When 22-year-old Luke Winters kicked out of the start house wearing bib 40 in Val d’Isere, France back in December 2019, fans of U.S. slalom skiing weren’t expecting much. The young athlete from Gresham, Oregon, was on the brink of starting his first full season on the World Cup. In 2018, he had only skied in a handful of races on the circuit. As the sole American to earn a World Cup spot in the discipline by way of the NorAm circuit, the American slalom team suddenly found its destiny in the hands of a guy who had only been named to the U.S. Ski Team a year ago.
Given the state of the course, and the state of the competition, NBC announcers Steve Schlanger and Steve Porino did not have high expectations.
“Surely a young American at the back of the field, there’s nothing he could do right?” Schlanger asked Porino, who promptly responded: “Absolutely not.”
Val d’Isere, one of the steepest courses on the slalom World Cup, had already thrown the likes of Daniel Yule, Clement Noel, and Henrik Kristoffersen out of the course. But Winters skied confidently into the first split, only 16 hundredths off of leader Alexis Pinturault’s pace.
“Sixteen hundredths back early on,” exclaimed Porino. “I’m thinking to myself there’s no way he can keep up with the pace, but if you watch the way he skis, he’s in balance, and at this point in the race, no one was close to these sort of split times. So you’re thinking there’s no way he’s gonna make it through the labyrinth that has taken all of these skiers with all of this pedigree out, but here he goes through it like it’s no problem.”
Porino lets out one final “You gotta be kidding me” as Winters dances through the final flush and into the finish in second place. Silence on the air, followed by an “Oh my god” from Porino and a stunned Schlanger exclaiming, “Whaaat, that’s a two, where’s that two coming from,” as Winters pumps his fist into the air, realizing he had just skied into second place.
“So now you breathe it in and say, that actually happened,” continued Porino. “All of this chatter about how fast Luke Winters has been in training turns out not to be mythology, and that run, it didn’t look like he skied out of his skin, but if you look at the clock, it sure looks like he did.”
Winters did not finish on the podium that day in Val d’Isere. In fact, after second run, he wound up finishing 19th, earning his first set of World Cup points. But the prowess and speed he showed during that one run had finally been comparable to what he, his coaches, and his teammates had been seeing in training. The past few seasons had been a struggle for Winters, to say the least, and now all of a sudden he was earning nation spots for the U.S. team on the World Cup. The whole experience was a bit surreal.
“I think I’ve watched that video like 20 times, and it almost makes me cry every time,” said Winter’s twin brother Cody. “When he throws his hands in the air, gosh, just makes me think about all the stuff he’s worked for, all the things that I get to do that he doesn’t. It’s crazy.”
Cody Winters knows the kind of dedication it takes to become an elite-level ski racer. The brothers were on similar paths in the sport for most of their lives.
Born April 2, 1997, the now-23-year-olds started skiing at the age of two, when their dad first took them up to Mt. Hood just outside their hometown in Gresham. The boys would eventually start racing at the age of five and stick with the program at Hood through their freshman year of high school.
Luke still remembers their first race. It was a dual. He and Cody were set to compete against each other. Cody crashed, and Luke stopped in the middle of the course to wait for him so they could cross the finish line together. In life — and ski racing — they always stuck together.
“We were always doing the same thing, same interests, same hobbies, same friends, always pushing each other to be better,” added Cody Winters. “We both had the same exact hobbies and desires in life. I loved it. It just felt natural. We always were just go, go, go, go, go.”
After that first race, they kept with the program and spent every weekend through the eighth grade crashing in a motor home in the Ski Bowl parking lot on the weekends. The twins would ski from open until close with their dad and a few good friends, getting as much time in the park as they were in gates.
