Hailey Duke has talked with Boise Weekly at several crossroads during her world-class skiing career, but rarely in person. The last time BW talked with the Idaho native, she was seven time zones away in the town of Stubai in the Austrian Alps. Hailey never had an "off season." She would compete in Europe or North America in the winter and early spring, and practice in South America at the height of summer.
That was then. When BW sat down with Duke recently at a downtown Boise coffee shop, she was getting ready to surmount another challenge—this time, a little closer to home. After spending the better part of a decade traveling the globe as a member of the U.S. National Team and as an independent competitor, Duke, 29, will be going back to college in the fall in pursuit of a degree in business management.
The cliche about world-class skiers is that they're always living on the edge.
Some athletes are out there for the adrenaline rush, but I'm not really one of those athletes. I always loved the feel of skiing, the finesse. It was more like a puzzle that I needed to piece together.
Why did you choose slalom?
Here in the West, we're pretty notorious for big hills and speed skiing, but I love the feel of generating speed as opposed to maintaining it. The slalom chose me over the years and treated me very well.
Were you shackled to long-term goals or short-term goals?
You have to have both. There were specific criteria for making the U.S. Ski Team. Then it's all about world rankings and points. Then you work your way up the start list. Then you have to gain the number of your days on snow.
What does that mean?
"Days on snow" is the preparation period, especially during the summer. You can go to Mount Hood [in Oregon], but that's not really winter snow. You really have to go to South America.
You made the U.S. Ski Team at the age of 21, but I'm more interested in the three years that you raced independently.
Sometimes you're on the cool list, sometimes you're not. When I came back as an independent and finally won a Europa Cup event, all of a sudden I was cool again. But honestly, many of the people who supported me cared less about how I did and cared more about my love for competing.
I don't think a lot of Americans can appreciate the level of celebrity that world-class skiers enjoy outside this country.
It's stunning—a different world.
Did you ever make time for personal relationships in your years of international competition?
It's too difficult, unless someone has nothing better do than follow a skier around. That's nearly impossible. I just didn't go down that road.
I'd be remiss if we didn't talk a bit about the Olympics. It seems that every four years, Americans are obsessed with your sport for two weeks and become mini-experts about alpine skiing.
It's the only time you see it on TV in the States, but in Europe, skiing is on TV constantly. It's in the bars, restaurants, shops and gas stations. It's their football.
Are you asked about the Olympics often? [Duke was a member of Team USA at the Vancouver Winter Games.]
Right after someone says, "Oh my gosh, you're a World Cup skier," immediately following is, "Are you in the Olympics?" And then...
Let me guess the next question: "Did you win a gold medal?"
Sometimes it's the only question. I say, "No, only one person was able to win that day."
Tell me about the moment that you decided to stop competing.
It was early March , a World Cup event in Slovenia. The snow was grippier than I thought, and I couldn't handle it and flew off the course. It was a DNF.
That's "did not finish."
Honestly, I had recently got all of my puzzle pieces together, and things were clicking so well with my skiing. I just couldn't do it on that particular race day. After so many years of being pissed when I went off the course, that time this past March, I thought, "I'm OK.' I've done exactly what I wanted to do... and then some... and then some more." And I was finally good with that.
If someone were to pay your way for another season, would you be heading to South America to get ready to compete again?
I think I would still be done. I absolutely fulfilled what I tried to do. I just let it go.
And now you're heading off to college.
My boyfriend and I are heading to Salt Lake in August where I'll be going to Westminster College.
Hold it...Tell me about this boyfriend.
Patrick. He cuts custom glass for Glassmasters in Sun Valley. He was so removed from the ski racing world, and that was great. He's super supportive and he told me, "Now, it's all about moving to Salt Lake and getting you to school." Life isn't so bad.
Are you taking a full load of classes?
What other way is there?
So, what are your new goals?
I have a strong entrepreneurial sense. I think I've learned in the past few years to make things happen, but sometimes to let things just come together. I don't want to close off a lot of opportunities by deciding exactly where I want to go.
That's an interesting change.
I have the next four years to think that through in college. Unless I speed it up.