SUN VALLEY • It would have taken a lot to wipe the smile off of Haley Cutler’s face Wednesday.
The Hailey-native and Wood River High School alumni has skied down the Greyhawk run at Sun Valley hundreds of times in her life. She goes upwards of five times a day when she’s home.
But now Cutler, 18, is a competitive skier on the biggest stage. Her trips home are few-and-far between during the season. She’s competed at Sun Valley several times before but never quite like this.
On Wednesday, the face of Greyhawk and the old stomping grounds of the legendary Picabo Street held a new significance that Cutler had trouble putting into words.
Cutler was one of 43 skiers participating in the Alpine Combined event at the 2016 U.S. Alpine Championships, the pinnacle event for skiers both young and old. The championships began Tuesday and run through March 27.
The best of the best in the skiing world qualified through high-finishes at other competitions for a chance to compete and be crowned a national champion in various events throughout this week. Olympians and world champions converged in Idaho for a shot at hardware.
This time the festivities just happened to take place in Cutler’s backyard.
“This is so much fun. I love this,” Cutler, who finished in eighth-place overall, said with a grin. “I couldn’t imagine it being any better. I never have a home race. And to have it at Nationals is really cool.”
Cutler is joined by fellow Wood River alumni Teagen Palmer at the championships, though Palmer did not participate in Wednesday’s Alpine Combined. Palmer, the daughter of Olympian Terry Palmer, is a senior at the University of Utah and will compete in the Slalom on Friday and the Giant Slalom on Sunday.
The Alpine Combined event is a combination of Super Giant Slalom (Super G) and Slalom events. Each skier started with a run of Super G, an event generally thought of as the second fastest-paced behind the downhill. The run featured a drop of 1,900 feet for the women and 2,100 feet for the men.
The top 27 competitors from Super G then competed in the Slalom, which emphasizes frequent tight turns in a relatively small space. The top combined times from the two runs then took home their prizes.
Galena Wardle won the event with a combined time of 2:04.44, just two-hundredths of a second in front of second-place finisher Megan McJames.
Wardle, just 17 years-old and competing in her second Nationals, was 20th in line to take her slalom run on Wednesday. The Aspen, Colo. native was admittedly vigilant in checking the video board to see how she stacked up as her peers raced and her time approached.
After finishing the Super G in eighth-place, Wardle blazed the second-fastest time in the slalom at 45.50 seconds.
Laurenne Ross entered her second run with the top time in the Super G and appeared as if she was going to run away with the Combined title before falling on the last leg of her Slalom run.
“I support everyone, but I watch (them),” Wardle said. “Against all these big names you hear about at the World Cup, it was fun to come here and go head-to-head.”
McJames, on the other hand, took a different approach.
Instead of monitoring her opponent’s times, the 28-year-old tuned everything out and made a conscious effort not to look at the competition. It was a race between her and herself for the Utah-native.
“I don’t like to see anybody else,” McJames said. “I’m the type of person who’s like ‘Oh my gosh, they’re so good. I can’t do that.’”
Cutler, who graduated from Wood River in 2015, finished in eighth-place after ninth-place finishes in both of the day’s events. She admits that nerves were high at the start of the race despite a decided home field advantage.
“I honestly did have a lot of nerves. All through inspection until the start of the race, my heart was just pumping out of excitement and nerves,” said Cutler. “(But) once the race starts, I’m all into the race.”
Cutler said she didn’t have any expectations coming into the day despite a fourth-place finish in the Super G at the the Nor-Am Cup and a win in the Super G at the National Junior Championships in January. She’s had 19 top-ten finishes in 2016 alone.
The whole experience was otherworldly for Cutler regardless of how she would have finished.
As a competitor, she naturally wanted to do her best. That being said, having the championships on the same mountain she knows better than the back of her hand was a victory in itself. She even had her own cheering section.
“It’s so crazy. I never expected it,” Cutler said. “Just having this advantage is really cool.”
The U.S. Alpine Championships continue Thursday through Sunday.