Angeli VanLaanen isn't just a competitor in the new Winter Olympic sport of freeskiing, she's a fan - almost to 12th Man-like standards.
In one of the biggest competitions of her life - so far - VanLaanen said she got so wrapped up in being a fan, she almost lost sight of her own aspirations.
After skiing her final run in the final women's halfpipe event the United States Ski Team was using to choose the squad it will send to Sochi, Russia, to compete in next month's Winter Olympics, VanLaanen turned into a spectator on Feb. 18 in Park City, Utah.
"I was just so excited about how I was skiing," VanLaanen said in a phone interview from Aspen, Colo., this week as she prepared to ski in the Winter X Games. "I was cheering on my friends skiing ... and really enjoying the final round. It wasn't until Brita Sigourney, my friend and teammate, whispered in my ear that I was going to the Olympics, and that was the first moment it hit me. Until then, I was cheering on my friends and just having a good time. When I realized it, I turned around and was like, 'Mom, I'm going to Sochi!' I had my whole family and a lot of friends there. It was so special."
VanLaanen, who graduated from Bellingham High School in 2004, will become the fourth Bellingham-born athlete to compete in the Olympics and the first since Fred Luke threw the javelin at the 1972 Munich Summer Games. VanLaanen also is the first Winter Olympic athlete and the first female Olympian from Bellingham.
"I read that, and I was amazed," VanLaanen said. "I just feel honored to have that special spot. It's so cool."
The honor VanLaanen said she is most looking forward to is walking with the rest of Team USA during the Opening Ceremonies, scheduled for Feb. 7.
VanLaanen, 28, said she will leave for Russia with the rest of the team in early February.
"I can't wait to be a part of the Opening Ceremonies," said VanLaanen, who is scheduled to compete in the halfpipe on Feb. 20. "In my eyes, that's one of the biggest honors. Walking in, representing your country is such an honor. I've been watching the Olympics since I was little, and that always seemed like such an honor."
Earning that privilege did not come easily for VanLaanen.
She had to fight her way through a difficult qualifying process against a group of American freeskiing women that are considered by many as some of the best in the world.
Her quest started off strong, as she placed second in the women's superpipe at the first qualifying event on Dec. 13 at the Dew Tour iON Mountain Championships in Breckenridge, Colo.
Despite battling the flu, according to Twitter posts, VanLaanen managed to finish eighth at the second qualifying event three days later at Copper Mountain, Colo.
A sixth-place showing Jan. 12, at the Visa U.S. Freeskiing Grand Prix presented by The North Face in Breckenridge kept her in good position to claim a spot on Team USA's roster, setting up one final push on back-to-back days at the VISA U.S. Freeskiing Grand Prix Jan. 17-18 in Park City, Utah.
"We were competing close to where I'm living now in Utah, and I had a lot of friends and family there to cheer for me," VanLaanen said. "I was so excited to compete."
But that excitement turned into concern during practice leading up to the event, when VanLaanen took a hard fall.
"I pulled a quad muscle in my right leg, and my back was pretty sore, too," VanLaanen said of the effects from the fall. "Going into the competition, my coach (Luke Allen) and I sat down, and we started strategizing. We wanted to make sure we didn't further injure the quad. Taking care of my body is always my first concern."
On the first night of competition, VanLaanen said the injuries didn't bother her through the early parts of either of her two runs. But both times on her final trick - an alley-oop 360 - sticking the landing became an issue.
"I was able to get through the whole run both times that first night until that last trick," VanLaanen said. "On the alley-oop 360, you land with your weight on your right leg, and my leg gave out on both runs. I wasn't able to get in a clean run."
The result was an eighth-place finish.
"It put a lot of pressure on me for Saturday," VanLaanen said. "I knew it was my final opportunity to earn a spot to Sochi. We spent all day taking care of my body. I got physical therapy from the U.S. team doctors and got super warmed up and mentally ready to ski my best."
And on her first run on Jan. 18, that's exactly what she did.
"I felt I gave it my all," VanLaanen said. "Landing that first run on Saturday was the best feeling. I had gotten through all the adversity of the weekend, and I put together a run to show my potential in the halfpipe. At that point, it didn't matter where I finished or how I scored. Knowing I did my best and had a flawless run, that was the best feeling. That was a win in itself."
VanLaanen received a score of 88.20, which stood through the second runs and was good enough to earn the win and make her an automatic qualifier for the Olympics with her second podium finish during the qualifying process.
"It turned out to be a run that allowed me to place high and grab a top spot and a win, and it was enough to help me meet the criteria I needed to earn a spot to Sochi, and I got to share that with my family and friends," VanLaanen said.
Making that celebration even more special for VanLaanen and her family and friends is what she had to overcome to get there.
Coming back from a pulled quad and sore back to win is nearly nothing considering VanLaanen is not even two full ski seasons removed from a three-year absence from the sport when she was treated for Lyme disease, an ailment she contracted when she was bit by an infected tick when she was just 10 years old. The disease went undiagnosed for 14 years.
"It has been amazing - my friends, family and the community, the fans, everyone has been so supportive," VanLaanen said of her comeback. "It's been really the most amazing show of love I've ever experienced. People have really believed in me and thanked me for sharing my story. I feel a lot of times, I questioned if I would be able to come back to this. I hope people see if you give it your all, it really doesn't matter if you win or lose. In my eyes, if you do that, you're a winner."
And winning on this particular weekend was extra emotional for VanLaanen, as Jan. 19 marked the two year anniversary of the death women's freeskiing legend Sarah Burke.
