Grace Staberg powers through ski mountaineering vertical to World Championship silver
Summit local and U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association President Ram Mikulas doesn’t mince words when referring to the vertical discipline in ski mountaineering.
“It’s a pure sufferfest of endurance ability in a short time frame, “ Mikulas said. “And that’s where Grace excels.”
Mikulas was referring to Grace Staberg. The 19-year-old from Silverthorne is the one-woman Team USA at this week’s International Ski Mountaineering Federation World Championships in Andorra. On Thursday, March 4, Staberg powered through to her greatest accomplishment yet en route to a silver medal showing as the youngest competitor in the U-20 uphill race.
“She can dig deep and can put herself in a pain cave and just focus on the finish line,” Mikulas said. “It’s a very simple discipline but super challenging. A lot of people are nervous or afraid of it because it just plain hurts. Aerobically, you’re just putting out max exertion.”
Staberg crossed the finish line of the 400-meter vertical gain course in 19 minutes and 32 seconds, 18 seconds off the championship pace of Staberg’s friend Samantha Bertolina of Italy — who visited Summit County and stayed with Staberg in summer 2019 as part of an intercontinental ski mountaineering friendship.
Staberg’s silver medal is a statement for American ski mountaineering in a sport historically dominated by European countries. It’s also a testament to her and her coaches’ commitment to do whatever they can to ensure the young, ambitious American has competitive opportunities at the highest level despite all the hurdles she and the American contingent had to jump through amid the pandemic.
Staberg has spent the season living on her own in the mountains of France and training with coach and French ski mountaineering legend Laetitia Roux after she was forced to apply and apply again for a travel visa. Since she’s been in Europe, Staberg has competed at French Cup and World Cup events.
While Staberg has been coached by Roux abroad, her longtime coach Joe Howdyshell of Breckenridge — the head coach of the U.S. National Team — has helped organize and plan her training regimen from home snow. Howdyshell’s teamwork with Roux and others in the U.S. Ski Mountaineering community enabled Staberg to be the only North American to compete in Andorra.
It all led up to Staberg racing out to an early lead on the pack with Bertolina before Staberg excelled in the competitive situation she loves most.
“I just really love the feeling of being completely exhausted,” she said. “I really enjoy being able to push my limits.”
Howdyshell described Staberg as the kind of athlete who “knocks down one wall and then walks up to the next one and starts chipping away at it.” He commended Staberg’s mental strength to be isolated in a foreign country through winter and maintain positivity despite some underwhelming finishes earlier this season to ultimately come through on the sport’s grandest stage.
To Howdyshell, the totality of Staberg’s journey this season speaks to who she is as a person. When she traveled to France months ago, it was with uncertainty whether French curfew and COVID-19 regulations would allow for her to train for more than an hour a day.
Howdyshell said Staberg is an athlete who “knows what she wants.” Staberg said her goals moving forward are twofold. On one hand, it’s her ultimate goal to win world championships and World Cups at the U-20 and then the senior level.
“I’d like to be the best,” Staberg said.
“And then I think … kind of a secondary goal that’s important to me is to be a positive influence and inspiration for younger athletes,” Staberg continued.
Mikulas said young American ski mountaineers from the Silver Fork Skimo Club in Utah to local Summit County athletes all look up to Staberg and keep tabs on her escapades in Europe.
And then there’s the elephant in the ski mountaineering room: the Olympics. If and when the International Olympic Committee approves the sport for the 2026 Milano-Cortina Games, you can bet Italy will play up its country’s strong chances in all Olympic events, which the vertical figures to be one of.
And right next to an Italian home-snow hero like Bertolina, Staberg could be the American introducing so many in the U.S. to the Olympics’ newest sport and continuing to motivate young American girls everywhere.
“What she’s accomplishing, it helps them see what’s possible,” Mikulas said.
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