Morgan Arritola is home. The accomplished Nordic skier made the decision this season not to continue training with the U.S. Ski Team and instead returned to Sun Valley to live and train full-time with her club team, the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation.
Following the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver as well as two world championships, Arritola decided she had gotten many benefits from training for five years with the U.S. team, but needed to switch things up.
Arritola's turn in Vancouver wasn't all she hoped it would be. Even though she placed 12th in the 4x5-kilometer relay and a respectable 34th in the 10-kilometer Free event, it wasn't good enough for Arritola, who is a bit of a perfectionist.
"I didn't do as well as I should have in Vancouver," she said. "The critical part of me wishes I had done better. I had a few pretty disappointing years. I haven't been racing my best. I needed to make some changes, and coming home to Sun Valley is a really positive one. You don't need to be on a national team to ski your best."
In fact, Arritola is certain that Sun Valley is just right for her, right now.
"I was the first member of the Olympic Development Team (now called the Gold Team)," Arritola, 25, said with a laugh. "And it's great to be back. I've always been so supported by this team—Sun Valley is a really solid club. There are a lot of resources in a club team that you can't get even on a national team."
It's game on for Arritola as she is poised to begin her competitive season Thanksgiving weekend in West Yellowstone, Mont., with a SuperTour race. SuperTour events normally attract a field of highly competitive skiers.
But the season actually started where it all began, at the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation training facility at Lake Creek.
It was there, a mere nine years ago, that Arritola, as a junior at the Community School, first clipped into a pair of skinny skis. And she had an inauspicious start, according to both her and Rick Kapala, head of the foundation's Nordic program.
"I was so bad it was embarrassing," Arritola said with a laugh.
"She was pretty bad," Kapala confirmed. "But then she was really, really good. Four or five weeks after she got on skis for the first time, she won a race.
"She accomplished that on a lot of desire and guts and hard work. Her path to the top was very quick. But no one can sustain those types of gains. When you start this sport, you can see huge improvements every time you go out. But once you reach the top tier of racers, the gains become incremental. The momentous gains slow down and you might train for weeks to see the tiniest of improvement at the elite level. It can be hard psychologically."
This is part of the reason that Kapala thinks it's really positive that Arritola has come home for this year.
"She's in a period of evaluation," he said. "She's trained her rear end off for a number of years. She had a chance to be on national team again, but didn't want it. We can give her an environment that's more flexible while she still trains to coax out those incremental improvements."
Part of Arritola's period of evaluation also involves softening the laser focus she's targeted on skiing to include other pursuits.
This is something she can do as part of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation. Being part of a club team affords her much more flexibility in her schedule than the U.S. Ski Team can.
One of the other passions she is pursuing is endurance running. In fact, she will be missing an upcoming SuperTour event in Montana to travel to Hawaii—no, not to suntan and drink mai tais—but to compete in a half-marathon trail run called the XTERRA World Championships.
She has also hit the books and is taking online courses through Montana State University. A 2004 graduate of Sun Valley's Community School, Arritola put off higher education to train as a member of the U.S. Ski Team.
"I'm not 'smart' smart, but 'intuitive' smart," she said. "This is the first time I've cracked a book in years. I'm happy I'm doing it, but sometimes I think, 'I am so busy, why did I do this to myself? It's hard!' But I need to have some other things in my life than skiing."
But Arritola's steely determination, no matter how she couches it, will still be firmly focused on Nordic skiing this year. With the coaching support and financial support of the Gold Team, she is readying for a full season of elite national and international races. She trains 800—yes 800—hours a year.
Colin Rogers, head coach for this year's Gold Team sees a great season ahead for Arritola.
"She's totally fired up," Rogers said. "It's definitely an adjustment for her, but at the stage she's at right now, being here is a good thing. She feels comfortable. She knows all her teammates.
"She's definitely rebuilding. She wants to race really well domestically and into Canada this season."
And Rogers emphasized that training with her home club rather than the national club is likely to enhance her performance.
"She will definitely be back competing at the same level this season, possibly even faster" he said. "Her running has really sparked some good stuff for her. She's been able to focus on some different training, different events. It should all help her season."
Kapala sees Arritola in serious contention for world-class placement. The fact that she's not skiing with the U.S. Ski Team at this time doesn't preclude her from being chosen for future Olympic games or national championship races.
"When the U.S. picks teams for championships and Olympic games, the roster is composed of both people who are on the national team and racers who are not. It's all based on a points system," Kapala explained.
As long as Arritola has enough points, she's in contention for national berths. And she's been in the game long enough to know her strengths and seek out the events in which she will shine.
"Morgan is predominantly a distance skier," Kapala said. "She will be looking for distance races and really hard courses that help lower her points and qualify for the big races."
Those include the SuperTour races and Canadian Nor-Ams, both of which are on the season's schedule.
Kapala said the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, would also suit Arritola well.
"They are at altitude, favorable to her, very hard," he said.
The one topic that takes a bit of the sparkle out of Arritola's wide hazel eyes is how to continue to pay to support her ambitions.
Though they're not as costly as many sports, the equipment, travel and training for elite Nordic skiers come with a pretty big price tag.
With her return to the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, Arritola receives support from the team, including ski waxing, coaching and a travel budget.
She also has equipment sponsorship and said she's very grateful for the local patrons and businesses that believe in her. But even with the backing of many, she's responsible for her own insurance, living expenses, some travel costs and the everyday costs of living in a resort town. To help offset the expense of her sport, she works part-time at The Elephant's Perch.
"I do worry about how long I can do this before I have to get a 'real' job," Arritola said with a laugh.
According to Kapala, there are two different ways top skiers can make money: They receive equipment from their suppliers or they win outright prize money for being on the podium at nationals.
Still, compared to other sports, the amounts are small. For instance, according to Kapala, the take for a skier who places in numerous events at a SuperTour weekend can be $800 to $1,000.
But Kapala thinks Arritola has a great chance at making all this work.
"She will excel in it as long as it's what she wants to do," he said. "In endurance sports, many women peak in their late 20s and well into their 30s, so she has years of competition ahead of her if she so chooses."
And the Sun Valley Nordic community is thrilled to have Arritola home, no matter what she decides about her long-term skiing career.
"She's a great asset to our program in any way shape or form," Kapala said. "Having someone of Morgan's caliber here is great for the whole team. Our post-grad kids get to work out with her, which is pretty cool. There is vertical integration among all the SVSEF Nordic programs. The kids get to work up and train with some of the best athletes in the sport."
Though she's modest, Arritola said she's glad the other skiers can see what's possible with a lot of hard work.
"When she's in the hut, the little kids stop and whisper, 'That's Morgan.'" Kapala said. "She writes note cards to the younger girls on the team. She really is a mentor to them."
No matter how long Arritola chooses to focus her fierce competitiveness on Nordic skiing, or whether she changes course to run or pursue her studies, cross-country skiing will always be a part of her life.
"It's a great sport," she said. "A lifelong sport. It doesn't ruin your body. It keeps you strong and healthy."
But the thrill of winning continues to motivate her.
"I've been racing since I was a little kid. I love the competition," she said.