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Newport’s Mimi Wiencke, 24, is the top ranked women’s alpine snowboard racer in the country and is America’s most promising Olympic hopeful in two events - the parallel slalom and parallel giant slalom - for 2014. (Photo courtesy of Keri Pickett)

The race for Sochi: Newport resident Mimi Wiencke is top U.S. Olympic hopeful snowboarder

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In 1998, Mimi Wiencke made it her goal to go to the Olympics someday. This month, Wiencke starts the home stretch of a journey she hopes will end in Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Winter Games.

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Wiencke, 24, is the top ranked women's alpine snowboard racer in the country and is America's most promising Olympic hopeful in two events — the parallel slalom and parallel giant slalom — for 2014. 

A member of the U.S. World Cup Team, Wiencke was raised in White Bear Lake and currently lives in Newport when she is not traveling and competing on the World Cup and Continental Cup circuits. 

“I’m nervous, for sure, and anxious for the culmination of all these years of training to come to fruition,” Wiencke said. “This is the first year where I definitely have a real possibility of going to the Olympics.”

Wiencke was invited by the U.S. Olympic Committee to register for the 2014 Games, and will be heading to Europe for Olympic trials in December and January. The U.S. Olympic Snowboard Racing Team will be selected following the trials, with the Sochi Olympics opening on Feb. 6. Wiencke left Newport this past week for Colorado to compete in a pair of North American (Nor-Am) Cup events and to begin training for the Olympic trials.

“I’m really excited and I’m nervous, but I’m trying to keep that all down,” Wiencke said. “If you make it the end-all, be-all to get into the Olympics you’re not doing yourself any favors. I’m trying to take it one day at a time and focus on training and these upcoming races and not look too far ahead.”

Alpine snowboard racing has been an Olympic event since the Nagano Winter Games in 1998. That year, too, Wiencke qualified for her first United States Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) national championship race for her age group (8-9 years old). 

“The big thing that got me on the course I’m on now was the first year snowboarding was in the Olympics, in 1998,” Wiencke said. “Back then it was just half pipe and giant slalom. But, I watched that and knew that’s what I wanted to do. I’ve been working for that ever since.”

In the world of competitive snowboarding, there are two broad divisions — freestyle and racing.

Freestyle events are judged events including: Halfpipe, slopestyle and big air. Racing events are strictly speed and timed events including snowboard cross and alpine snowboard racing.

Since the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, snowboard racing has become a parallel event — with two competitors racing head-to-head in parallel courses to the finish line. After qualifying runs, there are four elimination rounds. Each elimination round consists of two runs, with each racer in a heat racing in one course and then switching courses for their second run. Therefore, to place first through fourth in any parallel event requires making it through a total of 10 runs.

This year, in addition to parallel giant slalom, parallel slalom will debut in the Olympics – it’s the same racing format, but the gates in each course are set closer together, and shorter boards are used to compete.

“My sport is a sort of separate from the more popular part of snowboarding and what people think of with the half-pipe and the tricks,” Wiencke said. “It’s still snowboarding, but it’s probably closer to ski racing. Snowboarding in general has grown a ton since 1998, but my side of the sport is a little bit different. It dropped off for a while, but is really picking up again. I’m kind of in this new generation of snowboard racers coming up.”

Wiencke has been competing nationally since the age of 7 and internationally since her junior year at White Bear Lake High School. 

For her senior year, she moved to Colorado and began training with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club (SSWSC), which has produced more Olympic athletes than any similar program in the country. Since then, her coach, Thedo Remmelink — a 1998 Olympian and coach of the 2006 U.S. Olympic Team — has been grooming her for this upcoming Olympic year. 

“This was definitely something that came pretty naturally,” Wiencke said. “The first day I started snowboarding I was able to turn on my first run. I’m naturally really competitive, too. I pushed myself pretty hard at a pretty young age.”

Wiencke ended last season winning the North America (Nor-Am) Cup overall title and achieving the highest ranking among U.S. women on the World Cup Tour and at the World Championships. This past season also saw her earn four trips to the Nor-Am Cup podium where she collected one gold medal, two silvers, and a bronze. She also posted her best finishes to date on the World Cup Tour — 14th in parallel slalom and 17th in giant slalom — where results are measured in hundredths of a second and the spread between first place and 50th can be as little as three seconds. 

From a conditioning standpoint, Wiencke is in better shape than she’s ever been. In addition to working a full time job this summer to help fund her passion for snowboard racing, she’s been training on snow at Mt. Hood with Remmelink along with working with dry land coach Travis Rogers of Success Personal Training in Maplewood and nutritionist Michelle Juneau of Peak Holistic Health out of Colorado. 

“It’s been a long, hard summer, but I’ve worked really hard and am the fittest I’ve ever been,” Wiencke said. “I’m ready I think.”

Now, Wiencke aims to qualify at this season’s Olympic trials and be among the rarefied athletes who will travel to Sochi to race for gold while inspiring a younger generation of American snowboard racers.

“There’s tons of kids getting into snowboard racing again, which is great to see,” Wiencke said. “It makes me really happy to be part of the top riders who are inspiring these kids to get racing again, because it’s a lot of fun.”

-Patrick Johnson

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