When AJ Ginnis was given a second chance, he took it.
A former U.S. Ski Team athlete and NorAm champion, the Greek-American skier has battled five knee surgeries and a torn groin to finally achieve World Cup success as a representative for his new national team: Greece.
Born in Athens, Ginnis grew up skiing at Parnassos Mountain starting at the age of two. His father, a native Greek, was running the ski school when he met his future American wife, who was enrolled in ski lessons at the time. Ginnis was raised on skiing, and it quickly became more than just a hobby for him. But it wasn’t until he moved to Austria with his father that he began racing.
At the age of 12, Ginnis was sent to Austria to learn the culture and language while his dad worked during the fall and winter months. Ski racing was embedded into the education and provided Ginnis his first opportunity to ski gates. When his family decided to move back to the United States, the then-15-year-old Ginnis had a burning passion that led him to Green Mountain Valley School (GMVS) in Vermont, where he started to fine-tune his skiing.
Ginnis graduated high school when he was 16 and turned to a post-graduate year in the 2011-12 season. He quickly rose up the slalom ranks and was named to the U.S. Ski Team in 2012. Shortly thereafter, Ginnis battled injury, undergoing four surgeries on his left knee. He had tremendous highs (winning NorAms, Europa Cup top 10s, and achieving World Cup points in 2016), as well as unfortunate lows (multiple injuries and a long string of DNFs and DNQs on the World Cup circuit).
“For whatever reason, mentally, and a lot of injuries, I kind of hit a plateau and couldn’t get over it,” said Ginnis. “In 2018 they cut the U.S. team’s slalom program all together and left me at the crossroads. At that moment a lot of my teammates retired.”
But for Ginnis, his ski racing career wasn’t over. When he decided to join the Dartmouth ski team, he was hoping for consistent skiing as he returned from another knee injury in 2018. He opened the season strong, winning the first NorAm slalom in 2019-20. Unfortunately, injury struck again when Ginnis tore his groin in December of 2019. He was once again determined to get back on top of the NorAm podium and recovered quickly enough to finish his season back training with the U.S. team in Europe for the final World Cups of 2020 — that was, until they were cancelled.
“At that point, I think I was third in the U.S. slalom standings,” said Ginnis. “I knew I didn’t have a guaranteed spot in World Cups.”
As a dual citizen, there was another opportunity. In the spring of 2020, the Greek federation reached out to Ginnis curious about his standings with the U.S. team and offered support if he was willing to switch. The U.S. team was candid with Ginnis and said they were unable to financially support his 2020-21 season. With help from his former teammate and friend, Sandy Vietze, and with another ski federation opening its arms, Ginnis made the obvious choice.
“If I’m going to pay for ski racing, I might as well have a federation that will allow me to race all the World Cups and have the freedom to do what I want,” said Ginnis. “So I decided to ski for Greece.”
Vietze and Ginnis spent their junior careers racing against each other. They grew to be close friends, and Vietze became a big part of Ginnis’ switch over to the Greek federation. On that journey, Vietze serves as his personal coach and technician, helps with the driving on 20-hour car rides, and shares hotel rooms. Ginnis says he’s achieved a balance by spending his days working hard with his coaches and nights relaxing with his friends, a routine that provides balance and enables him to push the limits.
“I’ve had a very unfortunate run with injuries,” said Ginnis. “I believe in my ability, so do other people. So, I just really want to allow my ability in training to translate over to racing. I just want to give myself two years of injury-free skiing and see if that takes me where I want to be.”
The 26-year-old has done more than trust his ability. He’s now landed the title of first Greek skier to score World Cup points with an 11th-place finish in Flachau on Jan. 17. It was a personal victory for Ginnis — only his second World Cup points — but it was an even greater victory for Greece. The small Mediterranean nation, not known for its ski racing, broadcast the race on every sports channel, and the outpouring of support and gratitude from his fellow citizens has included unsolicited videos from fans in tears while watching the race.
“Going into the race, I’ve had a lot of good training and good skiing, but nothing really came together,” said Ginnis. “The first run set looked really good for me, down the fall line and a little faster. It just came together, and I skied solid from top to bottom. Second run, I tried to push it and in my head I really wanted to move up. I don’t know what happened three gates from the finish, but I’m happy I pulled it off. I’m really hoping that, if I can continue to ski well, then this sport in Greece will continue to grow.”
Ginnis hopes to continue pursuing the sport he loves with his friends and Greek federation by his side, hoping to inspire the next generation of athletes to come. In the weeks leading up to World Championships, Ginnis will compete in two more World Cup’s and focus his training on keeping a solid upper body to build consistently fast turns. With momentum seemingly on his side and Greek fame pouring in from the success in Flachau, Ginnis has one thought circulating for the remainder of his season: “Let’s see what happens.”