Sunday, July 12, 2020

David Chodounsky closes out ski racing career

“It happens when it happens, and it happened for me now and I’m happy to move on”

by Than Acuff 

After more than 25 years of ski racing, Crested Butte’s David Chodounsky has decided to retire from the sport, closing out what has been an incredible rollercoaster of a ride. It’s a ride that has taken him from the back of the pack to the top of the podium, from the Prater Cup to the Olympics and World Championships, from Buck Hill, Minnesota, to Crested Butte, to Dartmouth College, to New Zealand, all over Europe and Japan and all points and mountains in between. And in the end, he wouldn’t have changed a thing.

“I think it worked out really well,” says David. “I’ve got a college degree to fall back on, I skied for the U.S. Ski Team. Maybe wished I skied faster in a couple of races.”

It all started for David as a kid on Buck Hill in Minnesota under the tutelage of renowned youth ski coach Eric Sailer.

“He’s been around forever and he’s made a lot of ski racers out of Buck Hill,” says David.

At age 10 David and his family moved here to Crested Butte, where he spent his youth racing and training with the Crested Butte Ski Club and then moved on to race in high school for the Crested Butte Academy. While he notched a Giant Slalom (GS) and overall win at the Prater Cup back when he was 12 years old, his high school career was a series of mixed results and he never caught the eye of the U.S. Ski Team during a time when they were looking for the next great ski racer.

“I was never at the top of the group. I wasn’t one of the guys the U.S. team was recruiting,” explains David. “I wasn’t one of the guys that was supposed to make it.”

Although, he did make the most of his time here. It was rare when David missed a powder day, as he would often take the time to ski the deep with his dad or mom or friends rather than line up at the top of Buckley for more training.

Falling from the U.S. team’s radar actually played out well for David as he attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, joining the ski team there.

Then something happened. Surrounded by a lot of fast skiers, David picked up his game and during his freshman year, worked his way onto the team and won the NCAA slalom title.

“That year, for some reason, something happened,” says David.

He went on to become captain of the team his senior year, helping lead the Dartmouth ski team to the NCAA Division I team title in 2007.

“The NCAA title at Dartmouth is definitely a career highlight,” says David. “We all meshed as a team and won the first title for the school in 32 years.”

It was also during his senior year at Dartmouth that he got his first call from the U.S. Ski Team when they “invited” him to race on the Europa Cup circuit. David packed up in the middle of his winter term and headed to Europe for two weeks of racing. And while results were less than optimal, the experience made a mark on him.

“It was a rough couple of weeks and definitely opened my eyes,” says David. “It helped me make the decision that I wanted to pursue the team.”

With the dream implanted in his psyche, David decided to live, breathe and eat ski racing, taking a year off after graduating from college to pursue a spot on the U.S. Ski Team.

“I wanted to make it onto the team and onto the World Cup,” says David.

Meanwhile, David was working as a surveyor with Gary Schaffer to earn enough money so he could train, race and travel and feels extremely fortunate to also get support from his hometown.

“The whole Crested Butte community got behind me when I was trying to make the team,” says David.

It was a long and rough stretch for David as he pursued his dream. If David reached top 60 in the world rankings, he would get asked onto the team. In 2009 it came down to the U.S. Nationals, the final race of the season. David won the U.S. slalom title, bumping his world ranking to 60 and getting him a spot on the team.

Some team reshuffling, and a little bit of ski racing politics, had him dropped from the team and he was back on his own again trying to prove himself.

“I knew I had it in me, so I kept going,” says David.

He earned enough money to head to New Zealand in the summer of 2010 to reboot his career once more, while the U.S. Ski Team was telling him that they might have a spot for him in 2011.

“There are really good races in New Zealand with a lot of the top skiers there training and racing, so a friend of mine and I rented the cheapest and smallest car we could afford and traveled, trained and raced,” says David. “It’s a good place to go and score points and drop your ranking.”