Though the Canadian was a pioneer in the sport who was instrumental in getting the International Olympic Committee to include the two freeskiing events of halfpipe and slopestyle in this year's Olympics, she meant much more to VanLaannen.
During a camp in Whistler that introduced VanLaanen to the sport, Burke took the young Bellingham skier under her wing to teach and encourage her, and a close friendship and mentorship was born.
"Since I came back to halfpipe after recovering my health, I've really carried Sarah with me and remembered what she instilled in all of us," VanLaanen said. "Having last weekend the same anniversary as her passing, it was extremely powerful and emotional. I was feeling her presence."
It's a presence VanLaanen plans to carry with her and enjoy when the sport finally becomes an Olympic event next month.
VanLaanen is part of what figures to be a very talented U.S. field.
Joining VanLaanen in the women's halfpipe will be California skiers Maddie Bowman and Sigourney and Annalisa Drew, a Massachusetts native who was added to the team last week.
"The U.S. field for the halfpipe is the strongest field in the world," VanLaanen said. "It was such a grueling Olympic trials process with so many events because we have so many athletes that needed to have a chance to reach for that spot. ... All four of us that made it have been skiing really strong this season. We're going to be able to go and share with the Olympics and the world what our sport is made of. On the men's side, it's the same exact thing. They had such close competition on the last day. They're sending four athletes that are more than equipped to medal in Sochi."
While VanLaanen is excited about the opportunity to compete for an Olympic medal and sell her sport to a world audience, she said she's anxious to take in a number of other sports while she's in Sochi.
"I'm really looking forward to meeting other athletes in other sports," VanLaanen said. "For so long, we've been in our own little bubble of freeskiing. It's going to be amazing to see other sports and go watch and cheer for other athletes. I'm looking forward to seeing ice skating, bobsledding, boarder cross, curling - so many sports that I haven't been able to see live. I so excited about this amazing opportunity."
Reach David Rasbach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2286.
By qualifying for the 2014 Winter Olympics in the women's freeskiing halfpipe, Angeli VanLaanen becomes the fourth Bellingham-born Olympian. She is also the first female and the first Winter Olympian who was born in Bellingham. The first three:
Athlete Born Olympics Sport Finish
Paul Jessup 1908 1932 (Los Angeles) Discus Eighth
Roy Rubin 1941 1960 (Rome) Men's Coxed Fours (Rowing) Seventh
Fred Luke 1946 1972 (Munich) Javelin Eighth
A quick look at the athletes making up the United States' freeskiing team in halfpipe with their Association of Freeskiing Professionals ranking as of Jan. 19 in the event:
WOMEN Born Resides Age AFP Ranking
Maddie Bowman South Lake Tahoe, Calif. South Lake Tahoe, Calif. 20 First
Annalisa Drew Lawrence, Mass. Andover, Mass. 20 Eighth
Brita Sigourney Carmel, Calif. Carmel, Calif. 24 Second
Angeli VanLaanen Bellingham Salt Lake City 28 Sixth
MEN Born Resides Age FTP Ranking
Aaron Blunck Englewood, Colo. Crested Butte, Colo. 17 Second
Lyman Currier Boulder, Colo. Boulder, Colo. 19 Seventh
David Wise Reno, Nev. Reno, Nev. 23 First
Torin Yater-Wallace Basalt, Colo. Aspen, Colo. 18 Third
Most, but not all, of the team the United States will take to Sochi has been set. Here is a look at the members of Team USA who have ties to the state of Washington who are heading to the Sochi Olympics:
Athlete City Sport
Erik Bjornsen Winthrop Cross country skiing
Sadie Bjornsen Winthrop Cross country skiing
J.R. Celski Tacoma Short tracking speedskating: Men's 500, 1,000, 1,500, 5,000 relay
Patrick Deneen Redmond/Cle Elum Freestyle skiing: Moguls
Brian Gregg Winthrop Cross country skiing
Torin Koos Leavenworth Cross country skiing
Christian Niccum Woodinville Luge: Doubles
T.J. Oshie Everett Men's hockey
Angeli VanLaanen Bellingham Freeskiing: Halfpipe
Ashley Wagner Seabeck Figure skating: Ladies' singles
Bellingham's Angeli VanLaanen will be competing in freeskiing's women's halfpipe, one of 12 sports making its debut in the Winter Olympics next month in Sochi, Russia (four of the eight listed events feature will award medals in men's and women's competition):
? Biathlon mixed relay: Teams of two men and two women will compete together. The women will open the relay by skiing two 6 kilometer legs, before the men do a pair of 7.5 km legs.
? Figure skating team event: Teams will be made up of six skaters - one man, one woman, one pair and one ice dancing couple. Points will be awarded for each routine.
? Luge team relay: Teams will be made up by one men's sled, one women's sled and one doubles sled. All three will slide down the track, one after another, with the close stopping only after the third sled has crossed the finish line.
? Freeski halfpipe: Men's and women's athletes will perform an array of trick and big airs in the halfpipe and will be judged on technical execution, amplitude, variety, difficulty and use of the pipe, much like in snowboarding's version of the halfpipe.
? Freeski slopestyle: Men's and women's skiers will combine airs and tricks on a 565-meter course featuring rails and jumps before being scored on execution, style, difficulty, variety and progression.
? Snowboard slopestyle: Much the same as the freeskiing slopestyle events, but men's and women's athletes will be on snowboards.
? Snowboard parallel slalom: Men's and women's riders will race two at a time down the same slope on two parallel courses outlined by gates.
? Women's ski jumping: 2014 will mark the first year women get to compete in the same sport the men have been doing for years, as they will jump from the normal hill.
Reach DAVID RASBACH at email@example.com or call 715-2271.