The spotlight is shining bright on Mikaela Shiffrin and her record-breaking 83rd World Cup win, but the attention has only bolstered the women of the U.S. Alpine Ski Team, who are also grabbing headlines with a slew of notable results. That includes 28-year-old Paula Moltzan, who was right next to Shiffrin on the podium Dec. 29 in Semmering, Austria, where she finished second in the slalom for her first-ever World Cup podium.
The one-two finish marked the first time two American women shared a World Cup slalom podium since sisters Marilyn and Barbara Ann Cochran finished first and second, respectively, in February 1971. Ending a 52-year drought and notching her career-best World Cup result next to her GOAT-chasing teammate was particularly satisfying for Moltzan, who has been enjoying a breakout season in what marks her second stint with the U.S. Ski Team.
The Minnesota native first joined the team as a 17-year-old, a star racer out of the famed Buck Hill program. But after five years on the development team, Moltzan was dealt a blow when she wasn’t asked back to the team for the 2016-17 season. Not ready to quit ski racing, she enrolled at the University of Vermont and embarked on a collegiate career, winning the NCAA individual slalom title as a 22-year-old freshman in 2017 and earning three first-team All-American honors.
Moltzan rejoined the U.S. team full-time after three years at UVM, and the World Cup results soon soon followed. She’s notched 16 top-10 finishes since the 2020 World Cup season, with seven of them coming this season alone. She made her Olympics debut last February in Beijing, where she finished was eighth in the slalom, 12th in the giant slalom and fourth in the team event.
Ahead of the busiest competition week of the year — featuring two GS races in Krontplatz (Italy) on Tuesday (Moltzan DNF’d on her second run) and Wednesday, and two slalom races in Spindleruv Mlyn (Czech Republic) on Saturday and Sunday — Moltzan sat down with On Her Turf to talk about her breakthrough performance, what it’s like to be Shiffrin’s teammate and navigating that life-changing detour.
This Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
On Her Turf: It’s already been a special season and you’re still right in the middle of it, but could you share some overall thoughts about what’s going so well for you this season?
Paula Moltzan: Yeah, I’m having a great season, and that’s been the question: What’s making that happen this year? There hasn’t been much change, except for that I got married in September (to longtime boyfriend Ryan Mooney), so I guess that’s one big change that happened. Obviously, that doesn’t much change the role my now husband has — he’s still in charge of all my equipment and still traveling on the road with me. I don’t know if there have been any big mindset or physical changes, I just think I found my groove a bit earlier than this year than I have in past seasons. And that’s been nice to kind of find the right step in each race and make progress each race series.
OHT: Yes, congratulations are in order! After getting married in September, perhaps the relationship didn’t physically change on the outside, but life can feel a little different once you’re married. What have you found it to be like?
Moltzan: I love being married. Ryan and I have been together for 10 years, so I don’t think much has changed on the relationship side. But I think when you promise your life to someone forever, it’s definitely a big step in your life and it’s something I always knew I wanted to do with mine. And so that it’s finally done — I’m very happy.
OHT: Your skiing career actually spans more than a decade and through two stints with the U.S. Ski Team. You’ve practically had two completely different sets of teammates and coaches. What was the atmosphere and culture like then compared to what it’s like now, and what’s the team evolution been like during your career?
Moltzan: Oh, that is a loaded question. There are tons of answers, right? First and foremost, I’ll put it in terms of myself. I was 18 then [when first joined the team], I’m 28 now. So just as a person and as an athlete, I’ve grown up so much. I’ve learned so much about myself. There’s a lot of self-discovery in sport. But I think, having gone through some challenging times, I’ve grown up and learned to take a lot of responsibility for good and bad. And I think that’s probably the biggest difference in myself from 2012 to 2023.
But besides that, there are some big differences. When I was first on the team, I was a part of a really big development group, and it was super fun. There was really good energy all the time, but maybe there was slightly less focus, right when you’re 18. It’s like this whole new world you walk into. Now this season, we kind of combined the World Cup team and the Europa Cup team, and so my team got really big again. So that’s been a fun and new thing this year. …
I would say a lot of my success can be attributed to two people: one of them is my husband, and the second is my coaching staff. When I was on the development team from 2012 to 2016, I maybe didn’t have as much talent or as much drive to be the best and my staff wasn’t as supportive as it is now. But now with my new coach (U.S. team head coach) Magnus Andersson, he one thousand percent believes in me every single day. He wants me to get better, he is helping me get better, and he knows there’s going to be small setbacks. But that podium I got this year in slalom was kind of one for everybody on my team.