His time in New Zealand had David in mid-season form when he slid into the starting gate at Loveland in November 2010, racing against some of the top racers in the world. David ended up beating Marcel Hersher, arguably the best slalom racer in the world, in Loveland gaining the attention, once again, of the U.S. Ski Team.

“It was a loaded field and he’s won everything there is to win and I beat him,” says David. “It was an exclamation point saying, ‘I can do this!’”

Lo and behold, the U.S. Ski Team took him back that season, unofficially, but he kept plugging away on the World Cup circuit striving to move even further up the rankings.

In 2010 he also got his first taste of the Olympic qualifying scene with the Winter Games in Vancouver on the horizon. David attempted to make the team and, while he fell short, it only further fueled his fire.

“There were four of us battling for one spot left on the team and I got close,” says David. “But I was still young, mid-20s, so I kept pushing because I knew I had it in me.”

In 2011 things with the U.S. Ski Team became official as he was named to the “A” team and while he had been “on the bus” and in the hotels with the team on the road before, it was still erratic and on the periphery. But in 2011 his spot was secured and expenses were covered and he started his ascent on the World Cup circuit.

“That was basically the end of all of that drama,” says David. “You can only take it for so long.”

He scored his first World Cup points at a race in Zagreb, Croatia in 2012 and then cracked into the top 30 in slalom in the overall World Cup rankings during the 2012-2013 season.

“Once you get to there you’re like, I made it,” says David. “That’s a tough spot to make it to, the top 30.”

The ranking meant that David was guaranteed one of the first 30 start positions at races, making for better course conditions in his first run, a better chance to make it into the second run and, therefore, continue to score points and climb the World Cup rankings.

David reached the Olympic dream in 2014 when he qualified for the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia and then had the best season of his career in 2015-2016. He had his top World Cup result in Val d’Isere, France during the 2015 season. After whacking a gate with his face, he split open his lip on the first run—medics stitched his lip together at the bottom and he went back up for his second run, finishing in fourth place when it was over.

“I was just barely off the podium and looking back, that’s not so bad, thinking back on where I started it all and where I got to,” says David.

He posted additional top 10 results that season, saw success in GS races as well and climbed into the 14th spot in slalom and top 30 in GS.

“That was definitely my most successful season,” says David, “to make top 15 in one discipline and top 30 in another.”

David’s favorite course was Adelboden, Switzerland.

“It’s just a really cool hill that fits my style,” explains David. “It starts out moderate before dropping into the steepest face on the World Cup circuit and you can see the finish line way down below you.”

His favorite place to race was Schladming, Austria.

“It’s a night race and there’s 70,000 people there lighting flares,” describes David. “You never notice the crowd when you’re skiing but there you hear them the whole way down.”

His favorite trip was two years ago for races in Japan.

“The people are so nice and the culture is amazing,” says David. “Plus it snowed while we were there so we also got a couple days off to ski powder.”

While David lives in Park City, Utah now with his wife of two years, he was just back in Crested Butte to see his parents and checked in on some local kids’ dry land training for the upcoming season. His words of advice to them were fairly honest and straightforward.

“Don’t give up. It’s a grind sometimes,” says David. “It sounds cheesy but it’s true. If you really love something, get after it but you have to keep it fun and learn how to deal with failure. It’s not success that keeps you going, it’s how you deal with failure and move on, because it will happen.”

David closed out his career in good form as well, making his fourth trip to the World Championships including an 11th-place finish in the GS at the 2017 World Championships.

“Moving into GS racing was a really cool part of the whole journey,” says David.

But just last month he made the decision to step out of the starting gate for good.

“It happens when it happens, and it happened for me now and I’m happy to move on,” says David.

He will continue to coach at a race camp on Mt. Hood but he is excited to see what’s next in life. One immediate change for him now that he is done with racing is his season ski pass.

“When I was on the team we got season passes everywhere, though I really only got to use five or six days each year because I was always racing,” says David. “This year I had to pay for my first season pass in a long time.”

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