TAOS, New Mexico – The two most consistent skiers of the Taos 2022 WPST World Championships presented by New Mexico True were in the middle of facing off in a nail-biting final race in the women’s giant slalom Sunday at Taos Ski Valley when things got extra exciting and a little bit scary.
World Cup skier Paula Moltzan, fresh off of her first WPST appearance and big win in Saturday’s slalom was up against three-time All-American university racer Stefanie Fleckenstein of Canada, who took third Saturday in her WPST debut.
Both skiers aced every single one of their runs leading up to the final round on Sunday, which presented challenging conditions – flat light, gusty winds and a dangerously hard and fast snow surface in the morning that led event organizers to operate the opening rounds in a solo dual rather than head-to-head parallel format.
Nonetheless, Moltzan took down U.S. development team up-and-comer (junior worlds silver medalist and Nor-Am ace) Ava Jemison and Fleckenstein handily defeated Austria’s Denise Dingsleder, beating her by more than two seconds with the two-run combined time.
Fleckenstein’s dominance held through the quarterfinals, when head-to-head racing returned and she maxed out her lead against Italy’s Giulia Paventa as Moltzan squeaked by Poland’s Magdalena Luczak.
Margins became tighter in the semifinals, Fleckenstein barely edging University of Utah’s Kaja Norbye while Moltzan capitalized on her first run lead to beat World Cup veteran Erin Mielzynski.
Following numerous course holds due to crashes, high winds and salting the course, the two yet-to-be defeated athletes threw everything on the line as they charged in unison down the first run of the final round. On the decidedly faster blue course, Fleckenstein had pulled ahead as the racers approached the finish line. In her effort to maintain pace and straighten out her line, Moltzan lost control and crashed over the final jump. For a frightening few seconds, the Olympian lay motionless on the course. She eventually stood and shakily exited. Having sustained a hard blow to the head, she did not compete in the final run, leaving the victory and consequent victory lap to Fleckenstein.
“It sucks Paula couldn’t finish, because you obviously want to fight to the end, but I’m glad she’s OK and I’m very happy to win some money,” said Fleckenstein, who took a year off of her elite college racing career at Colorado University (where she held a 3.9 GPA) to try to compete in Beijing and plans to put the $24,500 she earned over this weekend toward her independent racing pursuits next season.
Although tired and sore from Saturday’s long day of racing, the 24-year-old Whistler native said anxiety didn’t come into play even as she saw that she’d face Moltzan (who beat her in Saturday’s semis) in the finals.
“Honestly, there were no real nerves,” Fleckenstein said. “I knew Paula was going to fight like she’s been fighting all weekend. I just knew that if I skied clean, we’d be close. That’s all I could really ask for. It worked out.”
Moltzan said she’d “had a really fun day” up until her crash, after which she still managed to smile and attend the award ceremony, collecting her second-place prize money ($6,300 as well as $25,000 as the overall champion of the Taos 2022 WPST World Championships, presented by New Mexico True.
Kaja Norbye ended up taking down Mielzynski in Sunday’s small final to take third place. Her older sister, Tuva Norbye, relinquished her undefeated tour status this weekend. She fought to fourth place in Saturday’s slalom, but wasn’t able to harness her typical WPST fire on Sunday, taken out by Katie Vesterstein in the solo-racing round of 16.
“I ski better with that person beside me,” Tuva Norbye said Sunday after her early elimination. “That’s the most fun thing about the Pro Tour is the head-to-head format and that instant feedback of how you’re doing. There’s so much money on the line this weekend, it would have been good to do my best. It’s not my day.”
Another big upset of the day was Kaja Norbye’s defeat of two-time Olympian and Saturday runner up Tricia Mangan in the opening round, when Mangan crashed through a panel and called it an early day.
To view complete results of the Rocket Mortgage Women’s Tour, visit worldproskitour.com.