With dual citizenship, Buck Hill product Vesterstein pursues his Olympic dreams

Amid the hectic blur of skiing, training, lessons, packing and passing COVID test after COVID test, Katie Vesterstein spent her final week before flying to Beijing to tackle another important preparation: learning the words to the Estonian national anthem.

“I’ve been listening to it for the past few days,” said the Duluth native, one of the top collegiate skiers in the United States. “I should know – just in case, right?”

Yes, if Vesterstein stands atop an Olympic podium later this week, after winning an unexpected gold medal in slalom or giant slalom, she wouldn’t want singing “Mu isamaa mu õnn ja rõõm” to be her toughest challenge of the Beijing Games. . Especially since she knows her grandfather will be watching her.

“He’s probably as excited as I am,” Vesterstein said of Paul Vesterstein, 93, who hosted a watch party at his Singer Island, Fla., home for Katie’s shopping, along with a dozen expats. estonians. “He’s a big part of why I’m going.”

In more ways than one.

Vesterstein will ski for Estonia, located on the Baltic Sea just south of Finland, in Beijing. She’s the only female alpine skier — there’s also a male alpine skier, Tormis Laine, whom Vesterstein met at a college meet in Colorado a few months ago — on a team that has never won a medal. in any winter event except cross-country skiing. .

Vesterstein gained dual citizenship four years ago thanks to his grandfather, who left a displaced persons camp in his native Estonia, then part of the Soviet Union, for America in 1949. When she started winning junior alpine races, including a top-20 finish at the United States Championships in 2016, the Estonian Olympic Federation took notice. When she became a collegiate All-America for the University of Utah’s NCAA champion ski team last spring, the Estonians invited her to join the Olympic team.

“They’ve been super helpful. They’ve been really on top for me, which has been nice,” Vesterstein of Salt Lake City said shortly before leaving for China. “They want me to maybe go to World Cups, probably next year. It’s great to have that support.”

And that of his family too. His grandfather was a ski racer in Minnesota Duluth in the 1950s, and a ski instructor thereafter. He eventually opened Continental Bike & Ski in his adopted hometown, a business that, although he sold it several years ago, is still in operation in downtown Duluth.

Her son Kirk, Katie’s father, was also a ski instructor and helped her learn the sport. By the age of 10, she was so gifted that they moved to Minneapolis so she could train with famed trainer Erich Sailer in Buck Hill.

“She’s a beautiful skier. I always coach her, I guess you would say, on the phone,” Sailer said. “I spoke to her a couple of days ago, I told her if she could turn two inches earlier and put her weight in the corners, she could gain a second more.”

Maybe, but she’s already very fast. She joined the Utah Ski Team in 2019, and in her freshman year earned All-America honors as she led the Utes to their second straight NCAA championship.

“Of all the ones I have, she’s the one I always have to cut from training because she wants to keep going over and over again,” Utah ski coach JJ Johnson said. even a former World Cup skier. “It was fun watching her grow up. She was very quiet in her first or second year, quite reserved, and her personality has just taken off in the last two years. She’s a favorite of the team, everyone gravitates around of her. And she’s a A student.”

A finance student, in fact, who plans to pursue a master’s degree next year in order to ski one more season with her Utah teammates.

But first, she would like to make her adopted “homeland” proud. Vesterstein isn’t sure what to expect in Beijing – “I try not to put extra pressure on myself,” she explains – but her coach is sure she will be competitive.

“There’s an aura around ‘World Cup skiers,’ but most collegiate teams have that, so she skied at that level,” Johnson said, noting that 11 current or recent Utah skiers will be in Beijing. “It’s a matter of putting that aside and skiing like she’s been doing lately. She may not have been tested at this level, as far as racing against them goes, but she has that ability, absolutely.”

Either way, she will have fans in Estonia and Florida.

“I’m very proud. So proud. But I’m not surprised,” said Paul Vesterstein, pointing out that his granddaughter is also an accomplished athlete in show jumping and motocross. “She’s very determined when she decides what she’s going to do. Nothing she accomplishes surprises me.”

Katie Vesterstein will compete in the giant slalom, starting at 8:15 p.m. Sunday (USA Network), and the slalom, starting at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday (Ch. 11). For Beijing Olympics Daily TV Programs, go here.

About Frances R. Smith

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