A freshman skier in Sun Valley, Idaho, Mikey Sinnott was literally a foot shorter than the rest of the guys on his team, or so his longtime coach Rick Kapala says. Small but mighty, Sinnott came up through the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) junior ranks, making it to the Idaho youth championships and eventually winning two Junior National titles, and reaching Junior World Championships in 2004 and 2005 and U23 World Championships in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
But before he was a globetrotter, Sinnott was a fighter — holding his own in a wrestling brawl with two dozen kids and a handful of coaches, an annual lighthearted tradition at the SVSEF. According to Kapala, who was always at the bottom of the pile, Sinnott was forever the last man standing. Everyone else would eventually give up, but not Mikey.
“You could never pin Mikey,” the SVSEF head coach and nordic program director said. “He was the definition of scrappy.”
As Kapala spoke those words on the phone Tuesday, he almost immediately retracted them. Sinnott would not want to be called scrappy, but that’s what he was. He didn’t tap out, Kapala said, he never quit.
Looking back, he was glad Sinnott didn’t get overlooked like some U16s that haven’t reached physical maturity do. While Sinnott’s results and performances were promising, an outside coach observing him at a glance might not have picked him to achieve what he later would.
But Sinnott understood the importance of grit, and paired with an academic gift that led him to study psychology and neuroscience at Dartmouth College, he had punched his ticket to success early on, Kapala said.
His timing was also ideal. By the time he finished up at Dartmouth, where he was an NCAA All-American and named to the association’s Division I Skiing Championships Team all four years, Sinnott was ready for the big leagues, and his choice to return to Sun Valley was simple.
They had started an Olympic development team (now the Gold Team) a few years earlier — an attractive option for a hometown skier looking to go pro.
“At that point, I wasn’t going to go to northern Maine, I wasn’t going to go to the Midwest, I wasn’t going to go to Alaska — there weren’t really any other teams,” Sinnott reflected on the phone two weeks ago. “When I went off to college, that was one of Rick’s goals … to make the Sun Valley Ski Education program one of the cradle-to-the-grave programs like in Europe.
“I think it’s been a very, very wonderful program,” he added after seven years on the team. “It’s been a model for how we need to start developing more in the U.S. Sun Valley was the model for what’s made the U.S. Ski Team [in the 1960s] … I think we continue to be that model and impress and improve.”
In five seasons, Sinnott, now 29, amassed more than 20 World Cup starts. He claimed the overall SuperTour title in 2013 to start last season in Europe, where he raced seven of those World Cups.
But last winter, starting in November, Sinnott didn’t feel anywhere close to on top of the world. He was fatigued and had been feeling that way since late October, yet he couldn’t pinpoint why. His legs lacked power, but he figured he could compensate with mental toughness, which some call ‘grit.’
“I just kept telling myself that I had to make it work,” he said. “I never really had a lot of explosive energy in my legs for whatever reason, but I kind of knew that was the year, if I was going to fight through any stupidity, that was the year I had to do it … It was an Olympic year.”
The Continental Cup leader who kicked his season off with the U.S. Ski Team (USST) in Kuusamo, Finland, Sinnott placed 74th in his first race (a classic sprint) and 113th in the 10 k classic the next day. By the end of the three-day series, he was 92nd overall.
A few weeks later in mid-December, he spoke openly about not being in top form. But he still wanted to perform well at U.S. nationals and give his best shot at making the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
At the same time, Sinnott, widely respected as a master of calculating points in the U.S., knew his domestic ranking wasn’t competitive enough to put him in the running for the Olympic team. If he wanted to make it to Sochi, his first Olympics in two Olympic cycles he’d been training through, he knew he needed a top 30 on the World Cup.
The closest he’d come after Kuusamo was 78th in the classic sprint at Asiago World Cup in Italy. In late December, he returned to the U.S. for nationals in Utah, where he placed fourth in the 30 k freestyle mass start and fifth in the classic sprint. Even if he’d won all of nationals, Sinnott didn’t expect to make the Olympics. At the same time, he said anyone’s best chance was to ski faster than lone USST male there: Erik Bjornsen.
“I knew how fast I was skiing and I knew I wasn’t going to beat him,” Sinnott said.
