When Erin Mielzynski won a World Cup slalom in 2012 in Ofterschwang, Germany, it was both a blessing and a curse. The Canadian slalom ace was 22-years-old then and ski racing was still a relatively new sport for the waterskier-turned-alpine-racer. It was a historic win, Canada’s first World Cup slalom victory in 41 years (Betsy Clifford, 1971). American Resi Stiegler was second followed by Austrian great Marlies Schild.
Then came the excruciating weight of expectations.
Fast forward nearly nine years later and the product of the Georgian Peaks Ski Club in Ontario has made a breakthrough of a different kind: the mental game.
When she finished fifth in the slalom last week in Zagreb, Croatia – with the second fastest time in the second run – she finally let her shoulders drop after redefining her race-day approach.
“It was a culmination of so many things and so many years of hard work and struggles, amazing times too, but it’s been a ride,” said the 31-year-old from Collingwood, Ontario.
Mielzynski 2.0: finding the freedom, linking turns
Mielzynski, who’s now ranked ninth in slalom (tied with teammate Laurence St-Germain), claims she’s had a difficult time transferring success from training to racing.
“I’ve been training quite fast for a number of years, I even have coaches on other teams getting angry and asking what I did [after finishing off the pace in races],” she said. “So it was a relief, and I finally just skied like I do in training.”
The best part for Mielzynski was the feeling on the second run in Zagreb. “I got lost in the skiing that run, you know what I mean?”
When she won that race in Germany years ago she was skiing “free” and natural, important for her personal style and approach.
“While it was a blessing to have success so young in my career, it also put a lot of expectations on me, especially from myself, and that was really hard to battle,” she explained. “So many times I was standing in the start gate trying so hard to replicate … and I lost the best things in my skiing which is the freedom and the flowing and linking turns.”
“I’ve been hauling around this backpack of stones for so long. And I’m ready to just set it down.”
Leading the Canadian surge by example
Now the leader of a strong Canadian women’s slalom team, Mielzynski said there’s much more to come.
“I’m really proud how strong our team is, and that I’ve played a part in that,” she said from Italy. “While I’ve been working so hard to chase Petra and Mikaela, it’s increased the pace of our team so I’m really proud of my role in that.”
“I hope the next generation is even faster.”
It’s the second time now that Mielzynski has had a teammate ranked alongside her in the top grouping.
Marie-Michele Gagnon, now focused on speed events, was side-by-side with Mielzynski for many years on the World Cup tech circuit as they both collected World Cup podiums between 2012 to 2015.
“Mitch and I were talking the other day – I wouldn’t be where I am today without her and she said the same thing about me. It was so cool growing up together and pushing each other so hard. We really learned from each other.”
Now Mielzynski is raising the bar with her much younger teammate St-Germain. “It’s always nice to have someone that you can pace with but also learn from. I’ve always had someone with me in my career. And it’s fun to now cheer Mitch on in speed and also to have Lo with me.”
Battle between water & snow (snow ultimately wins)
With a rejuvenated career, Mielzynski is not necessarily looking ahead towards life after sport (the topic didn’t come up during this interview). But the Ontario racer is always on the lookout to connect with young racers, particularly girls, in Canada.
In late December she launched a training bib contest “Ski for the Girls” where racers answer questions in a short application, such as “describe your perfect day on skis” to win a custom-designed bib. Mielzynski intends to give away as many as possible. “We’re never in Canada to train and we don’t have a lot of time with the clubs so this is my way to leave a little part of me at home,” she said about the initiative. “I will be giving away something like 430 bibs to girls around Canada; reading their applications it’s amazing how sport brings us all together and it’s something that gives us all power. I want to show how much joy can come from skiing.”
Mielzynski’s roots at her home club of Georgian Peaks Ski Club run deep.
“I’ve lived in a lot of places and moved around but the Peaks has always been my constant, they’re like family to me,” she said.
Mielzynski’s grandfather, Daniel Braniff, was one of the founding members of the club and was influential in improving the level of skiing and ski club activity in the southern Ontario area.
“I gave him a tape recorder for Christmas to record some of his stories,” Mielzynski said. “It’s pretty cool what he did for the racing community.”
“My family doesn’t have any Olympic blood or anything, just a beautiful love for skiing.”
The Mielzynski formula for ski racing excellence was a unique path, balancing waterskiing and snow skiing simultaneously.
“I was more naturally gifted at waterskiing but alpine skiing was always my great love,” she said. “We trained so hard at a young age in waterskiing … honestly we were trying flips at age 10, it was crazy. Our mom would drive the boat and coach us at the same time.”
Mielzynski reached a high level in waterskiing, winning a silver medal at the world junior waterskiing championships and winning the junior masters, at the age of 17. But ultimately, snow won out and she zeroed in on alpine racing, qualifying for the national team just one year later.
“There’s definitely some overlap with body movements and what we do throughout a turn … it’s kind of crazy how it’s so similar for jumping and slalom racing so for sure I learned a lot of lessons.”
Looking to Cortina, and beyond
With the World Alpine Ski Championships in Cortina, d’Ampezzo, Italy, a few weeks away, Mielzynski said her focus is “race by race” but that she’s also looking ahead.
“Right now my focus is on Flachau (Tuesday) but we did have meetings about what’s coming up before the world champs. But I try to treat the Olympics and the world champs like any other race to let that skiing come out.”
After the Flachau races the women’s World Cup slalom circuit will be on pause until two slaloms in Are, Sweden, in early March.
“It’s tough that we’ve been spending so much time away from home but I’m excited for the training, it’s been really fast paced so we just have to keep steam rolling ahead and take nothing for granted.”
Mielzynski said the team will likely enter a series of FIS and Europa Cup races to stay sharp before the women’s slalom in Cortina, scheduled on Feb. 20.
“I’ve been to so many places now that I know some of the hills like the back of my hand. So I’m excited to go somewhere new that I haven’t been to, I’ve heard so many good things.”
When asked what she hopes to get out of ski racing, Mielzynski paused and offered a thoughtful and introspective response.
“If you asked me that two years ago, I would have said ‘Olympic medal, consistent podium contender,’ those were my expectations and I still want that … but it’s not a given and it needs to be worth more than that. Now I hope to leave a bit of a legacy, to inspire the next generation.”
And as a reflection of her fighting spirit, she offered this:
“I have a lot more to give, I want my skiing to show that joy and to show that it’s not easy doing anything, but just to keep getting back up again.”
ERIN MIELZYNSKI – By the numbers
2009 – First World Cup start, Aspen slalom (30th place)
55 – Top 30 World Cup finishes
16 – Top 10s
122 – World Cup starts
5 – World Championships (2011–2019)
3 – Olympics (2010, 2014, 2018)
453 – FIS starts (5th all time Canadian female)