The boys were also avid football and baseball players. Leading up to his sophomore year of high school, they never once attended a ski camp in the summer. Their focus was always on football or baseball. Additional hobbies included hunting in eastern Oregon, fishing on the Deschutes and Columbia rivers, surfing the Pacific Ocean, and digging up land with their parent’s excavation company. On the weekends, their dad would take them skiing, while their mom would take their sisters Demi and Cassidy to volleyball tournaments. Family played a huge role in their lives, and the boys spent plenty of time getting their hands dirty in activities other than ski racing. Until a phone call came from Sugar Bowl Academy prior to their sophomore year of high school.
Mt. Hood was their home, so the decision to attend the academy was a reluctant one. The twins weren’t fully committed to attending full time and left early their sophomore season to head back to Gresham and continue playing baseball. Then the second call came, this time saying if the boys wished to return to Sugargbowl in the fall, they would both have to commit to a full year at the academy, meaning their baseball careers were a thing of the past.
Luke went back for a full-year. Cody chose to stay in Oregon with his family and friends. But as soon as ski season rolled around, Cody realized he had made a mistake and called the head of students, asking if they would make an exception. The brothers graduated from the academy together in 2015.
“We never got tired of it, and I think that’s why he made it so far,” said Cody. “If I’m being honest – and I think all my friends and family would say this – I don’t think there was much doubt in our minds that Luke wouldn’t be where he is. He’s always been the best. We all thought we were gonna make it, but Luke just always had that extra little drive.”
Luke may have had a little extra drive to succeed, but he never felt like he was working toward the goal of being an Olympian. When he chose ski racing over the rest of his life, he just wanted to do the best he could. If eventually becoming an Olympian was a byproduct of that effort, then so be it.
“I remember when I was a U16, and we were at a Mt. Hood camp and there was like 30 athletes around my age,” Luke Winters said. “And I remember Lester Keller in the academy building being like ‘One of you guys is gonna be racing World Cup someday,’ and I remember looking around, taking in all the faces and now I’m the only one left, out of that whole group. And looking back, it’s crazy.”
Between his junior and senior years at Sugarbowl, Luke got a call — one that his brother did not. The National Training Group in Park City wanted him to join some preseason projects, so Winters decided to ski for both Sugar Bowl and the NTG in his final season. Then, a year after he graduated, his season was cut short when he tore his ACL in January. At that point in his career, the U.S. Ski Team had approached him about potentially offering him a spot on their Development Team, but never followed through with the offer.
In his state of injury, Winters had to make a decision. Keep pursuing ski racing or succumb to external pressures and hop on the collegiate bandwagon. But Winters assumed, if he chose to ski in college, that would be the end of his career. He hadn’t made a name for himself yet, and if he dove into the collegiate circuit, he was afraid he never would.
“As much as it sucks to say, it’s tough to come out of college and be good on the World Cup,” said Winters. “If nobody from the Ski Team knows who you are and doesn’t give you the opportunity, then you’re never going to be able to do it. So I just kept making that [NTG] cut, and every year I got a little bit closer, a little bit closer. And I’m still doing the same thing, but it just happened.”
In Winters’ final season with the National Training Group, after four years of not making any noticeable jumps, he competed in the 2018 World Juniors competition in Davos and podiumed in the super G. That same year he had the best NorAm result of his career, finishing third in the slalom standings, 24 points away from the World Cup spot. The Ski Team noticed, and named him to the B Team.
In the fall of 2018, Winters had his first-ever World Cup start in the slalom season opener in Levi, Finland. He raced a handful of World Cups that season, but never scored points. Despite his lack of success on the World Cup, he continued to ski strong in NorAms, eventually ending the season second in the slalom behind Canada’s Simon Fournier. To wrap up 2019, he skied to a National Championship slalom title in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire.
Now, after a couple of top 30 finishes and a handful of spectacular runs that showed Winters can hang with the best, he’s opened more nation spots for the American men on the World Cup circuit than they have had in years. He’s the leader of a young group of American tech skiers just itching to get their chance on the World Cup, to show the world what they’re made of. The hype continues to build, around the team and around Winters, who despite his age has handled the pressure and attention with incredible maturity. He thrives in leadership positions, executing with a calm, cool, and collected attitude beyond his years.
