Former NCAA Champion Paula Moltzan Takes 8th In the Olympic Slalom
by Peggy Shinn
Paula Moltzan reacts following her run during the Women's Slalom Run 2 at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 9, 2022 in Yanqing, China.
BEIJING — Six years ago, Paula Moltzan figured her Olympic dreams were over. She had not been renamed to the U.S. Ski Team, so she decided to attend the University of Vermont with her eye on medical school.
Little did Moltzan know that in six years she would finish eighth in slalom at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022. This slalom result comes on the tails of her 12th place finish in the Olympic giant slalom on Monday.
“I'm really happy to cross the finish line four times,” she said, referring to the two-run GS and two-run slalom. “It's really special to me.
“Coming into your first Olympics, you can be really nervous, which I was. I think I almost threw up every time I was in the start gate. But I'm really happy with how I competed two days ago and today.”
Petra Vlhova, the Slovakian who has challenged Mikaela Shiffrin in slalom for the past couple of years, overcame a slow first run to win her first Olympic medal — gold — in a combined two-run time of 1:44.98. With seven skiers still to go in the second run, Vlhova sat in the leader’s box and hoped her time would hold up.
It did, and the normally reserved Vlhova went wild, hugging her team at the finish. Austria’s Katarina Leinsberger — seventh after the first run — moved onto the podium with the silver medal in a time of 1:45.06. The Austrian also won a silver medal in the alpine team event at the 2018 Winter Games.
And Switzerland’s Wendy Holdener won her fourth Olympic medal, a bronze, with a time of 1:45.10.
Paula Moltzan competes in the Women's Slalom Run 2 at the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on Feb. 9, 2022 in Yanqing, China.
In her first Olympic Games, Moltzan was the highest placed finisher for Team USA in eighth with a time of 1:46.18, and she was all smiles after the race. It was a journey that began a couple decades ago on the slopes of Buck Hill, the small ski area in the Minneapolis metro area that’s famous for turning out world-class skiers. Olympians Lindsey Vonn, Kristina Koznick, and David Chodounsky all grew up there, too.
Moltzan, who’s now 27, was a talented junior bound for the U.S. Ski Team. In 2015, she won the junior world championship slalom title. But then after lackluster results on the world cup, she was not renamed to the U.S. Ski Team the following spring.
At a loss, she talked to Jimmy Cochran, a two-time Olympian who was helping coach the University of Vermont ski team as he finished his mechanical engineering degree (Cochran is the cousin of 2022 Olympic super-G silver medalist Ryan Cochran-Siegle). He suggested that Moltzan talk to UVM head coach Bill Reichelt, who offered Moltzan a spot on the UVM Catamount ski team.
Moltzan moved to Burlington to pursue a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry and was an asset for UVM from the first collegiate race, earning points for her team. As a freshman, she won the 2017 NCAA Ski Championship slalom title.
That summer — instead of traveling the world for more ski training — she worked as a nanny and a raft guide at her boyfriend’s family’s rafting business in western Massachusetts. She had met Ryan Mooney in ski racing, and he was good at turning her skis.
The fall of her junior year, Moltzan was in Colorado training. She entered a NorAm race and did well enough to earn a spot at the 2018 Killington World Cup slalom back in Vermont. Fun, she thought. She would be able to ski race in front of her UVM teammates, who made the 2-hour drive from campus to Killington.
With no pressure — and only a few training days so far that season — Moltzan finished 17th in the Killington slalom and earned more world cup starts in Europe. It was like being called up to the major leagues.
That winter, she raced in Europe and on the collegiate circuit, and maintained a full load of classes at UVM.
“I did everything,” said Moltzan with a laugh after the 2019 Killington World Cup. “It was crazy.”
And she did it well, taking eighteenth in the 2019 world championship slalom. Back home in Vermont for the 2019 NCAA Ski Championships, she traded her USA speed suit for green and yellow Catamount colors and finished third in slalom and fifth in GS, helping UVM take the runner-up spot at NCAAs, the team’s best finish in five years.
Spring 2019, she was renamed to the U.S. Ski Team, and she put school on hold. Since then, Moltzan has thrived on the world cup, almost always finishing in the points (top 30).
While some might see collegiate ski racing as a diversion from a world cup and Olympic career, NCAA racing helped Moltzan. She fell back in love with the sport. In a brutal sport, where small mistakes can lead to disappointment and worse, devastating injuries, the college circuit can be fun, where skiers compete for the overall team finish — determined by accumulated points from each skier’s result — more than for their own glory.
“It taught me to compete as a team, not just an individual,” said Moltzan. “So I think that's what I'm taking here. I'm competing for myself, but also for the whole USA.”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Beijing 2022? Visit TeamUSA.org/Beijing-2022-Olympic-Games to view the competition schedule, medal table and results.
After the first run, Moltzan sat in sixth place, and between runs, Shiffrin texted her “a really lovely text message.”
As Shiffrin watched the second run from the bottom, Moltzan made a bid for the podium.
“It's just a pleasure to watch her ski,” said Shiffrin, who saw Moltzan’s first run from the side of the course. “I am pretty grateful to have some teammates who are also strong, who can put on this show.”
A bobble second run moved Moltzan down two places to eighth overall. But the consistency she learned in NCAA racing helped keep her in the course.
“I am definitely what you'd call a resilient skier,” she said. “I don't go out too often. I learned a lot of consistency in college because if you go out, you don't score any points [for the team].”
Katie Hensien, 22, also had a top 30 result in her first Olympic Games. And she too is an NCAA ski racer. A senior at the University of Denver majoring in computer science and business with a minor in innovation and entrepreneurship, Hensien came to Beijing after racing several college races in January. She won two collegiate giant slaloms and was second in two slaloms for the Denver University Pioneers.
Her parents watched her compete for DU in those races — the first time they have seen their daughter race since before the pandemic. Hensien was happy to see them and to ski well in her final races before flying to China.
With midterms next week, Hensien did homework last night.
“It's not the path for everyone,” she admitted. “But I hope I can make that path a lot easier for girls and even men to say, hey, I can do both.”
AJ Hurt finished 34th in slalom, also at her first Olympic Games. The 21-year-old attends Dartmouth College in the off-season but does not race for the Big Green.
“It would be fun,” Hurt said. “I'm very impressed by the girls who are doing.”
Shiffrin would not say if she will compete in the upcoming Olympic super-G, combined, or downhill races in Yanqing. But Moltzan confirmed that she and Shiffrin will compete for the U.S. in the alpine team event next week, a four-skier mixed team event that will also include River Radamus and another male skier who has not yet been named.
The U.S. finished fifth in the team event at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. But Shiffrin sat out that event. Both she and Moltzan have finished on the world cup podium in parallel races, making the U.S. a team to watch in the 2022 alpine team event.