This month, 20-year-old Annie Pokorny will embark on a path many skiers have walked before her in making the transition from college to professional skiing. The Middlebury College skier is one of the newest members of the Stratton Mountain School T2 Team, which officially announced its 2013-2014 roster Monday evening, and she will begin training with new teammates Jessie Diggins, Erika Flowers and Sophie Caldwell later this month.
Spring is generally a time of transition and new team announcements in the ski world. Last week the Craftsbury Green Racing Project announced it added three new athletes to its roster, all of them new college graduates.
But the unusual component of Pokorny’s move has to do with its timing. Rather than wait to begin a professional career until after she graduates and uses up her NCAA eligibility, she is disrupting her college career at the halfway mark — and at the height of an Olympic quadrennial, no less. It is a move resulting from no small amount of deliberation, but is one that Pokorny is enthusiastic about.
“I think that I have been presented with a very unique opportunity, and I’ve never been one to turn those down,” Pokorny said in a recent phone interview from Vermont. “I’m excited to go for it and to take a chance. It’s exciting, it’s new — it’s going to be fun.”
The factors that contributed to Pokorny’s move from Middlebury to SMS T2 are unique to her, but she believes many of her peers find themselves weighing the tradeoffs between college and full-time skiing at some point in their development, too, whether it’s during the college application process or later. College skiing is the subject of persistent discussion within the U.S. ski community, and Pokorny believes the choice to go to — or remain in — school is ultimately specific to the individual. In her own case, she wanted to strike while the iron was hot.
“I’m really excited to join the Stratton group; they’ve got a really strong culture there, some really good girls and great coaches, and I wasn’t really sure if that opportunity would be there in two years,” Pokorny said. “There was a lot of deliberation that went into this one, as you can imagine.”
Age and results played big roles in her decision-making process; Pokorny was a first-year U23 as a sophomore last season, which she considers “old for school.” Rather than wait until graduation to begin training full time at the age of 22, she wanted to give herself every development opportunity now, as she starts to come into her own.
The Spokane, Wash., native and former Sun Valley skier just wrapped up a breakthrough sophomore season at Middlebury in which she scored two top-10s at U.S. Nationals and logged her first international races at U23 World Championships. Pokorny credits Middlebury with much of her athletic progress in the last two years, but decided as the year went on that skiing was what she wanted to do, and pursuing it full-time was what she needed to make another step forward.
“I am very grateful that I went to college,” she said. “I feel that it has done so much for me, both as a skier and as a person, and I’m not sure that could have been replicated elsewhere. The Middlebury program, Andrew Gardner and Patty Ross — I have no doubt that they’ve made me a better skier. And there’s also no doubt that if I stayed here, I have the utmost confidence in Andrew Johnson and what he’s going to do to this program. It’s fairly bittersweet for me to leave, because I’d like to participate in that; I think he’s going to do great things here. But it was also a very personal decision that I made before we knew Andrew Johnson was coming here, and one that I’m confident in and am going to stick to.”
Last December, Pokorny first entertained the idea of moving on from Middlebury ahead of schedule after watching some of the world’s best athletes compete in Quebec City. She watched the World Cup city sprints there with her college teammates and it was her first up-close exposure to skiing at the highest level.
“Just seeing that level of competition and seeing how powerful that kind of competition can be was really mind-changing for me,” Pokorny said. “As a result of my seeing that, I think my skiing improved.”
Less than a month after her experience in Canada, Pokorny finished fourth in the 10 k freestyle at U.S. Nationals, fewer than three seconds off the podium. She had been 47th in the same event the year before.
Pokorny had already established herself as a freshman, placing ninth in the 15 k classic mass start at 2012 NCAA Championships, but this was a bigger step forward in 2013.
Pokorny’s performances at nationals earned her a trip to U23 World Championships in Liberec, Czech Republic, where she notched two top-30s at her first international competitions. Upon returning to the U.S. she promptly claimed her first Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association (EISA) win in Stowe, Vt., and went on to collect five podiums on her way to qualifying for NCAAs as second-ranked eastern skier. She crashed in both races at the championships and was forced to drop out of the mass start, but overall Pokorny took a big step forward this season.
