Wyoming encompasses nearly 98,000 square miles, making it the 10th largest state by land area. But all of Wyoming’s Olympians this year hail from a tiny corner in the state’s northwest.
Alpine skier Resi Stiegler grew up in Jackson and still calls it home. Her teammate, Breezy Johnson, was born in Jackson but grew up in Victor, Idaho, just across the border. Freestyle skier Jaelin Kauf, meanwhile, was born into a skiing family with Olympic heritage at nearby Alta.
Now, they are bonded under one name: the United States Ski Team. The three Jackson-area natives qualified to represent the United States at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“It’s a dream come true,” Kauf said. “It’s the largest stage I’ll ever compete on and it was my goal when I dedicated myself to the sport.”
It will be the first Olympics for both Johnson and Kauf while Stiegler will compete in her third Games. Each took diverging paths before becoming teammates for the first time. If any of them places first, they could be the first female skier from Wyoming to win Olympic gold.
Stiegler, the veteran
Resi Stiegler, daughter of former Austrian Olympic champion Josef Stiegler, started skiing at age 2 and began racing just four years later. Still, she insisted that no one ever made her ski.
Skiing was a natural part of her upbringing. Her family skied and worked at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort so she was never too far away from a pair of skis.
In the summer months the Stieglers would travel back to Josef’s native Austria. Resi was only in grade school but she adapted almost immediately. Her father helped ease the seasonal transition and she absorbed the European ways and culture. This only grew with time, which prepared her for traveling as part of the Junior Olympic and Nor-Am teams.
Stiegler was 17 when she made her World Cup debut in the slalom and finished 11th. A year later, she won bronze in the slalom and the combined at the Junior World Championships.
She continued to climb in the World Cup standings just as the 2006 Olympic Games in Torino, Italy, approached. Stiegler was just 20 years old but she qualified for the Olympics, just like her father.
The fun, however, did not last. Her competitive edge controlled her throughout the games and inexperience kept her rigid. She finished 11th in the combined and 12th in the slalom, which she wishes she had focused less on.
“It was not the most fun,” Stiegler said, “and so now I have learned to enjoy it and to worry less about the results and to go in with an appreciation of how hard you have worked and coming together with the rest of the world.”
She had to wait to implement her hard-earned lesson, however. Stiegler suffered a devastating injury during the team section of the 2007 World Cup. She crashed on a finals run, breaking her left forearm and right shinbone while also tearing ligaments in her right knee. She also suffered a bruised face and hip.
The injuries eliminated any chance for the 2010 Olympics games, but she isn’t sad or upset about lost time. That time away helped her appreciate the sport again.
“I still love racing and competing and that won’t change any time soon,” she said, “so it’s kinda cool to be looking at your life a little differently but still be in the hunt for what you wanted when you were a kid.”
Stiegler returned to skiing with her cleared head and stayed near the top of the World Cup standings. She went on to qualify for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi and, now, the 2018 games.
Kauf, the youthful
Much like Stiegler, Jaelin Kauf was born into skiing. Both of her parents skied professionally and her older brother grew up skiing mogul — encouraging her to take up the sport.
Mogul skiing is freestyle skiing, which is scored upon tricks, as opposed to the conventional timed alpine skiing that Stiegler and Johnson compete in.
Kauf didn’t stay in Alta long. Her family moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, during her freshman year of high school. She carved a name for herself on the slopes of Colorado for three years before it was time to move on. That’s when she made the decision to be a professional skier.
Less than a year after appearing in her first World Cup she was named World Cup Rookie of the Year. Then she won a U.S. Championship and a World Cup.
From then on, she did was what necessary to qualify for the United States Ski Team. Still, receiving the official word was a relief.
“It was amazing to finally be named to the team, though,” Kauf said. “It’s something I really wanted for a long time and a stepping stone in my goals.”
She dedicated herself to that season and approached the off-season with a renewed mentality. She admits that she relied too much on her natural talent in seasons prior, so she focused on her own hard work and abandoned the pressures she had previously put on herself. She even moved to Park City, Utah, where the American team is based.
Kauf officially qualified for the Olympics on Jan. 11 when she finished second on the first day of the Freestyle World Cup. Her third podium of the season not only earned her a spot on the U.S. Ski Team but also moved her to No. 1 in the women’s world rankings.
“It’s amazing to see that hard work pay off and to accomplish this goal,” she said.
Kauf has already reached out to plenty of skiers to help prepare for her first Olympic Games. Her boyfriend was a member of the team for eight years and has helped smooth the learning curve. She’s also reached out to former Olympians Hannah Kearney and Heather McPhie, who have helped immensely.
Going for gold
With the experience of two previous Games under her belt, Stiegler has taken the pressure off herself. She’s already experienced the consequences of pushing too hard and crashing. Instead, a free spirit has followed her to South Korea.
“Sometimes you want something too much,” she said. “So it’s time now to step back and enjoy what you have worked for and how far you have come and really be a part of something special!”
Stiegler no longer wears the tiger ears that used to serve as her trademark. She won a dispute with the International Olympic Committee that allowed her to wear them on her helmet during the 2010 Olympics. Those ears were a way for her to stand out among other skiers, but she doesn’t accessorize anymore. She’s got experience instead.
The first-time qualifier, Kauf, takes a more youthful approach into the 2018 Games than her veteran alpine teammate.
“Now is the time to work my hardest and do my best on the Olympic stage,” Kauf said.
Still, she has enough experience to keep her from getting too focused on results. Kauf travels with a plush Curious George monkey named George Junior. He’ll make his Olympic debut at the 2018 Games as well.
In Pyeongchang, Stiegler will help guide teammate Breezy Johnson, who did not respond to a Star-Tribune request for an interview.
Stiegler was in Europe before departing for South Korea while Kauf spent a few extra days in America before flying to South Korea on Wednesday, just over a week before Opening Ceremonies. Kauf begins freestyle competition hours before opening ceremonies while Johnson and Stiegler begin alpine competition on Feb. 11.