult is it to have a personal life while on the ski tour?

It's not easy. You see somebody, and then you say, "I'll see you in a few months." I'm single, if anyone's interested.

Do you still get homesick?

I definitely crave cheeseburgers once in a while. I enjoy my own bed and not living out of a suitcase but I do love my life. It's pretty cool.

What would you say to a young girl who wants to do what you do?

I say, "Hi. Come take a run with me." If you want to do this for a living, you've got to enjoy the skiing itself. Do what you love and work hard at it.

Do you love it more today than before?

I definitely have a greater appreciation. I realize what I'm capable of now, and that's pretty cool.

Your goal is to land in the top 20 by the end of the season. How probable is that?

I don't see why not. If I'm skiing the way I'm skiing now and live by my own motto--ski happy and enjoy it--there's no reason I wouldn't land in the top 20. It only takes a couple of solid races to get close and there are plenty of races to be had.

On the grand horizon, do you have an eye on the Sochi Olympics in 2014?

I'm in a way better place than I was in Vancouver. But Russia is long-term. I have to break it down to daily goals to get there.

How long can you do this at the pace you're at?

If you pay attention and figure out what works, you can be smart and go as long as your heart desires.

Are you faster than ever?

We're about to find out. When the skiing feels effortless, I know I'm on the right track.

How bad do you want to be back on that winner's podium?

I'm already feeling as if things are going very well. My dad always told me, "Focus on the task at hand and the results take care of themselves."

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