The good results were encouraging, but it was still January when Pokorny experienced another attitude-changing moment. During her first race in Liberec, a 10 k freestyle, the race-leader blew by her on the final climb. The moment reminded her of watching the Quebec World Cups, and instead of finding the experience discouraging Pokorny drew inspiration from it.
“When I say she passed me I mean she really passed me,” Pokorny said. “It was like I was in slow motion. And I remember just thinking, ‘Wow. I’m in the same race as that kind of skier.’ And that was the coolest thing that I had experienced in a really long time. It kind of brought me back to that moment in December, when I saw firsthand what World Cup skiing was like. And I think from there it was over — it was something I really wanted to do.”
Her decision to leave school partway through may be rare, but it is one that Pokorny has carefully considered over the past few months. She consulted with several coaches about her options and ultimately came to a final decision on her own. She believes a critical piece of her approach to the sport moving forward will be that she decided to pursue it independently of her results.
“I think making that decision before I had any races this year was pretty pivotal, because it wasn’t as a result of any good result,” Pokorny said. “It was something that I had already chosen on my own, separate from numerical results… I think regardless I would have taken some time, because I really do enjoy skiing and want to spend more time doing it.”
Pokorny sought advice from a number of coaches, including Gardner and SMS T2 head coach Gus Kaeding, and she had brief discussions with U.S. Ski Team coaches Matt Whitcomb and Bryan Fish. In each conversation, she says, she appreciated that no one tried to influence her decision.
“Andrew [Gardner] was really supportive,” Pokorny said. “I think he, as a college coach, really believes in what college skiing can do, and he also knew me as an individual athlete… What he encouraged for me most was in deliberation and being confident in my decision, and really owning my decision and having it be mine. He was not going to sway me in either direction, which I really appreciate, because I think having that kind of autonomy will help going into this.”
Pokorny emphatically believes her two years at Middlebury have been integral to her progress this year, and believes she would decide to attend college again if she were to go back in time.
“I think what was really important for those kind of results to happen this year … is that I went to college,” Pokorny said. “There is so much to be learned freshman year of college. You’re forced to handle this huge transition of academic stresses and still keep cool on race day. And I think that kind of preparation really will help me going into more serious racing.
“The collegiate field is very competitive,” she continued. “If you don’t show up with your game face on every Friday morning you don’t have a chance at a top-10. There aren’t any flukes in college racing… I definitely don’t think the college racing circuit gets the credit that it deserves, because it’s definitely competitive and definitely makes better skiers.”
After finals are over Pokorny will head south to Stratton to begin the next phase of her career. Though she won’t be returning to Middlebury next fall she plans to continue taking part-time classes elsewhere and gradually work towards a degree. She has yet to finish finals this spring but she’s already started reaching out to potential sponsors to help support her training and racing next year.
“I was just talking about owning my decisions, really owning my skiing — now I’m looking at places for support and sponsorships,” Pokorny said. “That’s been really fun, trying to find businesses I believe in and working with them, making connections. That’s the first major difference between college and full-time training, is funding yourself.”
Pokorny doesn’t think there’s any cookie-cutter way to approach college and skiing, but she abides by the belief that carrying ownership into any decision it is the first step in making it work. She wants to continue getting faster and get back to Europe next winter, and to get there she is wholly invested in her new living and training environment.
“Sophie Caldwell is an excellent example, or Rosie Brennan or Holly Brooks. There are so many women who’ve gone to college and do incredibly well after school,” Pokorny said. “I think it’s very much a personal choice, and there’s no right or wrong way to do it as long as you’re confident in what you’re doing and believe in your training and believe in your choices.”
As to whether the approaching Winter Olympics affected her decision to go pro this particular spring, she was modest about her expectations.
“I think that to be a female ski racer in the U.S. right now is really exciting,” Pokorny said. “It’s also very challenging. Just because I’m leaving school [it will] not auto-qualify me for the U.S. team. But that’s also what really fires me up. I think the group in the U.S. is really competitive right now… I’m not sure one year will boost me into that spot but I’m hopeful to make it there someday.
“There’s so much good energy with the team competing internationally and in the U.S., and I think now’s just a great time to be a full-time female skier. I’d like to take advantage of it while I can.”