OHT: Let’s talk about that podium! That was a special day. It was your first-ever podium in a slalom World Cup, and the first time since 1971 that U.S. athletes went one-two in a World Cup slalom race. What was that day like for you?
Moltzan: I would say that my slalom has been building for a couple years now, and a lot more so this season. I had a lot of speed going into Levi (Finland, the first World Cup slalom of the season), and it just didn’t pan out for me. I had some really good sections. And same in Killington (Vermont) — I had good sections but just was struggling to find the finish line.
So, going into Semmering, I was just like, “I just need to make it happen. My skiing is so good. If I can just do exactly what I do in training on race day, then it’s all going to be fine.” And so that was my plan going into the race. My parents were there, and so I always feel like there’s a little extra pressure to perform in front of your parents, just because they traveled so far to watch you. But (on race day), I woke up in a really good mindset. I don’t know what it was or what it wasn’t.
After the first run, when I was sitting on the podium, I was like, “Oh my gosh! I’ve watched so many girls miss this opportunity — back off it, just find the finish line. And personally, I was not looking for another top five. I wanted to win, but I also just wanted to be on the podium. And so, pushing out the stargate on the second run, I was able just to find a different mentality and kind of tell myself that normal was good enough. And at last, when you cross the finish line and it is good enough, it’s definitely a pretty reassuring feeling to know that what you can perform on any given day is good enough to compete with the best — obviously my own teammate, Mikaela Shiffrin.
OHT: That was a viral moment — the pictures and video of you two celebrating in the finish area. What did that feel like?
Moltzan: That was pretty crazy. Mikaela and I are 11 months apart age, so I’ve skied with her my entire life. It was a pretty surreal moment. The past couple seasons, we’ve been becoming closer and closer as teammates and as friends, and so I think to share my first podium with her was unbelievable, but also that she’s shown a lot of support for me. Since Christmas, we’ve done some training together and she’s really believed in me — and I believed in me. And so, it was just extra special. That moment was definitely something that’s been in my head like on replay.
OHT: What is that like to have her as a teammate and to have that energy around you? It seems like the women on your team are thriving because of it, and not despite it. Is that correct?
Moltzan: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s definitely visible, right? There’s been a big flip, in the team sense, on the tech team. That’s been building for the last couple years, and I think it stems from a lot of different things. I do agree when other people are skiing well, it elevates your team. And so, although we don’t train with Mikaela a ton because she’s busy competing in four events and training for four events, when we do get the opportunity, the whole level of training goes up.
Her and I go back and forth winning runs in training, and so it’s just those small boosts of confidence be like, “Oh, she’s not unbeatable.” It’s always a nice feeling, and I think it’s good for my younger teammates as well to build off it. They’re like, “Oh, Paula is fast. But she’s also the same speed as Mikaela, so maybe it’s not so bad to be behind her.”
OHT: Looking back to when you were first on the U.S. team, Lindsey Vonn would have been on the team. Was there any overlap or anything that you’ve learned from her during that time?
Moltzan: In my era when Lindsey was on the team… I was only skiing slalom, so I didn’t really have a lot of crossover, but obviously it was pretty inspiring to watch her continuously break records. I would say Lindsey’s turned into a friend and mentor. She’s constantly reaching out and congratulating me, which is a really nice feeling to have. Yeah, to have two international superstars on your side and supporting you — that will always pretty special as a female athlete being supported by other female athletes.
OHT: Let’s rewind a bit. You’ve had a bit of an unconventional path in your ski team journey. Going back to when you lost your spot on the team and had to decide whether to continue competing, what went into your decision to pursue a collegiate career?
Moltzan: I wish I could own that decision and say it was all mine. But I wasn’t asked back to the team. So when you aren’t asked back, essentially you’re uninvited — you’re uninvited to this party that you’ve been invited to for the last couple of years. It was definitely a really like dark-slash-scary time in my life. I had only ski raced for the last five years, and so I wasn’t really sure what the right path was. But I knew I wasn’t done skiing.
Once I got the call that I wasn’t going back to the U.S. Ski Team, I reached out to college coaches, and specifically, I reached out to Bill Reichelt at UVM. [University of Vermont]. And basically, he was like, “This is amazing. Yes, we want you on our team. Let’s make it happen.” And I think within a week, I was enrolled, had housing, and was going to UVM.”