Flashing back to Val d’Isere, when Winters stood at the top of the course among the fastest slalom skiers in the world, all eyes were patiently awaiting his start. They wanted to see if bib 40 could really pull off a spectacular podium finish.
Winters, on the other hand, was focused on taking it all in. These were the guys that he had dreamed of competing against. Now he was standing among them waiting for his second run. If anything, this was a valuable learning experience. Just a year ago in Val d’Isere he had not qualified for a second run. Now he was standing behind Ramon Zenhauesern in the start gate.
“I just remember I was up there and Zenhauesern does this big ‘oooo’ yelling like a gorilla and I’m like ‘holy shit’ as he’s starting in front of me because he was in third,” laughed Winters. “I’ve never heard anything like it, for like a minute before, and that’s because I’ve never been up there when they were going, so I was like ‘Man, I’m not on this guys level.’ A lot of people try to get hyped up, and maybe I don’t get hyped up enough, but I feel like I’m pretty calm and collected all the time, even on the second run when there’s all that added pressure.
“People think it’s getting to my head because I ski well one run and don’t ski well in another run. It’s not. I think it’s just a matter of time,” he added.
Winters knows he’s learning. He knows where he’s been, and he knows how far he’s come. He knows he has teammates, his coaches, and his country in his corner. After a bad second run, of course, he’s bummed, but he doesn’t let those emotions show like some of his competitors. He takes each day as it comes, and sees it as another learning opportunity.
Whether it’s a race on a new track like Kitzbuehel, or a training day dialing in his boots, all of the small moments are what will lead up to the big moment when he finally puts two and two together and shows the world what he’s made of. Let them hype us up, he says. Winters believes it won’t be long before his teammates will be scoring points alongside him, and American tech skiing will be back on the map.
“If you don’t believe in yourself, I don’t know if you’re going to make it very far,” Winters siad. “I mean, I was barely hanging on for a couple of years. But if I quit now, yeah, I made it a lot further than most people have in ski racing but there’s still so much to be had. If anything, my career is just starting. This is my first real year on the World Cup, and I could have 15 more.”
In January, Winters was joined in Europe by his parents, his brother, and a handful of friends, so his original team could experience with him his first time racing at the legendary Austrian venues Kitzbuehel and Schladming. His sisters and his girlfriend stayed stateside, cheering him on at a watch party surrounded by friends. As Luke pushed out of the start gate in Kitzbuehel, Cody remembers looking over at his dad, who was sitting about 100 yards away from him in the crowd and exchanging looks of astonishment that said, ‘Can you believe we’re here right now?’
“I remember watching those races as kids, thinking we wanted to be there, and then I’m sitting there watching my twin brother,” recalled Cody Winters. “Everyone’s cheering, 60,000 people at Schladming and then my brother comes down the course. My legs are shaking, I’m thinking how is he even going to make it down this course. And it was the best thing in the world. I’m his biggest fan, by far, guarantee it.”
Winters just barely missed qualification for the second run in Kitzbuehel, and then again in Schladming. From there, his last race of the season would unknowingly be a DNF in Chamonix. The remainder of the World Cup was later canceled.
Now, he’s back home, spending his free time doing irrigation work with his dad and brother out on a ranch in Oregon, a pastime he has always loved. He wakes up in the morning and exercises in frigid 20-degree weather before sunrise, then spends the next 10 hours a day working, only to retire the bulldozer for the day and exercise again. Cody continues to watch his brother push himself to the limit, even on a ranch in the middle of nowhere. When he comes home and wants to just get some sleep, there goes Luke, always doing that little bit extra to make sure he stays ahead.
“Stuff gets to everyone, but it’s very hard to get into Luke’s head,” said Cody. “Champions, it’s hard to get into champions’ heads. That’s why they’re champions. And hopefully, he’ll be a champion someday.”