David Chodounsky: What Makes a Champ

Megan Harrod
2016-07-08 12:02

From local ski hills to the PyeongChang Olympics, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) encompasses all athletes that share a passion for skiing and snowboarding. We explore what makes each skier and rider a champion with stories from the U.S. Ski Team, U.S. Snowboarding and U.S. Freeskiing, next to kids winning a NASTAR medal, landing their first cork 7 or joining a club team. Alongside USSA’s mascot Champ, take a look at how all of these athletes strive to be Best in the World.

As we continue to explore what makes USSA athletes champions, we’re learning more than we ever expected. To be a champion is holistic – it goes beyond the medals and the titles. It’s someone with great character and an undying belief in themselves; it’s someone who loves their sport with an unmatched passion—whether they’re still actively pursuing it or not. We are honored to share these stories with you. In this installation, Alpine Press Officer Megan Harrod sits down with U.S. Ski Team athlete David Chodounsky to discuss #WhatMakesAChamp.

Humble. Class-act. Kind. Some might even describe the top-ranked slalom skier in the nation, David “Daver” Chodounsky (Crested Butte, CO), as “Minnesota Nice”—in the most genuine sense of the term. After all, he was born in St. Paul, MN. Minnesota: the land of 10,000 lakes, subzero temps, hot dish…and skiing. And we’re not only talking about the ""nordies here. Alpine ski culture runs deep in Minnesota, and that’s where it all started for Chodounsky.

Chodounsky skis at the U.S. Ski Team Speed Center at Copper Mountain. (Getty Images-Doug Pensinger)

From his parents who emigrated from then-Czechoslovakia to St. Paul in the early 1980s to his successful career as a NCAA Division 1 slalom champion ski racer, Chodounsky’s path has been storied and unconventional. It all began in his family’s front yard, where he donned a pair of “whittled wooden planks.” He thanks his dad, who ski raced for the Czech Army back in his day, for teaching him. Talk about the real deal.  

From there, he graduated to a slightly larger hill. At the age of seven, Chodounsky began skiing at a humble little hill right next to highway 35 in Burnsville, MN called Buck Hill with a coach whose name you might recognize: Erich Sailer. Emphasis on the words “humble little hill.” But Buck Hill is where champions are made…look at teammate Lindsey Vonn (Vail, CO).

As an only child, Chodounsky strayed from the stereotype that only children are spoiled. For him, it provided invaluable lessons in accountability and determination. That might also be where his “learn to be your own coach” advice derived from.

Chodounsky smiles with his wife Ramsay—a former collegiate ski racer at Middlebury—and puppy, a.k.a. "Tippet Pup." (Instagram)

“I had to work hard to earn everything I’ve ever gotten,” Chodounsky reflected. “When there was work to be done, I was the only one to do it. When something unfortunate happened, I was the only one to take the blame. But I did get a lot of attention from my dad when he taught me how to ski, and that was a big reason for my success. Thanks dad!” Before long, his family relocated from Minnesota to Crested Butte, CO to further his skiing career, where he attended Crested Butte Academy.

Chodounsky didn’t take the conventional route to the U.S. Ski Team after high school graduation. Instead, he applied to Dartmouth, deferred to train in Europe for one year, and then began his collegiate ski career in 2005. His introduction to the scene may have been quiet, much like Chodounsky’s demeanor, but it didn’t last long. In his first season, he snagged the slalom title.

Chodounsky poses in Dartmouth green.

Chodounsky’s most memorable moment of his ski racing career to date isn’t his career-best fourth place in this past season’s slalom in Val d’Isere, winning five U.S. Championships titles or even making the 2014 Sochi Olympic Team. That memorable moment? Winning the 2007 NCAA overall title with Dartmouth College on an entirely American team.

“It was such a cool feeling,” he said. “Usually it's all about you, but this was a true team achievement where everybody worked hard and kicked butt, which is very different from typical race days. A lot of pride comes from that…I think for yourself and your teammates.”

Skiing in his first Audi FIS Ski World Cup in his mid-twenties, Chodounsky has been able to bring a mature perspective to the sport, and understands what a privilege it is to be living out his passion. His love for skiing is palpable, and he knows the right combination of luck and hard work has paid off. Chodounsky is the sole current U.S. Ski Team member who had a successful collegiate career and skyrocketed onto the B Team post-college. The team environment he experienced in collegiate ski racing is something Chodounsky has fostered among his teammates on the U.S. Ski Team today. The men’s tech team is a tight-knit group of friends who support each other on and off the mountain.

Chodounsky at the 2015 Vail/Beaver Creek World Championships. (Getty Images-Jim Dietz)

If you’ve witnessed Chodounsky ski, it’s a thing of beauty. Smooth. He’s the number one slalom skier in the nation and 14th in the world. Plus, at 32 years old, he’s quickly becoming a two-discipline threat with his giant slalom skiing. What differentiates Chodounsky is not only his fluidity on skis, but his extreme focus in the offseason. Chodounsky acknowledges that hard work at the Center of Excellence in Park City has paid off in improving his fitness and, as a result, his endurance ability. In the last 15 seconds of a run where a lot of time can be lost, he excels.

Fun Facts: David Chodounsky’s current ski idol is none other than the colorful and clever German and fellow Nordica athlete, Felix Neureuther. “I like the way he skis,” Chodounsky said. Also, it is important to note that his biggest supporter is his mother Anna, “She lives through me and she still gets so nervous for every single race. She’s my biggest fan.” Did you know he speaks fluent Czech too? Cool.

The sport of ski racing is not only physical, though. The mental component can, at times, be the most grueling. For Chodounsky, dialing that in has made all the difference and helped him to earn that top 15 spot in the world. “I think overcoming a mental hurdle has been my biggest challenge,” he noted. “I think I dealt with it really well this season. I just went back to the basics of skiing and that was my focus. Make it simple—outside ski, turn in the fall line, etc.—it's really not that complicated if you think about it.”

Chodounsky skis to his fifth national title in slalom in 2016 at Sun Valley. (U.S. Ski Team)

Chodounsky made a leap from the collegiate circuit to the National Team, and in doing so paved the way for others to follow. Sure he’s humble, a class-act and kind. More than that, though, he’s a pioneer, a team player, a fighter and a champion. We asked him our three questions on what he believes makes a champion.  

U.S. SKI TEAM: In your words, what makes a champion?
DAVID CHODOUNSKY: There are champions in this world that don't necessarily win everything out there. They lead by example, work hard and never give up because something didn't go their way. If you do that, and give all you have to your passion, you can never "lose." In this respect, I hope to be able to call myself a champion in the end. Of course a couple of gold medals would be nice, too.

U.S. SKI TEAM: Do you remember the first time you felt like a champion?
DC: I remember working so hard when I was a J5 and all I wanted was a medal at any race. It just wasn't happening but I didn't understand why. After so many races and still being determined I finally podiumed at a slalom and got my medal. It felt so good because I didn't quit and kept at it and finally got there. It was my first taste of glory and now I'm addicted. My reward that day was a basket of french fries in the lodge. This reward contract is still in place today between my parents and me on the World Cup circuit!

U.S. SKI TEAM: What is the biggest piece of advice you have for aspiring kids who want to be sitting where you are today?
Things are never going to go perfectly and smoothly. When things go wrong or not as planned or you don't win, don't get discouraged. It's all part of the ride. Just keep fighting!