As his childhood ski racing compadres sped around gates in the U.S. Alpine Championships at Squaw Valley last month, Nico Monforte couldn’t help but wonder if he chose the right competitive path.
“It was tough,” Monforte, an 18-year-old senior at North Tahoe High School, said of following the action from Mount Hood, Ore., where he was competing in the NorAm Cup finals in his new discipline — ski cross.
“I was following the results and cheering those guys on. For sure there was a little question about whether I was making the right decision, but then three days later I flew to Europe and had probably the best trip of my life. So it’s hard to say. I’m sure looking back, it will depend on what happens. But as of now, I think I’m doing the right thing.”
An avid alpine racer since the age of 4, Monforte developed into one of the fastest skiers in the Far West ranks with the Squaw Valley Ski Team. He earned a silver medal in the slalom and overall at the 2009 Junior Olympics, and placed first in the giant slalom and third in slalom at the 2011 Western Region Junior Championships.
Rocking jeans along with his Lakers teammates, Monforte also helped lead his North Tahoe alpine squad to back-to-back Tahoe Basin League state titles in 2011 and 2012, while winning the individual combined title in 2012.
But his alpine racing days were limited. Near the end of the 2011 season, Monforte attended a ski cross training camp at Mammoth Mountain with his cousin, John Teller — the No. 1-ranked ski cross racer in the United States. He was hooked.
“I just thought I’d give it a try, and I instantly just fell in love with it,” Monforte said of the relatively new discipline, which made its Olympic debut in Vancouver in 2010. “I was getting a little burnt out on the alpine side.”
As opposed to alpine racing, in which skiers are timed individually down a gated course, ski cross sends racers in heats of four down a course packed with banked turns, rollers and large jumps. Many factors play into the final result as athletes advance through qualifying heats, such as skiers taking out one another amid the jostling.
“There are more variables and different tracks. It’s just a whole nother element having three other guys on course with you,” Monforte said, adding that his alpine skills transfer well, but don’t cover every aspect. “It took me a little bit to get used to someone being right there with you. That’s the biggest thing that doesn’t cross over.”
Sold on ski cross, Monforte left alpine skiing behind as he dove into the racing scene in 2012, relying on his alpine background to make a seamless transition. Success quickly followed as he capped his rookie year with a 24th-place finish at the World Junior Championships.
Monforte carried over the experience from his first year into an even more successful 2013. Competing on the NorAm Cup circuit, he finished this season ranked sixth overall nationally, and first in the world in his age group. He recorded seven top-five NorAm finishes, including two third places and a first, and finished fourth overall in the North American Cup.
He placed 23rd at the World Junior Championships — after another skier got pushed into him and killed his speed, preventing him from advancing — and just last week was 15th in the Swiss National Championship against top World Cup racers.
“It was probably my best season to date,” Monforte said.
Despite crossing over from alpine racing to ski cross, Monforte said he plans to keep his skills sharp by competing in end-of-the-season alpine races at local resorts. He’s competing in an FIS alpine spring series at Sugar Bowl this weekend.
“I still race alpine now and then, and I’m still right with those guys, so I always have that to fall back on,” he said.
A co-valedictorian with a 4.32 GPA, Monforte said he’s leaning toward taking a year off of school after he graduates from North Tahoe in June. He plans to work out this summer and attend a couple of training camps before competing on the World Cup circuit in Europe next season.
“My ultimate goal, I’m looking at the 2018 South Korean Olympics right now,” Monforte said. “Next year would be a huge push to make Sochi (Russia), because I’m the youngest member of the (U.S.) team, and as of now there’s only one more spot available.”