Author’s note: I caught up with Paula Moltzan where she was training in Obdach, Austria before the World Cup in Maribor. Though not a member of the U.S. Ski Team, Moltzan is training with some very familiar faces, including former teammates Resi Stiegler, and Lila Lapanja, who now races for Team Clif Bar. Rounding out the group is Nina O’Brien, who has been breaking into the top 30 this year, and youngster AJ Hurt.
“It’s really fun to be part of a team,” says Moltzan, with relief and gratitude in her voice. Obdach is the next stop on an extraordinary path Moltzan has blazed on her way to representing Team USA in the 2019 World Championships. Until this point, Moltzan, a junior at UVM, has been going it alone racing the World Cups in Europe, traveling with her boyfriend—and now ski tech–Ryan Mooney. Together, they have pieced together travel and training and Moltzan has managed to establish herself as a solid World Cup competitor.
How did she get here? To understand, we need to review a brief history of Paula Moltzan. The Minnesota native grew up skiing at Buck Hill, coached by her father Mark (who coached Paula and her three siblings on their high school team), and legendary coach Erich Sailer. “What she has can’t be bought or sold,” says Sailer of her natural talent. That something is an ability to use “not a really hard edge—always just right,” in a way that reminds Sailer of another of his protégées, Kristina Koznick.
Moltzan moved to Vail at age 16, and after only one season there, was named to the 2011/12 U.S. Ski Team. She spent five years on the national team, and along the way hit the all-important performance markers the team relies on to predict future success. Among those was winning the World Junior Championships in 2015 (the same year Henrik Kristofferson won gold for men, and American AJ Ginnis won bronze.) The following year Moltzan earned her first World Cup points at Flachau and finished the season ranked as the 3th and 5th American in Slalom and GS respectively. Nevertheless, that spring she got a phone call she did not see coming, a call kicking her off the U.S. Ski Team.
Confused, Moltzan thought back to her conversations earlier in the season at NorAms, with UVM assistant coach Jimmy Cochran. “Don’t ever discount school,” Cochran had said. After regrouping from the news, she picked up the phone again, and called UVM coach Bill Reichelt. Within a week Moltzan applied and was accepted at UVM, where she joined their NCAA skiing roster.
A NEW PAGE AND A NEW PATH
Moltzan’s boyfriend, Ryan Mooney, was also starting out at as a student athlete at UVM, and the environment proved to be exactly what Moltzan needed. She could continue to ski race while pursuing her other lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. “My teammates were so fun!” she recalls. She also made friends outside the ski team, who, along with her studies, “helped me grow and see how much more there is to life than skiing,” says Moltzan. At UVM, another of the Cochran clan became involved. Tim Kelley (Lindy Cochran’s son, Robby Kelley’s brother, U.S. Ski Team and Redneck Racing alum) had taken over from his cousin Jimmy as an assistant coach at UVM. Kelley remembers the first time he saw Moltzan ski, when they were both prepping for the 2014 Levi World Cup as U.S. Ski Team teammates. Even next to Shiffrin, he was impressed. “She’s the most naturally gifted skier I have ever seen,” says Kelley.
His and Reichelt’s hands-off style was perfect for Moltzan, who prefers minimal coaching. In her freshman year on the six-meet carnival circuit, she won four slaloms and podiumed in the other two, and also won the 2017 NCAA National Women’s Slalom title. The biology major also earned National Collegiate All-Academic honors. She started the 2017/2018 season as the 3rd ranked American skier in both SL and GS, and built her dominance on the EISA tour, winning all six slaloms and reaching the podium in 11 of 12 carnival races. She placed second in slalom and third in GS at the 2018 NCAA Nationals. With pace from her teammate Laurence St. Germain—who juggles collegiate skiing and academics with World Cup and Olympic racing for Canada—and a robust in-season racing schedule, Moltzan kept her competitive edge, while the college racing format built her spirit and her consistency.
For the third year in a row, Moltzan did not ski one bit during the summer, and again, in the fall she came back faster. She attributes this to her mindset. “I’m a happier person,” she says simply. Last November, after five days on snow, Moltzan won a time trial to earn a spot in the Killington World Cup. She finished 17th in the race—just behind St. Germain— and had the fourth fastest second run. Her performance in Killington earned her a starting spot in the next World Cup slaloms in Europe.
