Skiing

Skiers who grew up blocks from each other in Anchorage are now competing on the world stage in Austria

Finnigan Donley and Paul Melchert

For years, Finnigan Donley and Paul Melchert would meet on the corner between their homes in South Addition and pedal their bikes to school.

First it was Romig Middle School, then West High.

Now, the two neighborhood pals are competing for junior world ski titles a half a world away. And while it won’t be two blocks, they’ll be just a short 30-mile drive from each other in Austria.

Donley’s competition, the Alpine Junior World Ski Championships, is already under way. And he’s already made his mark. Donley won the gold medal in the men’s U18 downhill race Thursday in St. Anton, Austria.

Melchert will compete in the Freeride Junior World Championships, which runs Jan. 23-26 in Kappl, Austria.

While skiing has taken them to a world stage, their relationship started and has continued to flourish with the duo on two wheels.

“When I was in seventh grade, he was in eighth grade,” Melchert said. “We started biking to school together. And then for the next four years, we rode bikes to school together every day.”

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Finnigan Donley and Paul Melchert

Both Donley and Melchert started skiing at young ages. Melchert’s sister paved the way for him to get into freeride skiing and he progressively became more involved through the Alyeska Freeride Team. What started as just a handful of skiers has developed into more than 100 freeriders skiing with the Alyeska team, Melchert said.

Freeride is much different than ski racing. Instead of timed runs, it’s judged with a points system using criteria such as fluidity, technique, control and choice of line going down the mountain. While racing is done on groomed terrain, the freeride skiers use more of a choose-your-own adventure approach with jumps and tricks.

“You can ski wherever you want,” Melchert said. “You hit cliffs, you do tricks. You just do what looks fun to you.”

Donley started skiing before his third birthday and has continued to become a more accomplished skier, which has led to more competitions and greater focus on the sport.

At 14, he began to travel more for races and before his junior year of high school he transferred from West to Sun Valley Community School in Idaho to have better access to a full-time schedule in the Lower 48.

While Melchert’s qualification for his event was determined last year, Donley found out just days before he had to depart. Donley, who turns 18 next month, was the youngest racer selected for the U.S. FIS Alpine Junior team.

“It was unbelievable,” he said. “I got the call I was going, I was so excited. I had no clue.”

[A skier born to race, Finnigan Donley rules the slopes at Alyeska, and his empire is about to expand]

Donley said five of the eight racers representing the country in Austria are on the U.S. Alpine Ski Team. He hopes to learn from those racers and aspires to be a permanent member of the team.

“I can’t wait just to get into it and go as hard as I can, but just remembering to have as much fun as possible and using this as a learning experience,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll be coming back to junior worlds the next few years. But yeah, I’m just going to give it my best go and see what happens.”

Finnigan Donley competes in the giant slalom at the Alyeska Cup

Aside from the downhill win, he also had a fine finish in the super-G, placing 13th overall and second in his age class. He was also the top American. Donley said just being able to practice alongside the vaunted Swiss and Austrian teams is an eye-opener.

“This is a great exposure opportunity because everything is completely different in Europe,” he said. “There’s so much depth. The best guy goes out and there’s three more guys right there chasing him down.”

For the two skiers, their personalities took them into divergent disciplines.

“He’s definitely the most competitive person I know,” Melchert said.

Melchert, on the other hand, was drawn to the spontaneity of freeride and said he’s a bit more laid back.

“I love all kinds of competition, so I think that’s definitely true,” Donley said. “Paul has great creativity but he’s sure competitive as well.”

Paul Melchert and Finnigan Donley

While they still ski together when schedules allow, Donley is traveling for competitions for much of the winter. They still do some backcountry adventures and plenty of biking in the summer.

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“All summer long we’ve mountain biked together for the last five years,” Donley said. “It’s super fun to go free skiing with him because he’s so awesome at all the freeride stuff and I try to teach him some things about carving turns every once and awhile.”

Whether it’s on bikes or skis, the friends enjoy pushing each other to go faster or higher.

“I think the best thing about biking or skiing with Paul is that we’re similar ability levels so we’re always pushing each other whatever we’re doing,” Donley said.

As Donley’s competition winds down, Melchert will get started, leaving potential opportunities for them to visit each other in Austria. They’ve been in touch with regular texts and calls since they both realized they’d be so close.

“I was pretty surprised,” Melchert said. “We’re super close to each other and we’re both going there for skiing. I’m really hoping we can meet up.”

Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.

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