AST Athlete Journal: Haley Cunningham

Hey everyone! My name is Haley Cunningham. This is my second year on the Alberta Ski Team. I started the year on the Alberta Women’s Ski Team (ASTW), transitioned to a hybrid of alpine and ski cross that started to slowly shift more toward ski cross. I thought I’d be writing this at an airport waiting to meet up with the ski cross team to travel to Europe but unfortunately that is no longer the case as I have injured my knee in a fall during a ski cross race. I’m currently waiting on the MRI report but more on that later.

This season has been filled with more downs than ups for me so far with a few bright spots in between. Luckily once January started, things seemed to be on the up and up. Every day I was having so much fun and coming home with a big smile. I was given the opportunity by Josh Benge, the AB Alpine Athletic Director, to compete in a downhill race series in Aspen Colorado. Downhill racing is something I have been wanting to do more of my whole FIS career. The Aspen race series offered lots of training on the track prior to the official training runs, allowing me to gain lots of experience and a little bit of confidence in a short amount of time. We were very fortunate to have Katrina Van Soest, of Banff Alpine Racers, accompany us which made for a fun and educational speed trip. We had a blast and the pair of us topped the podium on both DH days as well. The world of covid makes for a lot of funny anecdotes. On this particular trip we had to squeeze our PCR test in between training runs, due to schedule delays, so that we could fly home. We were a bit late for the second training run but Josh did his best, changing in to one shoe to get us there safely.

After this short but sweet trip, I got one night in my bed before I ventured into the world of ski cross with ASXT at the Nakiska NorAm that followed right after World Cup event. This being my first ski cross race and the track being a “toned down” version of the World Cup track, it was intimidating in inspection knowing it would be the biggest and longest NorAm track of the year. The start sections always scare me the most because there’s no direct comparison from alpine racing but once I got past that I was settling in for some fun. After the first training run, I wasn’t nervous, and I knew I was about to have one of the best weeks of my life! Shayne, Kya and all the athlete’s on the ASXT were all so helpful and encouraging making the transition into the environment seamless and exciting. I out-performed my own expectations in qualifiers placing 6th, with the top five qualifiers being the Canadian national team women. So qualifying went well but I still knew race day would be a whole other beast. I needed to learn the strategy of blocking people from passing and passing when the opportunity arose. I took the first race day as a “learning-race” and placed 7th (or 3rd in the Small Final); a pleasant surprise. The second day I wanted to go for it a little more. I pulled off my first pass ever in the morning training and that is one of the most exhilarating moments of my skiing career. I passed again in the quarterfinals sending me to the semi finals where I would then end up in either the Big or Small Final. During my semi-final run I felt like I was gaining on the national team girls, so in trying to make up a little more distance I went into a turn more aggressively than my legs could manage, and I ended up crashing and hurting my knee. I’m awaiting the MRI results but it’s looking like an ACL tear and possibly some other damage as well.

This is a new challenge for me. To my recollection, I’ve never had to miss two consecutive days of training due to one injury. Sickness and mental health yes, injury no. I struggle a lot with uncertainty and not knowing everything. It’s my way of having control so the waiting between appointments and results has already tested me. All the same though, I feel like I’m already learning. It’s forcing me to walk the walk I’ve dipped my toe into a couple times over the last couple of years. The walk of focusing on what I can control now and how I act/react. I don’t think any of this will hit me until I get the official MRI report and that will be a tough day. For now I get to live in a small bit of denial. Before racing the SX NorAm I said I didn’t know what was happening with my skiing after the conclusion of the ski cross series Wednesday. Would I be meeting up with the ASTW in the states then headed east for some NorAms races or would I be staying with the ski cross team for a few days of training here and then travelling to Calabogie and then off to Europe? Fate has chosen door number 3 for the rest of my season so it’s time to keep my chin up and shift into prehab/rehab mode with our trainer Nate Morris and CSI physio Izzy Aldrich-Witt while I await the plan for my recovery. My plan is to keep skiing but if it turns out that is not possible, thankfully, I was fortunate to receive a second year of deferral for the Engineering program I accepted at the University of Waterloo so I have some comfort in knowing I have options if need be.

The success I had in January wouldn’t have been possible without Josh, the coaches who enabled the opportunities and the teammates I got to compete alongside at those events. This has helped me clarify plan for my future. Of course our season wouldn’t be possible without the help of our sponsors Raymond James, Karbon, Sporting Life, GMC and BioSteel (ASTW sponsor)!

Hope everyone is having fun and best of luck to the kids of all age groups that are returning to racing after the long wait!

Haley Cunningham