Rowland Hall’s winter sports program introduced now-junior Samantha Paisley to backcountry skiing in eighth grade. Now, she’s in Lausanne, Switzerland, representing the United States in ski mountaineering—what she describes as “backcountry ski racing”—at the Youth Olympic Games.
This is the first year that ski mountaineering—known as SkiMo—will be included in the Youth Olympic Games (YOG), and the sport may be added to the Winter Olympics in 2026. In Lausanne, Samantha is one of only two US girls and one of 48 total international athletes competing in SkiMo. She’ll race in all three events: the individual on January 10, the sprint on January 13, and the mixed-nations relay—featuring randomly grouped teams of two boys and two girls—on January 14.
A description of the SkiMo events, according to olympic.org:
"Individual races are similar to a marathon, with athletes setting off in a mass start over a course with at least three ascents and descents and up to 1,900m of elevation gain. Races typically last between one-and-a-half and two hours, with at least one ascent where athletes need to remove their skis and climb on foot. As the name suggests, sprint races are much shorter and faster than individual races. The total ascent and descent is usually around 100m, with the fastest athletes completing the course in approximately three minutes. Relay races, meanwhile, feature a team of three or four athletes, with each member of the team completing a short circuit one after the other. Like the sprint, the relay is quite a fast event, with each circuit lasting about 15 minutes and including two ascents and descents."
Join us in supporting Samantha and Team USA: Rowland Hall is throwing a YOG SkiMo viewing party (event TBD) at noon on Monday, January 13, in the Larimer Center. We’ll also share Samantha’s results on Twitter as we hear them. A TeamUSA.org article details more ways to keep track of the YOG: check TeamUSA.org/Lausanne2020 or Team USA’s social channels; sign up for the Team USA Daily newsletter; download the Team USA app; or check the Olympic Channel or their app.
We chatted with Samantha before she traveled to Lausanne on January 6, the same day school started up after winter break. She’ll miss two weeks of class to compete in the YOG, but thanks in part to Rowmark Ski Academy, Rowland Hall’s teachers and staff already have the infrastructure to help elite student-athletes succeed.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited for length, style, and context.
How do you explain SkiMo to people who’ve never heard of it?
I usually describe it as backcountry ski racing. You start at the bottom of the mountain with skins on the bottom of your skis, race to the top, take the skins off, ski down, put the skins back on, and race right back up.
How did you get into this sport?
I found it in 2017, the winter of my eighth-grade year. I picked backcountry skiing (chaperoned by teachers Bill Shann and Molly Lewis) for my winter sport and had so much fun! Then my mom—a Snowbird ski-patroller/physician who’d been backcountry skiing for years—took me touring a few more times, and the skiing was incredible. Later that season I saw a flier for the Wasatch Powder Keg, a race at Brighton that covers the entire resort and the backcountry (i.e., Snake Creek and Guardsman Pass). So the next weekend I showed up to the race and got fourth place.
I even had a chance to use my Chinese mid-race—as I passed the athlete from China, I said some words of encouragement. After the race, she came up to me and we had a whole conversation in Chinese.—Junior Samantha Paisley
In March you competed in the World Championships in Villars, Switzerland. How did that go?
I finished as the 12th woman under age 17. It was such a neat experience. I learned so much about racing, balancing my school work, and standing up for myself. I became friends with the junior overall world champion, Katia from Russia, and we’re now pen pals. I even had a chance to use my Chinese mid-race—as I passed the athlete from China, I said some words of encouragement. After the race, she came up to me and we had a whole conversation in Chinese.
How did you qualify for the YOG?
The only race we’ve had this season was the Youth Olympic Qualifiers in Eldora, Colorado, where I ranked second overall (I got third in the individual and first in the sprint). My time in the sprint ranked me as the second-fastest woman of that day—the same day as the national championships for the elite men and women. So there was some pretty tough competition.
How does it feel to be representing your country in the YOG? And doing so during SkiMo’s debut?
It’s crazy! I can’t believe that out of all the youth athletes, I get to go. This sport is becoming more and more competitive and it feels surreal to be a part of such a monumental moment in SkiMo history. I’m also excited to meet people from other countries and watch some events. I’m very excited to see figure skating.
When you get into the right headspace and feel confident, ignore everything else, and push yourself to go as fast as you can, it’s the best feeling in the world.
SkiMo is known as a grueling sport—is that true? Why have you continued to compete at such an advanced level? What drives you?
Honestly, the sport is very, very physically intense, but the hardest part is the mental component. It’s easy to give up quickly and it’s also easy to give up when you get passed by someone. Because of the length of the courses, you don’t move as quickly as if you were running or biking, and that can get frustrating. Therefore, no matter your physical fitness, if you aren’t in the right headspace it’s hard to do well. On the flip side, when you get into that headspace and feel confident, ignore everything else, and push yourself to go as fast as you can, it’s the best feeling in the world.
I love this sport because all ages usually compete at the same time. It’s awesome because I get to train and race with incredible women and men who’ve not only raced the world circuit and done well, but also maintained full-time careers and balanced their lives well. It’s unreal that I have the mentors I have. And it’s also cool because there are a lot of young kids who look up to me on my Silver Fork SkiMo team, and I can be a role model and mentor to them.
What’s your training like?
I train everywhere I can. The beauty of SkiMo is that as long as you’re traveling uphill, you’re training. So, I spend my days hiking, running, biking, and skiing. I also joined Utah Crew and spend the spring, summer, and fall training with them.
In the winter, I work out indoors once or twice a week. Cross-training is a big part of my philosophy because doing only one activity intensely can result in injury; it’s important to use muscles other than the ones specific to your sport. My SkiMo practice consists of two or three days of endurance—I often get 4,000 to 5,000 vertical feet in, which is about eight to 10 miles, depending on the location. I do sprint/interval work three times a week, and one of those days I do a crew workout. I take one or two days off to rest, mainly to catch up on sleep, do homework, and study for tests and quizzes.
Where do you hope to go with the sport—can you do it at the college level? Beyond? The 2026 Olympics?
After the YOG my goal is to qualify again for the US National Team and return to Europe to race in the World Championships in 2021. I also hope to ski in college—wherever I go, I want to start a team if there isn’t one. But I haven’t thought about my SkiMo future a lot. I like to live in the moment and set small goals—especially in such an intense sport, it’s hard to have a lot of lofty goals without losing perspective. I do have a national teammate, Grace Staberg, who is a senior in high school and is over in Europe for the rest of the school year racing the World Cup series. I wouldn’t be opposed to that.
Top photo: Samantha Paisley making the first ascent in the individual event at the World Championships in Villars, Switzerland, on March 11.