It’s All Downhill From Here

On a Sunday evening last February, the Marist Club Ski Team filed off the bus after traveling back from the weekend’s races. With palpable exhaustion, the team, which had been on the move since before sunrise that morning, quietly unloaded each person’s equipment. Normally, everyone would part ways in the parking lot. But that week was different: the Winter Olympics were on in PyeongChang, South Korea, and the team members were determined to catch as much of the action as possible.

Instead of going home to finish homework assignments or get some much needed rest, the team gathered at senior captain Joe Kopp’s house to watch Olympic skiing, cheering on big names like Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn. As most of them watched in awe of the record-breaking legends gliding down the mountain and in and out of slalom gates, one among them provided a different insight as she pointed out the numerous young Olympians that she personally knew. Danielle Mason, then a freshman on the team, sat in a living room in Poughkeepsie, NY as across the world her former teammates raced on the Olympic stage.

Mason began skiing at 2-years-old, and started racing just four years later. In middle school, she competed in a race in Maine in which all the winners had initials — SMS, KMS, GMS — next to their names. Curious, she investigated to find out what they meant. “They were all mountain schools. And from that moment on I was like, ‘I’m gonna go to one of those.’ And my parents were like, ‘yeah okay Danielle,’” Mason recalled with a laugh.

While holding onto that competitive drive, she went to a traditional high school in ninth grade, but quickly realized that her skiing lifestyle wasn’t compatible with normal schooling. She found a preseason camp at Northwood School in Lake Placid and fell in love with it. Her parents recognized her potential, but thought it necessary for her to receive some scholarship towards her education, since the price of boarding schools typically rivals that of college tuition. Luckily, Mason received a good offer from Northwood, where she then started in her sophomore year.

Danielle Mason (Marist Class of 2021) accepts a medal from the McBrine Division in January 2018.
Photo courtesy of McBrine Division USCSA.

A childhood spent traveling from race to race and mountain to mountain provided Mason the privilege of meeting Olympians like Lindsey Vonn and Bode Miller. “With all the Olympic skiers, I think what they do, their drive and their determination is unbelievable,” Mason said. “I don’t know if I ever looked up to one of them in particular, it was more to all of them in general. It was like how do I get to that level?”

As Mason matured, Olympians began to emerge amongst her own ranks. Northwood, located in the former Winter Olympic host city of Lake Placid,  is known for producing talented winter athletes, some of whom go on to professional careers. Notable Northwood alumni include Thomas Vonn (ex-husband of Lindsey Vonn), Mike Richter of the New York Rangers and alpine skiing Olympian Andrew Weibrecht. Similarly, some of her friends and teammates went on to further careers in skiing and even the Olympics. Unfortunately for Mason, she tore her ACL in her sophomore year, leaving her on the disabled list throughout her junior season — the most important year for skiing recruitment.

“When Danielle came back from her injury senior year, she couldn’t stop thinking about her knee. It was a complete mental block,” said Northwood Coach Katie Haggerty. Mason jokes that now that the pressure is off, she never notices her knee anymore.

Seeing some of her friends competing at higher levels has made her feel content with where she is now. “Being away from home and all the worldly travels really gets to you. You’re not with any of your family, you’re with your small team. Someone might be your best friend all day but won’t talk to you at the race because you’re competing against each other,” Mason said.

“There are a lot of what-ifs, but I think everything happens for a reason. I think a lot about it, but I’m really happy with where I am now,” Mason said. She ultimately chose Marist, where she could pursue her interests in finance and fashion, while still competing on the club team.

Mason admitted that she does miss the competitive nature of racing at Northwood. The absence of an ever-present team atmosphere was an adjustment for her in college, but that has made her even happier to be involved with Marist’s club team. “With club, it’s just about fun. It’s so different, there’s no expectations.” Marist participates in the McBrine Division of the United States Collegiate Ski & Snowboard Association (USCSA), competing against club teams from Brandeis University, Yale University, Wesleyan University, Vassar College, Simmons College, and University of Rhode Island. In the 2018 races in New York, Vermont and New Hampshire, Mason stood out as a freshman by completing numerous podium finishes and carrying Marist to a top-three team finish, earning them a spot in the regional championship.

