Olivero: Despite heartbreak, Summit’s Staberg, Vaille keep their fight alive at Youth Olympics
Ski mountaineers have competitions Monday, Tuesday in Switzerland
This week in Switzerland is the latest competition where Summit High School seniors Grace Staberg and Jeremiah Vaille are competing together. In recent years, Staberg and Vaille have shone as members of the Summit High cross-country team, the Tigers track and field team and at various ski mountaineering events.
But come Tuesday, Jan. 14, for the first time, Staberg and Vaille will be direct teammates in a singular competition, when the four Americans competing in ski mountaineering at the Lausanne 2020 Youth Winter Olympics team up for the mixed-gender relay race.
For Staberg and Vaille, it’ll be the exclamation point — the final chapter — in a once-in-a-lifetime Youth Olympic experience they earned for themselves over the past couple of years. Over the past few winters, two things were apparent:
- The sport of ski mountaineering would debut at the 2020 Youth Winter Olympics as a sort of test-run to see if the sport may be added to the official Olympic program.
- Considering U.S. Ski Mountaineering Association President Ram Mikulas and Head Coach Joe Howdyshell — among other important figures — live here in Summit County, talented young Summit County athletes would have an edge in representing the red, white and blue at Lausanne 2020.
Amid competition from other talented Summit individuals, Staberg and Vaille rose to the top, punching two of the four tickets to Lausanne 2020. The Summit duo had a whirlwind day last Friday, Jan. 10, that reminded the young athletes that, despite the intensive journey that led here, this isn’t the finish line. There is never a finish line — especially in a place like Summit County that prides itself on lifelong activity.
On one hand, Staberg and Vaille realized their Youth Olympic dreams, crossing the finish line in third and 17th places, respectively, in the 6-mile, 890-meters-of-elevation-gain individual race in Villars-sur-Ollon, Switzerland.
On the other hand, the duo had a devastating development crystallize why in sports, and in life, it’s crucial to always look ahead to the next opportunity. Moments before Staberg was to walk up to the podium and accept her bronze medal, she was informed a technicality — her racing skins sticking out of an unzipped suit — added three minutes to her official time. The penalty, effectively, ripped a Youth Olympic medal from Staberg’s neck — a reality the young athlete said she struggled with through Saturday.
But speaking by phone on Sunday while taking a train back to the athlete’s village dubbed “The Vortex” in Lausanne, Staberg put her psyche in perspective.
Yes, she had worked so hard in recent years in Summit County and in Europe strengthening her skills to become one of the best youth female ski mountaineers in the world. Yes, on Friday she worked her way back from a start where she didn’t feel strong to burst through the mid-pack and assume bronze-medal position on the fourth and final climb. Yes, in the moment it seemed like she was having the Youth Olympic triumph she dreamed of when she powered through an uphill finish, giving all she had.
But, life can be fickle. Life can hand you a situation where a seemingly entirely innocuous mishap, such as her skins sticking out of her jersey, dashes your hopes. Life can feel like a loss.
Forty-eight hours after Friday’s fault, though, Staberg is choosing to channel her spirit in the only productive way to view the situation. Sure, Friday was so close to being a mountaintop of her young career’s journey. But there’s no point in not putting it behind her and taking the next steps to achieve the next mountaintop. That’s the Summit County spirit. The good news is, though she says she is stronger in the individual format, she has more opportunities with Monday’s sprint competition and Tuesday’s mixed relay.
“In the end,” Staberg said, “I’m still really proud of what I did, and that I was able to fight my way back to third. That’s what will show in future races.”
Riding that train back to Lausanne on Sunday, Staberg and Vaille reflected on the pomp and circumstance of the opening ceremonies. They mentioned how the reciting at the ceremony of a select quote from Pierre de Coubertin, the man primarily responsible for the revival of the Olympics in 1894, resonated with them.
“The most important thing in the Olympic Games,” de Coubertin said, “is not winning, but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering, but fighting well.”
Come Monday’s moment back at the skimo starting line, Staberg will continue to fight. On Tuesday, she and Vaille will fight together in honor of their homeland. And, once all of the adrenaline of the Youth Olympics has worn off and she’s back home in Summit County with her family and friends, she’ll fight some more.
Because, no matter what happens, the fight is never final.
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