The only hitch was that she’d have to get there on her own. That meant not only paying for travel to the races but also finding training in between. She enlisted the help of Mooney, as well as the logistical and financial support of their combined families and friends. An Austrian friend in the Mooney’s Berkshire East skiing community connected them with the town of Montafon, Austria. After flying into Munich they touched down in Montafon and continued to Courcheval, where Moltzan again scored World Cup points. Just as in Killington, she put down the 4th fastest second run, which this time moved her to 15th place.
Montafon welcomed them with training and a home base over Christmas before the tour resumed in Semmering, Zagreb and Flachau. By then U.S. Ski Team coach Magnus Andersson had connected Moltzan with the Swedish team, who welcomed her into their training group. In Flachau, on the second run, on the same hill where Moltzan earned her first World Cup points in 2016, she set down the second fastest time of the day, moving all the way up from 27th to 12th place in the final standings.
SUPPORT LEADS TO SUCCESS
At every step along the way, during times when neither of them knew where they might train or sleep the next day, Mooney was right by her side. “Having him on tour with me has been a game changer,” says Moltzan. The two met while training in Chile five and a half years ago and have been together ever since. Mooney, who she describes as stable and even-keel, serves as a tech, coach, and chauffeur in whom she has total trust. For Mooney, who spends his summers working for the family company, Crabapple Whitewater, based in Charlemont, MA, the World Cup Tour is entirely new. For Moltzan, it feels like stepping back in where she left off. Some of her friendships, as with bestie, Sweden’s Charlotta Saefvenberg, go back to the Topolino Games in 2009. Like Moltzan, Saefvenberg was off her national team for a few years and is charging back on the World Cup.
TRANSATLANTIC BALANCING ACT
From Flachau, Moltzan and Mooney went directly back to the states, spent one night at home then drove to Whiteface for the first NCAA carnival of the season. Not surprisingly, Moltzan won the SL. After the next carnival, at Cannon, the two headed back to Europe to prep for the final pre-World Championships World Cup SL in Maribor. This time, their logistics were much easier, as the U.S. Ski Team welcomed her into a very comfortable training group. “I’ve been friends with Lila since I was 15, and Resi is always a friendly face,” says Moltzan, who describes AJ Hurt as “the most relaxed person” and Nina O’Brien as “the nicest person.” Moltzan described it as a communicative situation with a great vibe. “It took a lot of stress off my shoulders,” she says. In Maribor, Moltzan finished 16th just behind Saefvenberg who finished 14th.
From Maribor, Moltzan and Mooney returned to Burlington, where their parents greeted them with a Super Bowl Party. Robin and Mark Moltzan had planned a long vacation in Stowe spanning the time between this past weekend’s UVM carnival and the NCAA Nationals which take place there March 6-9. Rather than travel to the World Championships, the Moltzans will stay in their rented condo and stick with Plan A, to maximize their funds toward helping Paula pursue her skiing dream. Unexpected donations, large and small, have significantly eased the burden on both families, and they are enormously grateful for the outpouring of support. The U.S. Ski Team, who picked her up for Maribor and Are, has kicked in $2,000 toward her outstanding expenses. Paula and Ryan will compete in the Dartmouth Carnival this weekend before heading directly back to Are. The women’s SL is on February 16th.
Tim Kelley calls what Moltzan is doing, college racing while also racing World Cup on her own “the most impressive thing I have ever seen in the sport.” He adds that technically, she is almost flawless, and could be just as strong in GS as in Slalom. “No doubt if she put in the time in GS she’d be as good,” says Kelley. Until now, Moltzan simply has not had the time to prepare for GS, though she did land on the podium at Cannon, in her second carnival. Kelley also notes that under Jesse Hunt’s leadership the U.S. Ski Team appears to be getting more welcoming to independent racers on the women’s side, as it was on the men’s side when he was competing. “I was always super grateful for that,” says Kelley.
Now that she’s proved she’s got the goods, what’s next for Moltzan after this season? Despite being solidly and decisively our second best SL skier, and highly competitive on the World Cup, her nomination to the U.S. Ski Team will depend on her being inside the top 25 of the World Cup SL list. Historically, discretionary picks do not favor female athletes over age 21. Moltzan has learned that tapping into the joy and fun of ski racing is critical to her success. She has also realized that it’s financially and logistically impossible to succeed as an American on the World Cup circuit without national team support. “I do have plans to ski next year,” she says, and she is out of NCAA eligibility. Finding that balance between boosting her level and volume of training, while maintaining the healthy, soul-satisfying environment that has allowed her success, will be key. It will likely involve taking time off school and putting her med school dreams on hold. But as she has shown the ski world, Paula Moltzan won’t be giving up on any of her dreams.