Fall is here and the minds of the collective ski racing world are now fixed on the final preparations for the upcoming winter and the itch to finally step back into a starting gate is overcoming countless racers around the world. Minnesota native and veteran U.S. Ski Teamer Michael Ankeny, however, will be trading his race skis in for schoolbooks at Dartmouth College this fall, having officially retired from World Cup racing last week.
Ankeny first made waves on the national stage as a talented kid from the slalom factory of Buck Hill, Minnesota, taking several national youth titles before securing a spot on the U.S. Ski team for the 2009 season as a wide-eyed 17-year-old. Now 27 and ready to enter the next phase of life after ski racing, Ankeny came to terms with the end of his career over the summer and announced his future plans in an Instagram post.
“It’s pretty crazy, actually,” he says. “When I posted the official retirement post, the response I got was unbelievable. I’ve always known that the skiing community is amazing, but the messages people were sending me, either public or private, honestly, I was getting emotional.”
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After a long lull in my social media presence, I can put it off no longer…I’m retiring from the World Cup skiing circuit. It was a long and difficult decision, but with lingering injuries piling up, the unfortunate erosion of the US Slalom Team, and the Olympic cycle coming and going it is time to refocus and pivot towards finishing up school. People have asked if I’m upset or sad regarding the conclusion of my career and I have to say that I’m not. I put in the effort and gave it my best shot, so I have no regrets. I’ve met incredible people, seen incredible places, and experienced so much over the past 8 years. Even though skiing is an individual sport, I feel as though I’ve been competing as a team as there are so many supporters, friends and family that have made this journey possible. Thank you. However, I will still be competing on the World Pro Ski Tour! To hear a more in detail explanation of my decision, you can find an interview with me and Craig Marshall, fearless leader of the Pro Tour, on their website https://worldproskitour.com and check out their post @worldproskitour Thanks for all the memories and, as always, #staydrifty
The Minnesotan skied last season independent of the U.S. Ski Team as a member of Team Slalom Tokyo Drift, a project helped along by Ankeny’s long-time friend and Dartmouth classmate, Ian Macomber, who founded the popular ski racing Instagram account of the same name. He spent the winter chasing World Cup spots alongside friend, former NCAA skier, and Finnish athlete, Joonas Rasanen.
Ankeny explains that the thought of retiring was always in the back of his mind heading into last season with a few nagging injuries, the financial complications of organizing a World Cup season independent of the national team, and a desire to finish his education all weighing on his mind.
“That decision is always so much harder when you actually get to it at the end of the year,” he says. “You start thinking about all the other people who are retiring and how it’s really my generation’s time to move into the top spots in the world. The timing just felt right; I had given it a good shot, 100% of my effort.”
“As much as you don’t really want to think about the destination as the end goal because it’s all about the experience and the journey to get there, the Olympics are a big thing to go for,” he continues. “With it being an Olympic year and me already sort of thinking about the end of my career even though this has been my goal since I was six-years-old, I really wanted to give it my all and go for it but there was definitely an ultimatum that I made for myself.”
Although it was an Olympic year and Ankeny did not secure an Olympic team spot, he points out that the ultimatum he gave himself wasn’t the Olympics and had to do with his World Cup ranking instead. Ankeny says that if he did not finish the season ranked inside of the top 35 on the World Cup start list, he would call it quits. Ankeny finished the year ranked 48th in the world. Falling short of fulfilling that goal, combined with frustrations with some limiting chronic injuries over the past several years mad his decision that much easier.
“If I can’t put 100% physically into it, then it doesn’t make much sense,” says Ankeny. “There’s just certain things, especially with dryland and weight training. That’s what is more limiting; I’m not getting so much pain when I’m skiing, it’s more when I’m training for skiing.”
Ankeny will undergo surgery to repair a labrum tear in his hip sometime in the near future.