“The U.S. Ski Team wants to do everything they can to not take any non-U.S. Ski Team members to the Olympics,” he added. “So I knew the only opportunity I had was to get a top 30 on the World Cup … That’s why I stayed [in Europe].”
Olympic selections came and went, Sinnott wasn’t picked, and by the time February rolled around, he was back on the SuperTour circuit and feeling drained. He recalled one race in St. Paul, Minn., where he was skiing in the top three with four kilometers to go, and he was bored.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know, maybe I should just drop out because I don’t even care,’ and that was kind of pathetic,” he reflected.
He ended up third on the day, and later that month, placed 24th in the American Birkebeiner — an event, like nationals, he said he felt horrible in.
“I’ve never just been so sluggish through an entire season like that,” Sinnott said. “It wasn’t an overtraining thing, but I just never felt that I had the spark.”
He ended up eighth in the 2013/2014 SuperTour overall. Because he wasn’t among the closest contenders for an Olympic spot, he wasn’t crushed when he didn’t make the team. But his season did leave him with untied ends he would later have to reconcile.
“There was no sudden crash or hope lingering on that some people were affected with because I had a better understanding [of the criteria],” Sinnott said. “When I was younger I thought, race your hardest and things will turn out well, and I quickly realized that wasn’t the case. You have to make your own luck and work your hardest because nothing’s going to be given to you … you have to force your way onto a team or force your way into a start race because you earned your way.”
Change of Seasons, Change of Pace
A couple Fridays ago, Sinnott was hanging up a piñata midday in his Sun Valley home. He wasn’t recovering from the morning’s training session with the Gold Team, and he wasn’t gearing up for an afternoon workout, either.
Since last spring, he had been a working man in a different sense: marketing and writing for the Sun Valley Harvest Festival, one of the top 10 fall festivals in the country. And with the September festival in the rearview, he was prepping for a party at his place.
He’d certainly been working out — just not in the traditional sense that he’d been accustomed to for the last seven years. He’d done the unofficial Ultimate Man.Ultimate Woman series, the brainchild of former Sun Valley coach Chris Mallory and a compilation of four local offroad endurance events: the Boulder Mountain Tour (30-kilometer ski race), Backcountry Run (16-mile trail run), Double Galena Grinder (45-mile mountain-bike race), and the Cheeso Double Baldy Hill Climb.
Rather than run more than 3,000 meters to the summit, the ultimate men and women had to ascend it twice: biking up Baldy, riding the gondola down and running/hiking back up. Twenty-five people started the series, four finished, and among them, Sinnott skied the fastest time in the Boulder Mountain Tour (BMT) and notched the second-fastest time in another event. He lost an hour in the mountain-bike race and was down to fourth — last — by the end of the series.
“Running after you bike is awful,” he said. “Eleven months ago, I signed up for [this] race series … I know I’m not going to do it again.”
Meanwhile, after the BMT in February and before the Backcountry Run in July, Sinnott decided whether to continue ski racing through 2014/2015. Still unsure exactly what went wrong last winter — he tried to rest more; he tried to train more — he reasoned it was worth stepping back and trying to put everything back together, and started training again in May.
It didn’t take long until he realized he wasn’t having fun anymore.
“I just wasn’t enjoying getting out the door anymore,” he said. “If there wasn’t someone waiting for me, then I wasn’t motivated to go exercise on my own.”
Reasoning he was “fighting an uphill battle in an uphill sport,” Sinnott said it wasn’t worth wasting his time or his coaches’. Kapala said they sat down and talked about it.
“We sort of sensed it was coming,” Kapala explained. “There’s a natural lifespan to cross-country careers. Mike was certainly of the caliber that he could’ve chosen to ski another year or two years — I don’t think we would’ve seen any drop off in his production … but I think he looked at it like he was trying to make this Olympic squad …
“I said, ‘You’ve had an exceptional career in ski racing,’ ” he added. “ ‘You really think the experiences in total that you’ve had in ski racing would be that much enhanced by slugging it out for another four years?’ He was already like, yeah, I think it’s time for some new challenges.”
Sinnott said conversations with Gold Team head coach Colin Rodgers also helped open his eyes to where he stood mentally.
“He’s been saying for the last year I just didn’t have the same personality with skiing,” Sinnott said. “And I saw him recently and he thought I’d recovered into my old self. Rick’s super supportive … and they all just care so much. All my coaches just want what’s best for me.”
