Whether or not he was on the U.S. Ski Team, Kieffer Christianson of Anchorage would be a ski bum.
Normally, Christianson would be in Girdwood this time of year, preparing to ski at Alyeska Resort. But now that he’s been promoted to the national team, the 21-year-old alpine racer is launching a routine of traveling the globe and competing against the best skiers in the world.
“I love racing in the spotlight,” he told me. “I'm a pretty extroverted person most of the time so I thrive on the energy from the environment around me and it always a lot fun to race in big time races. I am excited to race in the World Cup, because it will be the biggest stage I have raced in yet.”
And the hardest. Christianson kicked off his World Cup career Sunday with a giant slalom in Soelden, Austria, but he was one of 10 starters who didn’t finish the first run. Still, it was a rare appearance by an Alaskan in a World Cup alpine ski race; Kieffer's brother Charles competed in World Cup races in Colorado and Val d'Isere, France during the 2011-12 season.
Christianson's teammate and training partner Ted Ligety won Sunday's two-run event in 1:59:50. Former Olympic gold medalist Bode Miller was 19th.
Earning a promotion
Christianson, an alumnus of the Alyeska Ski Club, was bumped up to the U.S. Ski Team’s C squad after spending the last three years on the D team and representing the country at the World Junior Championships. His best finish in those championships was ninth during a giant slalom in Italy last year.
He has trained with the U.S. Ski Team’s World Cup Tech Team, comprised mostly of A and B team racers, in preparation for the World Cup opener this weekend in Soelden, Austria.
“I’ve been able to train with the best skiers in the country, specifically Ted Ligety, who is the undisputed world No. 1 in the GS,” Christianson said.
Though he’s living the life of a professional skier, it’s not like he’s living the high life. The U.S. Ski Team picks up most of the tab, but Christianson still has to raise $25,000 to help offset the cost of racing internationally. He created a website for fundraising.
Christianson didn’t always want to be a ski racer. He used to have his sights set on being a bone doctor.
“I was obsessive about it, and would spend hours most nights tracing different bones and I could rattle off the name in the body,” he said. “Once I discovered ski racing, my obsession gradually become more pointed towards ski racing, and I haven't really looked back.
“My parents probably wish I was still an aspiring bone doctor, but being a ski racer is what I have wanted to do since I started. It was never really something I would sit around and dream about, it just has always been my top priority, and the thing that has kept me most motivated.”
Alaska's rich history in alpine skiing
When he was 14, he captured his first world championship in races for junior skiers in Canada and Italy. And it’s been downhill ever since.
Christianson is the first Alaskan to join the U.S. Ski Team since Andre Horton in 2001, and Horton never started a World Cup race. But Alaska has a rich history in alpine skiing.
Two names -- Tommy and Hilary -- dominate that history. Hilary Lindh of Juneau was the Olympic silver medalist in the downhill the year Christianson was born, 1992. Tommy Moe of Palmer captured gold and silver at the next Winter Games in 1994.
“The Tommy Moe Invitational was always one of the most exciting races at Alyeska growing up and I thought it was so cool that an Olympic gold medalist who grew up training at the same mountain I did signed an autograph on my helmet,” Christianson said. “I don't know him personally, but he was definitely an encouraging presence growing up in Alaska.”
One thing is for certain, Christianson believes he wouldn’t be where he is today if hadn’t been raised in the 49th state.
“I can't imagine getting to the level I am today without growing up in Alaska,” he said. “The ever-changing weather, gnarly terrain and big features that Alaska has to offer are second to none and great place for a ski racer to grow up.”
While earning a spot on the U.S. Ski Team is a major accomplishment, Christianson hopes to push it a step further by winning a spot on the U.S. Olympic team competing in Sochi, Russian, in February. Four Americans can be entered in each alpine event and, clearly, Ligety, the reining World Cup giant slalom champion, will be there. “The other three spots are wide open,” notes Christianson. “I hope that my goal of participation in the Olympics will foster local pride and provide a role model for Alaska youth.”
Van Williams, a 20-year local sports writer and the former sports editor of the Anchorage Daily News, writes about the athletic exploits of Alaskans for the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story failed to note that Kieffer Christianson's brother Charles competed in two World Cup alpine skiing races during the 2011-12 season.