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Howard finds peace at Utah

Steve Yingling, Tribune Sports Editor

Alicia Howard knew in her heart that a change was necessary. Being part of the U.S. Ski Team was more depressing than fulfilling and the coaches’ expectations were too demanding.

Like any other teen-ager barely out of high school, Howard wanted to move forward with her life. The choice was obvious. Trade her skiing ability for an education.

Coveted by the NCAA’s skiing elite, the Tahoe Paradise resident opted to attend the University of Utah.

“I made a pretty tough decision last spring. It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy ski racing, but it was a crossroads for me at the time. I felt school was definitely the way to go,” said the 19-year-old Howard.

Living like a carnival worker for three years, traveling throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe, showed Howard that competitive skiing has its downside. Plus, the budget-strapped U.S. team was threatening to trim Howard from its skiing roster.

“I just went on gut instinct that they weren’t going to have me back. Also, I was tired in general of being unhappy – physically, mentally and what not,” Howard said. “I can look back at what I accomplished by making the U.S. team and I’m not bitter or anything. I made the decision for me. I guess, I just wanted to live.”

But the NCAA almost stripped away Howard’s new dream. It seemed that one of the NCAA’s many rules regarding student athletes disapproved of Howard’s independent study in high school.

Consequently, the NCAA ruled her ineligible.

“At first, they gave me the big ‘No,’ and then the Utah Athletic Department appealed and I was turned down again. Somehow they changed their minds. It was all quite confusing, but it ended up being all right,” Howard said. “The reason I was taking independent study was to continue my high school education, not to get by anything. It was not an easy way out.”

After being approached by Colorado, Alaska, Sierra Nevada and Utah, Howard settled on the top-ranked and two-time defending national champion Utes.

“It’s changed my lifestyle a lot, but I’ve had some good times,” Howard said.

A happier Howard has been a bonus for Utah 23-year skiing coach Pat Miller. With only a few weeks remaining before nationals, Howard is the region’s second-ranked slalom and 14th giant slalom skier.

“She is great for our program, especially because she’s an American. She fits in nicely with our team,” Miller said. “We’ve had quite a few U.S. Ski Team members come to our program, more so on the cross country side than the Alpine side. But in a different sense since a lot of American cross country competitors are still on the their way up and still have aspirations of becoming National A team members.”

If Howard is to realize a slalom national title in her first collegiate season, she must cool off former Italian National Team member Roberta Pergher of Denver University. Pergher has won 10 straight slalom races.

“I have been doing all right, but it’s been a struggle because I don’t ski and train as much, so my GS hasn’t come as long as quickly,” said Howard, who has improved her slalom standing in every invitational, going from fifth to third and most recently two seconds.

“Her confidence level is very high in slalom right now,” Miller said.

On the other hand, Howard’s GS performances have been inconsistent, ranging from 17th to eighth. Last weekend at the Crested Butte Western State Invitational in Boulder, Colo., Howard was second in the slalom but wiped out in the GS.

“Her GS needs to pick up a little bit, and that may happen with a little more training,” Miller said.

Most surprising to Howard has been the competitiveness of collegiate ski racing.

“In our first race I had no idea what to expect of the competition. I was quite surprised to see the talent and that most of these skiers have skied for their national teams in Europe and come over here to get an education,” she said. “I really hope I’ve been doing my part. This is a team thing now, not an individual effort. It’s the team that wins and the team that loses, and that’s a pretty cool thing.”

If only the U.S. made Howard feel part of its team, maybe she’d still be wearing red, white and blue.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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