Looking back, Sinnott had a long list of career highlights: Dartmouth’s national championship, winning the 2008 BMT, his first European World Cup in Milan in 2012, and racing at Holmenkollen that same season.
“I loved collegiate racing,” he explained. “It is the best domestic race series we have. Such camaraderie, and racing for something bigger than yourself. I loved how much of a team we were, and how meaningful it was to so many people to bring home the National Championship.
“Winning the Boulder Mountain Tour was special because it was my first real professional title, and it was in my home town, in front of family and friends,” he added. “Such a special moment to represent them. My hometown is beyond supportive, and it feels great to show them what they are supporting.”
And that’s why he planned to stick around town and help out while he plans his next move. Throughout the offseason, Sinnott has been working with U18 skiers and younger on the SVSEF Comp Team, shadowing them during workouts to push and motivate them a few times a week.
“He’s getting ready to transition to the next phase of his life … [and] he’s taking this year to give back to our program,” Kapala said. “We’ve got this group of ten kick-ass U18 guys — think of that workout when they’re going out for this hour-and-a-half roll and Mike is embedded in that workout with them. … That’s huge.”
Kapala said his program reserves some money for guest coaching, and while it’s not much, he knew Sinnott would do it for free.
“I’ve been blessed with the coaching that I’ve had over the years … [with Kapala, Ruff Patterson in college, Travis Jones and Rodgers on the Gold Team],” Sinnott said. “I know that I don’t have some of those characteristics especially at a youth level … I don’t have the consistency day in and out required of a quality coach.”
So he doesn’t necessarily envision himself as a full-time coach one day, but he’s happy to jump in as needed.
In the meantime, he said he’ll be taking the next year to figure out his new career path and will continue to work with the Sun Valley Harvest Festival through the winter. He started the job in May as a means of keeping him mentally stimulated while training. When he stepped away from skiing in late May/early June, he began to call it his career.
Sinnott spent the next several months focusing on the leadup to the festival and coaching on the side. He create a life plan beyond that, but he has a few ideas.
“I thought I was going to map [it] out this summer — that never happened,” he said. “I want to know exactly what I want to do before I start looking into grad school. Since I graduated, neuroscience has become a more popular field among the smarty pants of the world, and my brain has atrophied…”
He has yet to find out what that field holds for him, but above all, Sinnott remembers enjoying school, the curriculum, “the knowledge, and the horizon they presented with some of the unknown,” he said.
He has a Sun Valley mountain pass this winter, so he figured he’d take some downhill runs on powder days to sort it out. This month, he headed east for 10 days for a wedding in New Hampshire.
“I’ll bring running shoes, but I don’t have to bring rollerskis, so that’s a plus,” he noted.
And while he might travel a bit, and give races like the Birkie another try (at a more leisurely pace), he’ll continue to call Sun Valley his home.
“I’ve traveled around and looked at various places and there’s nothing compared to here,” he said. “The Norwegian national team, they [came] here before the Olympics in Salt Lake and Vancouver, and they say this is the perfect training place.”
And the team has been an integral part of his experiences.
“It’s always been, the team I want to hang out with on the [domestic] circuit is Sun Valley,” he said. “They’re good people that I have fun with.”
Leaving the Gold Team, which includes Miles Havlick, Matt Gelso, Ben Lustgarten, Mary Rose, Makayla Cappel, and Paige Schember, Sinnott said it’s in a good place.
“[That’s] the best team in the country this year. They’re unbelievable,” he said. “There’s definitely times where I’ll see time trials and I’ll say, ‘Oh man, I wish I could be out there.’ If I wanted to be out there, I would be. It’s not like anyone told me no, I just don’t want to be out there anymore. It’s been really good to be more social and adventure with friends. I haven’t really second-guessed it.”
Kapala said Sinnott could be the poster child of how to have a great life ski racing, which is why it’s so valuable having him around.
“I’ve learned way more as a coach from Mike than Mike has learned from me,” he said. “I never got the sense that Mikey was just in it for results. Because of that, you get the kind of guy who’s perspective on the sport is really helpful and powerful and now he’s out there training with our juniors. … That’s another piece of us really getting somewhere.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.