Inside the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation center on Tuesday, Morgan Arritola made her usual rounds, visiting longtime friends and coaches and introducing them to her new addition – a puppy.
A staple of the team for nearly a decade, the 25-year-old Olympian affectionately known as “Mo” wasn’t stopping in for training plans. She hadn’t just finished a workout and she wasn’t preparing to start one, either.
Arritola was on a lunch break from her new full-time job at Scott Sports, her running-shoe sponsor. Still based in Ketchum, Idaho, she started there as a receptionist about a week earlier, and looking ahead to the summer, that was where she planned to spend the most time.
After three seasons on the U.S. Ski Team, Arritola declined a fourth term two years ago. Last year, she notched two national titles and a world championship – in trail running – and after being featured in the Trail edition of Runners World’s last month, she said even that wasn’t going to be her priority.
Arritola was essentially retiring from skiing and would likely step back from running to pursue other professional interests.
“I’m not really focusing on any one particular thing or training for it,” she said on the phone while fielding incoming calls at work. “Life’s just taking a new turn, so that’s how that goes.”
Running was something she jumped into, much like her early approach to skiing. After moving from Salem, Ore., to Sun Valley, Idaho, in high school, Arritola put on her first pair of nordic skis as a junior. Four or five weeks later, she won a race.
From then on, Arritola’s nordic success was history. In addition to making two Junior World Championships, she notched several silver medals at U.S. Nationals, placed 11th in Switzerland’s Engadin Ski Marathon, and tallied two top-40 finishes at the 2010 Olympics.
Last June, Arritola won the USATF Trail Half-Marathon National Championship in Bend, Ore., and went on to dominate the Xterra Trail Run nationals in Ogden, Utah, in September. That victory brought her to Hawaii for the Xterra Trail Running World Championship, which she won by nearly four minutes in December.
Known for her humbleness, Arritola downplayed her expectations and performance in the race.
“It was really cool,” she said. “I didn’t really know what to expect, but I learned that I’m not very good at running in the heat. I thought I was going to die. It was really hot.”
Her ski coach from the start, Sun Valley’s nordic program director Rick Kapala watched Arritola develop into a founding member of his Gold Team and an icon in Sun Valley circles. When she walked into the program’s main building, heads turned, he said.
“She walks into the hut and kids are like, ‘That’s Morgan Arritola!’ ” Kapala said. “We live in a relatively small community here so she’s been highly visible as a very successful cross-country skier … and maybe the most successful and recognized athlete in our community in the last 10 years. She’s accomplished a lot.”
Years of competitive racing can take its toll, even on a 20-something still in the height of his or her athletic career. A few weeks ago, Arritola said she decided to leave the Gold Team.
“I’ll probably do some races here and there throughout the winter, [but] I’m not going to ski anymore,” Arritola said. “I’m working and I’m going to run.”
Kapala said the news wasn’t unexpected.
“We entered last year always knowing that it was going to be, to some extent, an evaluation period,” he said, echoing his statement to the Idaho Mountain Express nearly two years ago when Arritola turned down a U.S. Ski Team spot.
At the time, Arritola said she wasn’t entirely satisfied with her performance at the Vancouver Olympics, where she was 34th in the 10 k freestyle race and 38th in the 15 k pursuit. In November 2011, she was also dabbling in endurance running and taking online courses through Montana State University.
“On one hand, she showed herself and everybody else that she still can race really fast,” Kapala said. “But I also think that she’s somebody that, when she undertakes something, is 100 percent in. … Her choices have to be probably seen through the prism of ‘I know what it takes to be the best in the world, and can I do that, and do I want to do that?’ ”
Following her trail-running world championship last December, Arritola came down with appendicitis and needed surgery. She missed U.S. Nationals in Rumford, Maine, and spent the first few weeks of January recovering. Back at full strength after a smooth healing process, Arritola said she was working to pay her medical bills.
Despite winning some prize money at trail running nationals ($1,000) and worlds ($2,000), Arritola said being a two-sport athlete in skiing and running wasn’t bringing in the big bucks. That’s why she wasn’t going to concentrate on running, either.
“I don’t consider myself a runner; I just go out and do races when I can,” she said. “I’m just ready for some different things in life I guess right now. That’s just what I’ve got to do and I like to work so that’s not a problem. It’s a lot of things, but kind of where I’m at right now.”
A talented runner who often crushes local competitions, Kapala affirmed that foot races were never her focus.
“She sees running as sort of an extracurricular recreational pursuit even though she’s really fast,” he said. “I think what she is looking for is probably just a little bit of freedom to chart some new paths in her life.”
While she planned to do some running races this summer, starting with the Teva Mountain Games in June, Arritola said she wouldn’t be specifically training for any and didn’t plan to pursue trail running as a career.
“I think it would involve going back to the lifestyle of skiing, which is pretty selfish,” she said. “I’ve done it for a lot of years and I’m just ready for something different. We’ll see what happens this year with running and everything and then, who knows?”
Following a smattering of NorAm, SuperTour and Alpen Cup races last season, Arritola hung up her skis in late March after placing 18th in one of the first races at SuperTour Finals in Craftsbury, Vt. – the 3 k skate.
“I did one race and then kind of decided that I was not into skiing and needed to not be there,” she said. “I left.”
Back in Ketchum, Arritola was looking ahead. She spent the previous weekend with her mother, driving 20 hours to and from Washington to pick up a Swiss mountain dog. They named the puppy Eiger and Arritola planned to hike with the little guy, who was expected to grow to between 120 and 140 pounds.
In the meantime, she was interested following other interests and potentially continuing her education. If she decided to go back to school, Arritola said she would probably study science or biology – maybe physical therapy or veterinary sciences if she had the time. Born and raised in the West, she was also open to moving.
Kapala said he would do everything he could to keep her involved in Sun Valley’s development program.
“I’m going to try to figure out how to get her out there skiing with our kids as much as her schedule allows,” he said. “For us, it’s been nothing but great, and the impact she’s had goes far beyond that she’s won some ski races and participated at World Championships and Olympics and scored World Cup points and all that stuff.
“She shows to kids what’s capable if you show up and train hard and have the kind of attitude that Morgan has had, which is ‘I’m going to train really hard, I’m going to work really hard,” Kapala added.
One of her teammates at Sun Valley, Simi Hamilton of the U.S. Ski Team wrote in an email that it was hard to see Arritola leave skiing, but he looked forward to running and climbing with her in the offseason.
“I’m extremely excited to see Morgan pursue some of her other interests in life,” Hamilton wrote. “She is such a talented, diverse, and mature athlete and person. She is a great friend and I will for sure miss having her around.”