YANQING, China — Redmond native Katie Hensien clenched her teeth and reached her hand forward as she crossed the finish line during her second of two Olympic slalom runs Wednesday.
Her solid white coat and pants matched a shining white helmet. Blue-colored streaks on her shoulders complemented a red vest with the Olympic rings and Beijing 2022 written in white.
The 22-year-old, who grew up on the slopes of Crystal Mountain, took a deep breath and let out a sigh of relief. Coasting into the long walkway back to the media center and locker room, she shrugged her shoulders when her time — 53.88 seconds — flashed on the Yanqing National Alpine Skiing Centre jumbotron.
“Honestly I was hoping for something faster,” she told The Times. “I thought I was aggressive where I needed to be and kept good speed for most of the run.”
Hensien finished 26th overall in a loaded field of the world’s top slalom skiers, good for second-best among a powerful U.S. squad featuring three-time medalist Mikaela Shriffin, top-10 ranked Paula Moltzan and late-entry AJ Hurt, who filled in for the U.S. team after Nina O’Brien suffered a broken leg in Sunday’s giant slalom event.
Moltzan led the Americans with an eighth-place finish. Shiffrin, for her second straight event this week in Beijing, crashed out after clearing just four of 65 gates on Wednesday’s course. Slovakia’s Petra Vlhova took gold with a time of 52.09.
Hensien admitted she’d probably feel better about her result once the adrenaline wore off. Skiing 40th in the field of 88 athletes on her first run, she made it down the 211 meter vertical drop course in 55.43 seconds. Racing after 39 skiers ranked ahead of her, she said the icy course made purely of artificial snow had developed some wear and tear that slowed her down.
Ranked near the bottom of the event’s competitors in World Cup standings, she acknowledged just qualifying for her debut Olympics was an “incredible” feat in itself. A senior at Denver University, Hensien was one of 11 women picked to represent the U.S. women’s Alpine skiing team as she juggled schoolwork, World Cup events and competing at the university level.
The workload is not for the faint of heart, but Hensien hopes her example — highlighted by Wednesday’s better-than-expected performance, will encourage aspiring women Olympians who also want to go to college.
“Everyone on the team respects Katie and looks up to her,” Moltzan said. “The way she’s always trying to challenge herself is a mindset that makes us all better.”
Hensien joked that life off the slopes in Beijing feels like a blast from the past, back to her freshman year in college — she’s sharing a dorm-style suite with Moltzan and Hurt in the Olympic Village.
“We rearranged the place to make it as spacious as possible, moving all of our wardrobes together so they look like lockers,” Hensien said. “We’ve had a good time trying on all our Team USA kits together.”
The trio said they’ve bonded together during the past week in the village and especially at the athletes’ dining hall. Hensien has been in awe of other athletes in the village, where “everyone is the best in the world at what they do.”
“It’s just surreal, like I still have to pinch myself.”
Wearing a mask, taking daily COVID-19 tests and being banned from seeing Beijing is not exactly how the Redmond native dreamed about the Olympics growing up. But she sees a silver lining: it’s allowed her to focus more on skiing.
Hensien has also relished the only place besides the village and slopes she’s been allowed to go. And if it’s up to her, Beijing won’t be the last time she’ll have the honor.
“Walking into the opening ceremonies as a member of Team USA was one of the most special feelings I’ve ever had,” she said. “It’s something I’ll never forget and something I want to be a part of again.”