IDAHO SPRINGS, Colo. — For several moments, Hailey Duke stared down the side of the Austrian slope last January, all ready to spring into action and yet fearful of what awaited once she reached the bottom.
This was the U.S. slalom skier’s last run of the season. And maybe even for a long, long time.
Brain surgery was looming to remove a tumor that was attached to her pituitary gland. That benign growth had been there for who knows how long — possibly for as long as she has been racing — and constantly robbed the 28-year-old Duke of energy.
She had the tumor taken out on Feb. 5, nearly a year away from the opening ceremonies for the Sochi Olympics.
Almost immediately, she felt better. So much so that she is chasing an Olympic spot on the U.S. team, even paying for expenses out of her own pocket.
One last chance, just to see what she could accomplish healthy and tumor-free.
“I’m supposed to be moving on with my life, doing something else, knowing I had a good run at this,” said Duke, who made the Olympic squad for Vancouver four years ago, only to lose funding from the U.S. Ski Team in recent seasons due to lackluster performances. “But I feel like I didn’t have the full run at it that I deserved. I owed it to myself to at least try this.”
Her top finish in a World Cup slalom event was eighth in Semmering, Austria, in 2008. Then again, she felt that the symptoms commonly associated with her tumor — constant fatigue and extreme exhaustion — have been holding her back since she was about 17, meaning it could have been there that long.
“I was doing all the work, doing what everyone else was doing, but it was just me banging my head against the wall,” said Duke, who is from Sun Valley, Idaho. “I couldn’t see the results.”
This season, she is unfunded by the ski team and yet undeterred, willing to dole out about $150,000 in costs to prove herself by traveling to lower-tier races scattered around the world. Establish herself there and maybe, just maybe, she gets a few starts with the World Cup squad again. But time is working against her, because the U.S. team finalizes its Olympic roster in two months.
“I’m really happy that she’s fighting back and continuing to race and pursuing the Olympics,” four-time overall World Cup champion Lindsey Vonn said. “I hope she makes it. She’s been through a lot.”
Through a routine blood test last fall, doctors found increased levels of prolactin in Duke’s system, indicating the possible presence of a tumor on her pituitary gland. It later showed up on CT scans and an MRI.
At first, doctors tried to treat the tumor through medication. It did not work as Duke experienced side effects such as loss of coordination, severe headaches and heart palpitations, which made skiing nearly impossible.
“Surgery was the only way to go,” she said.
The tumor also was growing at a rapid rate, toward her carotid artery. Her surgeons went in through her sinus cavity to remove it.
As she healed, Duke pondered her next step. She thought of finishing her college degree at Westminster College in Salt Lake City or possibly helping out as a coach. But she could not shake the idea of returning to racing, especially since she was feeling so good right after surgery. The fatigue was gone, along with all the other symptoms.
Last April, Duke reached the decision to give ski racing one more shot.
Her first call was to a former coach, Patrick Purcell, pleading with him to put off retirement to instruct her again. He instantly agreed.
And every call since has been to potential sponsors, trying to line up money to train and travel to races.
As the U.S. squad held workout sessions on its exquisite downhill course at Copper Mountain last week, Duke squeezed in training runs on a smaller venue down the road. The place was tucked away off a two-lane road, the only indication of its existence a sign that read, “Front Range Ski Club.”
When Duke arrived for training last Tuesday, two Bernese mountain dogs greeted her in the parking lot, wagging their tails as they followed her to the tiny lodge. On this day, she was sneaking in a night session to prepare for the low light in Levi, Finland, her first stop on the road to making the team. This was a Europa Cup competition, where up-and-comers are trying to gain experience.
And where veterans attempt to earn back their spot.
Duke has four second-tier races to try to earn a podium finish. Should she do that, the U.S. team could invite her to fill one of its spots in a few World Cup races leading up to Sochi.
Then, it is up to her to score points to make the squad.
“I have an opportunity here, a big opportunity,” Duke said. “I’m definitely still hungry to get the best results and the best performance out of myself that I know I wasn’t allowed the chance to do.”
Asked if he could see Duke in the starting gate in Sochi three months from now, Purcell simply said: “Oh, yeah. Absolutely, because her speed is there.”
The coach added: “She’s all about the journey. If it doesn’t work out, the journey still has been powerful for her.”
“I’ve run into a lot of roadblocks, but it’s about me not giving up,” said Duke, who has a countdown clock to Sochi on her website (www.haileyduke.com.) “If I didn’t take this chance, I would regret it for the rest of my life.”