On paper, former Marist ski racer Shannon Haggerty is overwhelmingly similar to Mason. Three years Mason’s senior, Haggerty also attended Northwood, following in the footsteps of her older sister Katie, who served as Mason’s coach during her time there. Starting on the slopes at the age of three, Haggerty grew up skiing at Hunter Mountain, a ski area close to her family’s heart. Her dad, who founded the Marist ski team back in the ‘80s, encouraged her to get into racing at a young age. She grew up watching racing on TV and at the mountain — she knew of a family at Hunter whose three sons all went on to the U.S. Ski Team. Haggerty said it simply made sense to continue on to Northwood. “At the level we were at, a lot of kids were going to ski academies and it was just what we wanted to do.”

Shannon Haggerty (Marist Class of 2018) carves around a gate in a grand slalom race for Northwood School.
Photo courtesy of Shannon Haggerty.

“Racing there was more intense compared to if I had stayed at Hunter. I was able to do FIS racing, which is international skiing,” Haggerty said. Both Mason and Haggerty agreed that the tight schedule of both skiing and schooling at Northwood taught them a sense of discipline and responsibility. “You have to take care of all of your equipment, which is like seven pairs of skis and a whole tuning box — and all of that is thousands and thousands of dollars. Also, although skiing is individual, you learn that even though you’re competing against your friends you have that respect for each other,” Haggerty said.

Mason and Haggerty’s paths diverged in college. Haggerty first attended Castleton University in Vermont, where she was on the tennis and skiing teams competing at the Division III level. She knew in high school that she didn’t want to participate in a highly competitive Division I program, and the lack of a Division II level for ski racing made Castleton seemed like the perfect middle ground for her. However, because she was on both the tennis and ski teams, she was training for two sports at the same time, which quickly became overwhelming. “It was not fun. I ended up quitting skiing before the season started. I never raced for them,” Haggerty said. Before the end of her freshman year, she realized that it wasn’t the right fit, for skiing or academics. “They just didn’t have what I wanted to do. I only chose it for skiing, which was stupid.”

Haggerty then left Castleton for Marist, where the Kingston native would be closer to home and able to pursue a field she was more interested in — sports communication — while still skiing at the club level.

As a sophomore she dominated the division, similar to Mason, becoming co-captain of the team as a junior. Despite her new-found leadership position, Haggerty’s years of intense individualized competition on the slopes were catching up with her. By senior year, she had lost all interest in racing and made the difficult decision to quit the team. “Skiing is more competitive than many other sports kids get involved in because it’s individual. It’s a lot of pressure on yourself. I think that’s what got old really quick. I was just not invested in it anymore to be that competitive.”

Many times, parents are the only reason kids keep competing; this was not the case for Haggerty. “They totally understood. I wasn’t going anywhere with it realistically. It was going to end eventually.” She feels very fortunate that she was never pressured into continuing competition when she wasn’t interested. “I was sad to see Shannon lose interest in racing, but I understood her reasoning,” said Anny Morris, then coach of Marist’s Club Ski Team. “I was really proud of her for being honest with us, but most importantly herself. As her father was the founder of Marist Ski Team I could imagine she felt a lot of pressure to live up to his legacy. But you are not your parents and as you grow older and wiser your priorities change.”

Haggerty was actually an influence on Mason to eventually come to Marist, as she convinced her that Marist had everything she wanted and skiing.

As of yet, Mason doesn’t show any sign of slowing down, literally or figuratively. She is serious and fiercely competitive at each club race, but enjoys the welcoming and respectful atmosphere of Marist’s team. She even dreams that one day the team could make the Division III level.  Clearly, her hunger for competition is yet to be filled.

“Danielle and Shannon’s personalities are like two different approaches to sport. Both are naturally talented, but Shannon is more laid back, and Danielle has a natural competitive edge and eagerness to win,” said Coach Anny. At the end of the day, she always backed her racers. “Whatever choice one makes, I think the most important role for coaches, family members, friends and teammates is to be supportive in the athlete’s decision.”

While the two athletes appear so similar on the surface, one still holds on to the thrill of racing that the other left behind years ago.

Mason and Haggerty’s former teammates are scattered across the country and the world, pursuing further careers in their beloved sport. Haggerty recently graduated from Marist in the spring of 2018, and Mason is just starting her second season with Marist’s club ski team. Whether they’re involved in double black diamond courses, slalom race courses, or college courses, all of the skiers are content with where they are now, on and off the slopes.

Edited by Lily Caffrey-Levine & Will Bjarnar

Header photo courtesy of McBrine Division USCSA.

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