OHT: You probably never even thought you were going to have a collegiate experience.
Moltzan: I guess it was something that hadn’t ever really crossed my mind when I was a younger athlete. But honestly, I’m extremely thankful for the opportunities that my college coaches and my college career gave me. Do I think it’s the most optimal or easiest path for anybody to take? Absolutely not. But I’m happy it was a part of my story because I think it helped me grow up as an athlete and as a person. I definitely think I’m a better person for going to school than I was before. … As a freshman, winning the NCAAs was an all-time high in my life. I think those two moments — my World Cup podium and winning NCAAs — rival each other.
OHT: As the daughter of ski instructors and the youngest of three, growing up skiing at the famed Buck Hill in Minnesota… Did you love skiing as a little kid? Did you have a choice?
Moltzan: Yes and yes to both those questions. Since I was super young, I loved sports. I think I was constantly just trying to keep up with my two older siblings – it didn’t matter the sport or the event. I just wanted to be better than them. I didn’t really have a choice of getting on skis or not. It was just a family thing. My parents would instruct at the local mountain on weeknights and sometimes weekends, and it just was a natural evolution from ski lessons. …I think by age 6 or 7 I could have told you I wanted to be a professional ski racer.
OHT: I read a tidbit that you were in Park City, Utah, where you won a NASTAR race, and that solidified your racing aspirations. What actually happened?
Moltzan: I was 6 or 7, and I’d qualified for NASTAR nationals with my sister and brother. I think I won my age group and my ability level, and I got to meet [former U.S. Ski Team athlete] Kristina Kosnick and I was blown away. I was like, “Oh my god, this is what I want to do.” It was kind of like a drug. I couldn’t stop. And so that really did kind of solidify that I wanted to be a ski racer. Then when I was like 10 or 11, I joined the Buck Hill ski racing team and won all the regionals and I thought, ‘So I’m actually okay at this.” It kind of just spiraled out of control from there.
OHT: You now call Massachusetts home. How did the transition to the East Coast come about?
Moltzan: When I wasn’t asked back to the team, I didn’t really want to be in Minnesota. I was pretty disappointed in myself, and I didn’t really want to be that close to my parents because I felt so bad. I felt like I kind of failed them. So I moved in with Ryan and his parents in Massachusetts for the summer before going to college. For those three years [while at UVM], we’d spend our summers in Massachusetts, because that’s where he is from, and his family has their whitewater rafting business there, and now [it’s home].
OHT: You just said something interesting: that you felt disappointment and also the idea that you disappointed your parents. I feel pretty confident in guessing they told you that is not true, but that can be hard to accept when that’s how you feel. How did you overcome that?
Moltzan: My parents always told me that they have no expectations in my career. They’re just proud of me every step of the way. But I do think you carry a lot of pressure on yourself, that you feel that your family and friends and coaches are putting on you. And that when you do fail, you do feel like it’s a group failure, and you’re letting these people down who have put so much effort and work into your life. And it’s been a constant struggle. Careers go through ups and downs, but those downs can be really hard because you feel like you’re not just letting down yourself, but you’re also letting down your whole team. And to get over it, you just have to stay strong and reconvince yourself that that’s not the case – that they are only there supporting you because they love and believe in you. It took a while, but I definitely got back to a space where I knew my parents never felt that way. But also, I got back to where I felt they were proud of me again.
OHT: Some quick hitters as we wrap. … Are you a goal setter? Are you someone who writes it down and posts it on the wall?
Moltzan: No, definitely not. That’s not really my style. We are required to do goal setting by the U.S. Ski Team, but mine have never been based around results. It’s always technical, tactical, how you approach a day, how you approach the season. And that’s still my mentality. Yes, having achieved a podium is something I think I dreamed about as a kid, but I never was like, “This is going to be the season that happens.”
OHT: What’s your favorite World Cup stop?
Moltzan: Come on! Killington. We love Killington. It’s like my home away from home. I’m not a true Vermonter, but they sure treat me like I am one there, and it’s so special.”
OHT: What do you love about ski racing?
Moltzan: I like the competitiveness. I have been a competitor my whole life. Like I said, all I wanted to do is be better than my siblings when I was younger. And I think that’s still what drives me – that I just want to keep getting better. I’m not ever happy with where I’m at. I’m never complacent, and the views don’t hurt either.