“Just don’t get last,” she mutters, her breath turning into white swirls in the near 0-degree weather.
The calm Colorado morning is broken by the sound of a gun, and she’s off. But Sloan Storey doesn’t get far before her mantra seems more like a jinx: five feet into the 15-kilometer cross country race, the Nordic skier hears a sharp snap — she’s broken a pole.
Her coach, standing in the snow on the sidelines, reacts almost instantaneously and hands her a replacement. The freshman skier has never broken a pole before and now, during her first collegiate competition, is not ideal.
“OK, OK, I’ve got this,” she repeats to calm her growing nerves as she falls farther behind the pack. She rounds her first bend, and the impending panic still looms when it happens again. Another snap. Her shock is incomprehensible.
Nordic head coach Abi Holt is 300 yards away uphill — a distance Storey only defines as “enough time to lose everything.” Even so, she makes an unbalanced drive at her coach to grab another new pole. “You’re still in it — slow and steady,” Holt shouts as she passes by. Storey, though, isn’t as sure. She can no longer see any of the other 25 racers on the course. She’s in dead last.
‘“I bet my coaches are wondering why they recruited this 18-year-old,” she thinks.
That certainly wasn’t on Holt’s mind, though. When the coach first saw Storey compete a year previously, as a senior in high school, she knew she wanted the skier for the U’s team. Holt watched her race at Soldier Hollow, and when Parker Tyler, who formerly competed for the U, passed Storey on the course, Holt recalls a “look in Sloan’s eyes like, ‘Uh-uh.’”
“She stayed with her and passed her back,” she says. “I watched that, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I want her.’”
That’s how Holt knew Storey wouldn’t give up now. Two broken poles weren’t enough to stop her from finishing.
Storey knows it, too. She replays Holt’s “slow and steady” comment over in her head, takes a deep breath, and keeps moving. By one mile in, Storey starts passing other skiers, clumped together in groups of five.
Just after 9 a.m., she comes to her first feed. Storey reaches for her shot of diluted Coke — used to replenish sugar levels — and spills it down the front of her black uniform, coating the red U-T-A-H letters in sticky brown syrup. You can see by her face, covered in tape to avoid frostbite, that she isn’t thrilled. She hears her dad cheering, “Come on, baby!” from the side and shakes it off.
U skiing director Kevin Sweeney updates Storey as she glides past him, telling her how the rest of the school’s team is doing. And that’s when something weird happens: Storey smiles for the first time during the event. It’s not the typical reaction for a skier having her worst race to date; however, it compelled Storey forward that day, ultimately placing 12th.
“It was my tip-off to college skiing and a complete, I can’t say ‘shit show,’ but it was a shit show,” she laughs, recalling the race. “[But] I remember that being such a motivator to me. I loved hearing that everyone else was having good races.”
Storey, now a senior and team captain for women’s Nordic, does better when her teammates do well. It’s an odd mindset for a race where the girls on her team are also her competition, yet her rankings seem to prove the enigma. The Sun Valley-native has only gotten better from that first Colorado invitational, winning five All-Americans at the NCAA championships, with four podium finishes, two first-team RMISA placements, and a solid record that rarely dips below the top ten. And that’s just a small sample of her accolades.
Though her record has gotten increasingly better, her mindset has been unwavering. Ask Storey, age 21, what her biggest motivation is, and her first reply is always: “my team.” It’d be a feat to get a different answer.
“I really like to push myself for them,” she says, flipping her long brown ponytail behind her shoulder.
The mentality is expected in a sport where players work together for the win, but in Nordic skiing, Storey could easily get edged out from the NCAA championships by her own teammates. Sitting in her office at the Huntsman Center, Holt says the U’s racers are some of Storey’s “stiffest competition” this year. Her silver watch slides down her arm as she describes how Storey often comes in second or third to her own teammates, such as sophomore Veronika Mayerhofer, who won the 5k Nordic national title last season.
Storey’s tendency to celebrate the team over her own individual accomplishments is deeply rooted, however, and not likely to change soon. It’s a way of thinking that stems largely from her family life and upbringing in Hailey, Idaho, where her parents and all four of her siblings — all older than her — skied.
Her sister, Elitsa Storey, had one of the bigger impacts. Storey’s parents adopted Elitsa, then age five, from an orphanage in Bulgaria after having three boys. She was missing joints in her right knee, and when Gary and Janis Storey brought her to the U.S., doctors suggested amputating the limb. They said she’d be more capable with a prosthetic leg — and they weren’t wrong. Elitsa learned to ski by seven years old and qualified for the U.S. Paralympics alpine ski team by age 16, later competing in Torino and Vancouver.
Storey was inspired by her sister’s attitude, crediting Elitsa, now 27, for leading her into the sport and giving her an early example of success to follow.
“She never ever felt bad for herself, never thought she couldn’t do anything,” she says. “That relays straight to me, where I have no disabilities of any sort. I can have no excuses to ever be lazy. She’s just a super positive, happy person that showed me that the love of the sport is what would carry me farther.”
Elitsa, Storey’s closest sibling in age, taught her to be a good winner and a humble loser, to celebrate the accomplishments of her team, and to never take skiing too seriously. And she’ll be there to cheer Storey on when she finishes her college season this March in the same place it started: the Colorado racetrack where she broke two poles but didn’t get last place. Holt says the team will bring a special “Sloan pole supply” for the occasion, as she’s broken about 13 since then.
Her mantra, though, might be a little different. “Just get first,” Storey hopes — both for herself and especially for her teammates.