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Grace Staberg finds her groove on the Skimo World Cup

Grace Staberg finds her stride in Val Martello, Italy during the ISMF World Cup. [Photo] Nils Lang

When Grace Staberg started skimo racing in her freshman year of high school in Summit County, Colorado, she was “by far the slowest on the team,” says coach Joe Hardyshell. But the 15-year-old’s pace didn’t deter her; instead, she asked Hardyshell, who oversees Summit Endurance Academy’s youth programs, how she could improve. “She did that every day, and she came to practice every day, and she’s been doing that for five years,” Hardyshell says. Now 20, Staberg lives in Europe and competes in the Skimo World Cup. At press time, she was ranked second among the U20 women, making her the only American in contention for an overall title.

“I think it’s easy for people to say, ‘Oh, well, clearly, she’s really, really talented,'” Hardyshell says. “She sure is, but she’s also the hardest working athlete I’ve ever worked with.”

Staberg was born into a family of skiers in Denver. Her parents would pack their two daughters every weekend and drive to their Summit County cabin, where Staberg and her sister were part of a competitive freeride team in Breckenridge. “I realized that I love skiing,” says Staberg. “I liked when we were hiking the bowls or going on really big days of adventure, but I didn’t really like the cliff part.” Admitting that she was more of an endorphin junkie than an adrenaline junkie, she sought out a new winter sport. Luckily for Staberg, a local mountain athlete training program, the Summit Endurance Academy, was launching a youth skimo team. The combination of adventure skiing and fitness seemed like the ideal solution.

At the academy, Staberg found a mentor, training partner and friend in Nikki LaRochelle, another skimo racer 16 years her senior. “I heard Grace pass me, and I was like, ‘Wow, she’s quick, that little high school girl,'” LaRochelle recalled of meeting Staberg in 2019. She laughs at the thought that she is Staberg’s mentor. “If you talk to her, you forget she’s 20 because she comes across as if she could be 40,” LaRochelle says. “She just has this maturity about her.” Instead, LaRochelle describes Staberg as his contemporary, an equal training partner with an equally deep breadth of knowledge.

The pair became close when they traveled to Switzerland during Staberg’s first season in international competition. The experience left the young skier humbled. “Europeans had such a different culture around sport,” she says. “They were in much better shape than me. They had a lot more skills than me. Their technique was just off the charts.

Hardyshell remembers Staberg’s international debut a little differently. Although the European skimo racing scene is significantly more competitive than that of the United States, the coach was confident that the young athlete would perform well. He didn’t realize How? ‘Or’ What she would perform well: Staberg finished in the top 10 of the three races in which she participated. “She was very clearly in the chase, and it was really fun because all the European coaches noticed that,” Hardyshell says.

Grace Staberg pauses to catch her breath – and probably apply more sunscreen – on her way to the top of Crystal Mountain in Colorado. [Photo] Andrew Maguire

That Staberg downplays his international debut reflects his modest nature. “There’s this kind of paradox about her,” says LaRochelle. “She’s fiercely committed to her training, but she also has a real kind of laid-back attitude towards herself.” Along with her maturity, dedication to training and a bit of self-deprecating humor, Staberg is smart. She runs a podcast, Alpine Start, and is a distance learning student at the London School of Economics, where she studies accounting and finance.

Mostly, Staberg just likes to train. LaRochelle calls it her “happy place,” and Hardyshell says that even if Staberg didn’t make the World Cup, she would still spend long days sightseeing in the mountains. It excels on high mileage climbing days, making it a rarity among young athletes, who typically dominate sprint-style races. Last season, she broke the North American women’s 24-hour vertical drop record by hurtling 56,153 feet at the Copper Mountain Resort in Colorado. “It’s just surreal and hard to describe what it’s like to be in that state of flux for 24 hours,” says Staberg, who hopes to break her own record in the future. Hardyshell has no doubts that she will achieve her goal, pointing out that Staberg spent the whole day above 11,000 feet. The women’s world record (57,890 feet) was set at a significantly lower elevation, with a high of 5,032 feet.

Does Staberg have any weaknesses? Maybe only two. That first, according to LaRochelle, is that she has to wear a bigger, heavier tube of sunscreen and stop regularly to reapply it to her fair skin. The second is her paralyzing fear of heights, which Staberg joked made her “the worst World Cup skier.” Despite this, she managed to reach the podium 10 times this season, taking five victories. “She’s so strong on the climbs that she’s able to catch up on the descent,” says Hardyshell.

Staberg has a few more years to go before she joins the senior women’s World Cup division, and she has her sights set on the 2026 Olympics, where skimo racing will make its debut. Endurance athletes tend to peak later in their careers, and Staberg has yet to reach his full potential. “I don’t think she has a good idea of ​​where she would fit compared to senior women right now because they run different lengths,” LaRochelle says. “But I would suspect she would be at the very top. Given that she still has many years ahead of her, if she wants to, I think she could be phenomenal.


This profile originally appeared in Backcountry No. 145, The Generations Issue. For more, including three more profiles of young tough guys in the mountains, pick up a copy at BackcountryMagazine.com/145 or subscribe.