Abi Zagnoli and Russell Malm both dream of someday competing on the U.S. Winter Olympics team. The seniors at Carrabassett Valley Academy soon will get a preview of what that could be like.

Zagnoli, a 17-year-old from Carrabassett Valley, and Malm, a 17-year-old from Mammoth Lakes, California, will compete in skicross in the Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, from Feb. 12-21.

They were among the 62 members selected to the U.S. team, which also includes Oliver Wahlstrom, a hockey player from Yarmouth.

“I am super excited to go and compete, and see who I’m competing against and where I am placed for my age,” said Zagnoli. “It’s going to be quite the experience.”

The Youth Olympic Games are modeled after the Olympics but also include a Learn & Share program designed to help the athletes become ambassadors for their sport. It features workshops and exercises based on five themes: Olympism, Social Responsibility, Skills Development, Expression and Well Being, and Healthy Lifestyles.

The first Winter Youth Olympics were held in 2012 in Austria. This year’s competition, which includes 70 medals events and 150 cultural events, will feature more than 1,100 athletes ages 15-18 from around the world.

Zagnoli and Malm will compete next Monday at the Hafjell Alpine Centre.

“It’s a lifelong accomplishment for a young athlete to be invited to the Youth Olympics,” said Mike Mallon, the skicross coach at CVA. “It’s the smaller version of the pinnacle goal of every athlete at our school. It’s a step in the process and it means the world to them.”

Zagnoli is as excited about the cultural experience as competing.

“I was in the junior worlds last year but I was just there for four days and didn’t really get a taste of Italy,” she said. “That kind of bummed me out. This year I’m in Norway for two weeks. And other than the skiing, I’m focused on getting a taste of Norway and its culture.”

Malm said he’s looking forward to the Olympic experience.

“I want to see what Olympic athletes do and follow in their footsteps to get to where they are,” he said. “What it takes to get there, how they do it, how much commitment it takes to get to the top.”

CVA just started offering skicross four years ago, according to Mallon. It made its Olympic debut in 2010.

Skicross is a timed event but incorporates many features found in freestyle skiing, including banked turns and big-air jumps. And it’s run with four skiers going down the course at once, which can lead to some close calls.

“Yeah, I’ve had a couple of collisions,” said Malm. “Every race you learn a lot, from your competition, from your teammates, from your coaches, the techs. You learn a lot about what you can do. With skicross, you’re next to a guy on a 30-plus-foot jump going 25-plus mph. You have to trust in him not taking you out and he has to put trust in you.”

But it gives the racers an adrenaline rush.

“I love getting in the start gate and knowing that the fastest out of the gate might just get the whole shot,” said Zagnoli. “I love being in the air off high jumps and just fighting the whole way down the course.”

Zagnoli tried snowboardcross but didn’t like the feel of it. So she switched to skicross and was Mallon’s first student at CVA. She had four podium finishes on the 2015 NorAm tour. “She has made leaps and bounds,” said Mallon. “She’s dedicated, pays close attention to every detail. She has all the pieces in place. She’s skiing as good as she ever has. ”

Mallon said Malm, who was the 2014 boys’ 13-15 skicross national champion, has really focused on his conditioning this year and “that has made all the difference for him. He’s doing great.”

They both competed in the world junior championships last year – Zagnoli finished 23rd, Malm 48th – and on the NorAm tour this winter. They’d both love to land on the podium but realize it’s not going to be easy. Skicross is a sport that’s just starting to grow.

 


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