Two concussions in six months left Durango’s Gracey Hening unsure what her 2020-21 alpine ski racing season would look like. It was golden Thursday at Crested Butte Mountain Resort.
Hening claimed first place in slalom and giant slalom at the Rocky Mountain Division Under-16 women’s championships Thursday, as she smashed the competition.
“Returning from racing has been really hard after coming back from my concussions,” Hening said. “This season hasn’t even been close to what I wanted my first year as a U16 to go. It’s been really frustrating not to be able to train at the level of every other ski racer because of the limitations of concussions and COVID. This season has felt like a setback for me in all the years I’ve put into ski racing.”
Despite the frustration, Hening dazzled Thursday. She had a two-run time of 2 minutes, 9.86 seconds in giant slalom with the fastest time in both of her runs. She beat Summit County’s Keira Horvath, who was second in 2:12.25, while Telluride’s Hannah Lyga was third in 2:14.73.
Then in slalom, Hening again had the two fastest times to finish in 1:12.71. Steamboat Springs’ Greta Goldsmith was second in 1:27.15, while Vail’s Sage Sappenfield was third in 1:27.65.
Hening was frustrated not to be at the U16 Rocky Central Junior Championships in Steamboat Springs, where the top 20 placers from the USSA Junior Championship Qualifiers in Winter Park earlier in the month were competing. Hening crashed in both of her giant slalom runs and in one of her slalom runs and would finish 29th. In a normal year, that would still get her to the Rocky Central Junior Championships, as 45 athletes are normally selected. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year only the top-20 skiers from that event advanced.
So she refocused on the races in Crested Butte, instead.
“I was a little unsure about how I would do because I hadn’t done very well in my best event (giant slalom) and it also snowed about six inches, so I didn’t know what the conditions would look like,” Hening said, noting she had finished ninth in a giant slalom on Tuesday. “Our schedule was pushed back because of course delays, timing issues and some slip runs, but luckily, the surface turned out to be great.”
Hening’s first concussion came at the Under-14 Rocky Central Championships a year earlier during a training run. She had to miss the competition but was given the Rocky Mountain Division’s sportsmanship award for her support of her teammates.
It took her eight weeks to recover, and then she was back to training in Oregon during the summer.
But a second concussion would come in the fall while playing soccer at school. Luckily, it wasn’t as severe as the first, but she missed more than a month of school while recovering from headaches, fatigue and issues with concentration.
Despite the setback, she still finished her first semester with a weighted 4.25 grade-point average as a freshman at Durango High School.
With little training under her belt, she returned to competition at the Southern Series Purgatory Classic and would win four gold medals on her home mountain. While training with the Purgatory Ski Team, she has also started training in Steamboat Springs to travel to big races in Aspen and Vail.
“I’m amazed at how she keeps coming back and landing on top,” said Hening’s mother, Etoile. “I admire her perseverance, bravery, passion and work ethic in all that she does.
“We are incredibly grateful for the amazing support Gracey has received from all of her wonderful teachers at DHS as well as her amazing school counselor, Robert Aspen. They did a tremendous job of supporting her through concussion recovery this fall and now her demanding ski racing schedule.”
Hening is now targeting the Sync Finals later this month in Vail.
“Earlier this season, there was a Sync slalom race, also at Vail, which I hadn’t done well at because I had limited training opportunities, going into the race with no slalom training at all and on new skis,” Hening said. “I had a really tough time at this race, so hopefully I will be able to go back and have a better experience there coming up later in March.”