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Idaho's Olympic Hopefuls Train for the 2014 Winter Games

Snow sport athletes overcome hurdles

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As most people wait and wonder when the snow will arrive in Boise, the state's Olympic hopefuls live and train in perpetual winter. Some have just begun the lifelong pursuit of one day competing in the games. Others have a specific goal in mind: to reach the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

Among the hopeful include Boise natives Sara Studebaker and Hailey Duke, Nordic skier Michael Sinnott and the rest of Sun Valley's training family.

Studebaker competes in the biathlon, a sport combining Nordic skiing with rifle shooting that some compare to sprinting 100 meters and then trying to thread a needle. Studebaker is currently in Austria on the World Cup circuit, important qualifying events for the U.S. team. How athletes fare on the circuit can set the pace toward the Olympics, though the exact qualifying criteria haven't been set.

This year, the World Cup biathlon circuit started in Ostersund, Sweden, then moved to Hochfilzen, Austria. Though it was scheduled to head to France, there wasn't enough snow and Austria ended up hosting the third week of the World Cup.

"For us, World Cup standing overall [at the end of the season] and World Championships are definitely the goals," said Studebaker.

Still two winters away from the Olympic pre-qualifiers, she is focused on training and building on the gains of the previous event. She ranked 34th in the world at the end of last year.

"Things have been getting better for me with each race," she said. "In Sweden, I was struggling a little with my skiing but made both pursuits [Sweden and Austria] and was top 40 in the pursuit in Sweden."

Only the top 60 finishers from the sprints qualify to start the pursuits, and the top 40 from pursuits score World Cup points. The World Championships follow the World Cup in March.

Skier Hailey Duke, who grew up skiing Sun Valley's Dollar Mountain, competed in the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, B.C., finishing 30th in slalom. A member of the U.S. Ski Team, Duke is competing in the NorAm Cup, where she placed eighth in the first slalom race. The competition is important because title winners secure places in the World Cup.

Duke has spent the past few months training hard after undergoing shoulder and knee surgery. She is "making it back up the food chain, taking it one race at a time," said her father, Larry Duke, who coaches the Bogus Basin junior ski team part time.

"Her surgeries went extremely well; her doctors are awesome," he said. "She worked her rear end off to get back on the snow. Now she's healthy and feeling good. She's strong and good to go."

Duke has already overcome other hurdles, including meeting her fundraising goal of $20,000 to support training and competitions. Still, she continues to work with donors and sponsors--including the World Cup Dreams Foundation--to raise additional funds to cover other expenses. The shoe company Todi USA gave 30 percent of sales made through Dec. 31, 2011, to the foundation.

"They just have to continue to prepare and have a strong mindset and focus on the next race because it's all performance based and results based," Larry Duke said of the Olympic hopefuls.

Sun Valley's team knows this. The group created a slogan to live by: "Six to Sochi," or send at least six athletes to compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics. The Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation sent three athletes to the games in Vancouver.

"Those athletes can be Nordic, Alpine, snowboard, freestyle, whatever--but we are making an effort as a community to have as many athletes in place for a shot at the Olympics, with at least six going all the way," said Nordic skier and Sun Valley native Michael Sinnott.

So far, the prospects of meeting "six to Sochi" appear solid.

An Olympic contender, Sinnott won the men's 1.4 K sprint at the NorAm Cup opener in British Columbia last month. His fellow Sun Valley team members are also performing well. Tai Barrymore won the U.S. Grand Prix Halfpipe and Kaitlyn Farrington placed fourth in the competition.

Sinnott said his plans for the immediate future are very much fluid and dependent on performance. He headed to the U.S. nationals in Maine just before the New Year, which will be followed by trips to Milan, Italy, and Otepaa, Estonia, for World Cup racing.

While he cautions that the Olympics are still some time off, and that the details of how and how many athletes will qualify hasn't been determined, his outlook remains enthusiastic.

"As for my potential to make the team, I think it's quite good," Sinnott said. "I have a new wax tech and coach this year who have helped me make huge strides and start this season with some big wins.

"We will need to carry that momentum for a couple more years, building and building to a strong 2014. There are politics involved in sport that I hope are not an issue, but if I keep racing fast, I see a very good chance of being in Sochi," he said.

The latest batch of aspiring Olympians is part of a long line of homegrown athletes. Sadly, Idaho lost one of its most well-known skiers, Boise native Jeret "Speedy" Peterson, earlier this year. Peterson's accomplished career included winning the silver medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

As in seasons past, this winter promises to be an exciting one with much local talent to follow--many have their own websites and are on Facebook and Twitter. But nothing is certain.

Generally, qualification for U.S. teams is based on ranking--the top results from the previous 12 months. The system is designed to favor more recent races, explained Sinnott. There is no one specific race, like how track and field chooses their team. Skiing has too many external variables--like weather, wax and distance fluctuations.

"This system has its positives and negatives, but I think it's important to know the system and use it to your advantage in making the team," said Sinnott.

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