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Christianson puts Alaska back on top of American ski slopes

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 26, 2016

For the first time since Olympic medalists Tommy Moe and Hilary Lindh ruled the slopes for the United States nearly two decades ago, an Alaskan reigns as a national alpine ski champion.

Kieffer Christianson, 23, won the men's giant slalom Saturday at the U.S. Alpine Championships in Sun Valley, Idaho.

The Anchorage man dominated both runs on a tricky course that got the better of several of the nation's top gate-running skiers.

The victory highlighted a strong week in Sun Valley for Christianson, a member of the U.S. Ski Team who until these championships had never won a national medal. Now he has two -- he collected silver in Tuesday's alpine combined race.

"It's definitely a nice box to check off," Christianson said.

Christianson was born the year Lindh won an Olympic silver medal in 1992 and was a toddler when Moe won Olympic gold and silver in 1994. As a young member of the Alyeska Ski Club, he didn't need to look far for role models -- the 1990s were the golden age of alpine skiing in Alaska, where Moe, Lindh, Megan Gerety, Kjersti Bjorn-Roli and Mike Makar were making impacts on the national and international ski scenes.

"Growing up I knew Alaska was competitive on the international level," Christianson said. "I know there hasn't been as many Alaskans representing in alpine skiing racing (lately). It's cool to represent such a cool place.

"I'm proud to be from Alaska."

Christianson is the fifth Alaskan to bring home a medal of any color from the national championships and the first since 1999, when Anchorage's Bjorn-Roli took home a bronze medal in the super-G.

He's the fourth to win a national title, joining Moe, Lindh and Gerety. His victory on Saturday ended a 19-year championship drought for Alaska -- in 1997, Girdwood's Moe and Juneau's Lindh were both two-time gold medalists, giving Alaska a sweep of the downhill and super-G titles.

Christianson skied to his gold medal on a course he described as "crazy."

"The course was very steep. No flats," he said. "On the first run there were six delays -- usually there's one or two, maybe three.

"There were super tight gates, super open gates -- it was all over the map. I talked to the course-setter, and he said he didn't want any turn to feel the same. I was laughing during inspection."

The challenging course knocked out nearly half of the field on the first run. Of the 73 skiers who started, 37 failed to finish the first run, including Tim Jitloff, who was pursuing his fifth national title in giant slalom, and David Chodounski, who won the slalom title earlier in the week.

Christianson won the first run by two-tenths of a second, finishing in 1 minute, 10.21 seconds.

"I was just having fun skiing," he said. "I was making good turns and was able to get in a zone."

The day was hot and sunny, but Christianson kept his cool between runs and didn't let the pressure of being the leader get to him. The leader is always the last out of the chute on the second run, so while he waited for his start, he went free skiing for a while and then had some quiet time.

"I didn't pay attention to who was winning. I didn't watch the other guys," he said. "I found a little cove in some shade where I sat listening to my music. Keep positive and just exist.

"I got a little nervous but I told myself, 'Have fun.' I had some close calls (in the second run), I got my hand wrapped in a gate, and that motivated me to keep pushing and keep hammering all the way to the bottom."

Christianson won the second run in 1:06.41. His two-run total time of 2:16.62 gave him a margin of .83 over silver medalist Ryan Cochrane-Siegle of Vermont, who clocked 2:17.45.

The gold medal is the highlight of a frustrating season for Christianson, who said he made some equipment tweaks over the summer.

"I wanted to fix my flaws, which is a good thing, but in the process I lost track of what I was doing in my skiing that makes me fast," he said.

The changes didn't lead to improved results. In six World Cup starts, he finished only one race, although he gained valuable experience in the process. Along the way, "I changed my equipment to what it used to be," he said.

In recent weeks he also started working on the psychological side of his sport with a coach from Seychelles, an island off the African coast. Despite being worlds apart geographically, the two men clicked.

"He's much more about developing the person -- being at ease, being calm," Christianson said. "He helped me be a little more confident with my approach, believing and trusting myself, and it definitely paid off."

On Saturday, the payoff was a $3,000 first-place prize. His silver medal was worth $1,300.

The prize money is big for an athlete still striving to consistently hit his stride. Christianson said he no longer considers himself a young skier -- at 23, he is itching to score World Cup points, which requires a top-30 finish.

"I don't feel like it's too late," he said. "I'm ready to hone in and be able to ski to my fullest potential all the time."

He got a taste of what that's like Saturday on Sun Valley's sun-splashed slopes.

"It was awesome to go out and execute like I am capable," Christianson said.