Ankeny made his World Cup debut in the 2011 Kitzbuehel slalom and found himself in the points three times, including a career-best 19th-place finish at his debut venue of Kitzbuehel in 2016. This past season, with numerous athletes competing for a reduced number of World Cup slalom starting spots, tensions were high as time trials and the fast-approaching Olympic selections loomed.
“I was frustrated last year,” he admits. “January was tough for [fellow independent athlete Robby Kelley] and me.”
The U.S. Ski Team chose to award their slalom nation team spots, which are created for each athlete ranked inside of the top 45 on the World Cup start list rankings and can be given to any athlete the national team chooses, through time trials before race day. Ankeny raced in the first World Cup slalom of 2018 in Zagreb, Croatia, before narrowly missing out in time trials by less than 0.10 seconds for the next several World Cups. Ankeny’s next and final Word Cup start came in March in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia.
“It’s always super awkward when you get into a situation like that because you’re competing against your best friends,” he says. “You want each other to succeed but at the end of the day, it’s an individual sport and you’re like, ‘No, I want to race and these World Cups are the qualifiers for the Olympics.’ It was a little tough because the spot we were all competing for was the spot that I created by scoring the previous year.”
“On one side its like, without me, this wouldn’t even be open,” he continues. “I felt a little entitled to that spot, to be honest. I understood that the coaches wanted to put the best foot forward for the nation but it was still a little frustrating. At the end of the day, it’s a time trial and you have to win them to get the spot.”
Much has been said of the U.S. Ski Team’s recent consolidation of the men’s alpine tech teams into one group, subsequently tightening their selection criteria and leaving several promising athletes out in the cold, including 2018 Olympian Mark Engel. Ankeny has been there himself as he spent the 2014-15 season independent of the national team after failing to make criteria the previous year. Instead of looking at their situation as a setback, Ankeny advises that those athletes look at this as an opportunity to re-ignite the passion that got them racing in the first place.
“Those guys proved last year that they still have the speed, especially Mark,” Ankeny says. “Mark made several second runs and went to the Olympics. It’s a real opportunity to find your passion for the sport. I really experienced that with my first year with Team America and last year with Team Slalom Tokyo Drift. You sit down and reassess. You get kicked off the team and it’s terrible, it’s sad and you kind of feel like it’s a huge step backwards but then you’re able to reassess your own passion for the sport and say, ‘Hey, I really want to do this.’”
Ankeny will not be stepping away from the sport for good, however, as he will be taking up duties as the assistant alpine coach at Dartmouth this season. He will also be competing in the World Pro Ski Tour and select FIS events throughout the year, if his schedule allows it.
“I approached [head Dartmouth alpine coach, Pete Dodge] and said, ‘I’m not going to be racing next year, would there be an opportunity to get involved with the Dartmouth ski team?’’ he explains. “I’ve always kind of been on the periphery of that since I was always going to school there but on the U.S. Ski Team so I never actually raced for Dartmouth. I wanted to officially become a member and they have such a strong team right now and a lot of momentum going with a few current and former U.S. Ski Team athletes racing for them. It’s a great group that I’m excited to work with and I’m just glad they were looking for an assistant and allowed me to get involved.”
This won’t be Ankeny’s first coaching gig, either, as he has spent numerous summers on the Mt. Hood glacier, coaching campers for the legendary Erich Sailer.
“It’s going to be an awesome way to stay connected with the sport,” he says. “I’ve always loved coaching; It’s just a really cool way to change perspective. I find that after I coach is actually when I ski the best. You have to find new ways of explaining certain tactical or technical aspects to the kids. As you’re doing that, you can surprise yourself and stumble upon something that really resonates with yourself.”
Looking back on his career, Ankeny admits that his fondest memories will likely have nothing to do with his on-snow accomplishments and everything to do with the people, places, and shared camaraderie of nearly a decade at the top of the sport.
“Peter Lang, the coach for Team America, always said that nobody is going to remember that you got 19th at Kitzbuehel that one time,” he says. “You might not even remember that, but you are going to remember the people you met and the people you interacted with and the relationships that you made.”