Nina O’Brien and Paula Moltzan have been nearly inseparable — training, traveling, racing and living together since Sept. 1.
“It’s been amazing – I’m so lucky to have a teammate who I get along with so well off the hill, and on the hill we can really push each other,” O’Brien tells Ski Racing Media about Moltzan. “It’s kind of a dream in that sense.”
The U.S. Ski Team tech racers are accustomed to sharing close quarters, having spent this entire winter together in Europe. Both team and resort Covid restrictions have kept them that much closer.
“We haven’t had a blowout yet,” Moltzan says, jumping in on O’Brien’s interview in the Cortina finish area.
“Things have been going pretty smoothly,” O’Brien acknowledges.
Moltzan, 26, and O’Brien, 23, arrive in Cortina as the next formidable U.S. Ski Team duo, currently ranked 27th and 42nd, respectively, in the overall World Cup standings, third and fourth behind their U.S. teammates Mikaela Shiffrin and Breezy Johnson. Moltzan is 18th in the slalom standings, while O’Brien stands 18th in giant slalom.
At the Cortina world championships, O’Brien and Moltzan are taking on hefty workloads, both racing in the same four events over five days.
“It’s a lot, especially starting with the parallel and team events – you take so many runs and these events are kind of tough on the body,” O’Brien admits. “It’s a little brutal, but we’ll just have to dig deep with races three and four.”
“It’s going to be a busy couple of days, but we are physically fit and ready for this,” Moltzan says. “It’s just making sure we have good recoveries after every day and keeping in good spirits if things don’t go your way.”
O’Brien and Moltzan have shown significant progress during what has been an unpredictable and strange Covid-affected World Cup season. Both are thrilled to race together in the world championship giant slalom (Feb. 18) and slalom (Feb. 20), after joining the guys in the mixed team event on Wednesday. Moltzan is competing at her third world championship, while O’Brien is in her second.
The ambitious U.S. racers kicked off their busy programs with the women’s parallel event on Tuesday.
Moltzan, a Minnesota native who grew up racing at Buck Hill, narrowly missed a bronze medal in the new world championship event. She settled for fourth, defeated by two-time world champion Tessa Worley, after a costly second-run mistake. Still, Moltzan was satisfied with a productive afternoon in which she eliminated Austrian Stephanie Brunner and top qualifier Wendy Holdener, with come-from-behind second run victories.
“I’m really happy with the day, my best (world championship) result before this was 16th, so fourth is pretty darn good,” Moltzan said.
O’Brien has also showcased speed on Italian snow this season – as a guest at the Italian National Championships in November. The former Burke Mountain Academy racer took top honors in the giant slalom and finished runner-up in slalom.
“I happened to win the GS, which was nice – they maybe didn’t bring their full World Cup power squad, but it felt pretty good and it’s a fun title to have,” O’Brien said, with a wide smile.
Queried in jest about what it feels like to be an Italian national champion, the Caliornian joked: “Technically, I’m the reigning Italian national champion, but Marta Bassino has been pretty untouchable this season,” she said about the Italian standout, who struck gold in the parallel event, Italy’s first medal of the championship.
O’Brien has proven consistent in GS with consecutive 13th place results in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, Jan. 16-17.
“I have been building confidence in GS all year and I’ve had some really good runs in sections, so if I can put it all together then I can do something cool, but it’s always a battle,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien nabbed a career-best, ninth in slalom, in Semmering, Austria, in late December.
“I’m super excited – I’ve shown some speed in slalom, but I feel like there is more in the tank, so hopefully that will come out,” O’Brien said, looking ahead to Saturday’s slalom.
Moltzan nabbed her first World Cup podium earlier this season, finishing second in a parallel event in Lech/Zuers, Austria on Nov. 26. She also posted a career best World Cup GS result, finishing tenth in the season-opening race in Soelden.
“It started the season on a really high note and we’ve been able to build in both GS and slalom after that,” Moltzan said.
Moltzan is prepared to carry her World Cup momentum into the Cortina GS and slalom races.
“I’ve seen both hills, they both look awesome, the snow looks awesome and I’m very excited to keep it going.”
Two paths, similar accomplishment
The tight-knit teammates seem to relate across many levels, despite taking somewhat different routes to international racing, as they strive to elevate their previous successes to the next level.
Moltzan starred in a University of Vermont collegiate career, in which she was honored as a two-time First Team All-American and won an NCAA slalom title as a freshman in 2017, while O’Brien also demonstrated tremendous potential at a young age, having won the 2019 Nor-Am overall title, in addition to seven U.S. titles.
“We took different paths, but I feel like we’re both showing that you can build success from the Nor-Am circuit and bring it to the World Cup,” O’Brien said. “In the past, it’s felt like a massive leap from Nor-Ams, Europa Cup and then to the World Cup level.”
“There’s definitely two different paths in the U.S. – you can go Nor-Ams or you can go college, or you can do both, I’ve went for both,” Moltzan said. “I think we’ve broken some barriers at the same time, so it’s been easier for us to come together.”
O’Brien, who takes summer classes at Dartmouth, likes how things have fallen into place for she and her roommate.
“I feel like we’re bringing some of that fast skiing to the World Cup now and it’s nice that we both have top tens and top 15 results, so it shows North America has some good speed coming up,” O’Brien said.
Moltzan summarizes their varying journeys, noting an important common denominator.
“I think there’s no right answer in the U.S. development system – as long as you’re motivated and dedicated you can make it, you just have to put your head down and work harder than everybody else,” Moltzan said.
Nina and Paula have undoubtedly been “climbing the ranks” side-by-side, their special connection and countless hours spent together evidenced by their choice of the exact same phrase.
“We have been climbing the ranks together, which is cool and fun to watch her success, and battle it out in training too,” O’Brien said.
“Nina and I vibe off each other – when she is doing well, I’m super stoked and want to do well, so we’re climbing the ranks together,” Moltzan said.
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