Uncle Donnie Takes On the World
Skier David Donaldson ’13 takes a leap of faith, from the carnival circuit to the World Cup
The Georgian Peaks Club is a small ski area in Ontario, carved out of a section of the Niagara escarpment that runs along the south shore of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. A couple of hours northwest of downtown Toronto, Georgian Peaks has a modest vertical drop of 820 feet. Think of a ski area slightly smaller than the Middlebury College Snow Bowl (1,000 vertical), but with stunning lake views.
David Donaldson ’13, one of the best alpine skiers ever to compete for Middlebury, is a Toronto native and got his start skiing and racing at Georgian Peaks. His parents, Paul and Catherine Donaldson, and his older sister, Sarah, were regulars at the Peaks by the time David came along. His first stop was the day care program. That lasted till he was two and a half.
“I think I made such a fuss in the Peaks day care while my parents, my sister, and all the other kids were out skiing that they finally couldn’t put up with me anymore,” Donaldson said, “and they just let me go, even though I was probably too young to start. The ski areas are all pretty tiny, and you can just let kids go and ski as much as they want. So I was able to just go as fast as I wanted, and I guess I learned how to do that pretty well.”
Well enough to excel in junior racing, make it to the cusp of the Canadian national team, and become one of the most decorated college skiers ever. Now he’s taking on a new challenge: Jumping from NCAA competition straight to the World Cup, hoping to make Canada’s Olympic team for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. And he’s doing it mostly on his own.
A talented athlete, Donaldson played soccer, hockey, golf, and baseball, all at a high level, in addition to skiing. “David played every sport full tilt,” says Catherine Donaldson. “In skiing, you couldn’t get him off the hill. The lifts closed at 4:00 or 4:30, and the kids would always take the last ride, and it would take them forever to come down. They’d go off in the woods, build their own jumps.” Sarah Donaldson Kennedy says it helped her brother to have “an older sister, and all her friends, that he needed to keep up with.”
After thousands of hours on snow at the Peaks, Donaldson rose through the ranks of junior skiers in Ontario. He’s now about 5′ 11” and 175 pounds; at 15 he was tiny, weighing maybe 85 pounds, when he began skiing in races sanctioned by the International Ski Federation, known by its French acronym, FIS. But he persevered—and grew—and soon was competing for a spot on the Canadian national team. He never quite cemented a place on the team, though, and after some frustrating seasons, he was ready to give up on skiing when an old friend from Ontario, Johnny Davidson, called to suggest he consider skiing on the NCAA circuit for the University of Vermont, where Davidson had skied and was then a coach. Two years at UVM ensued, including a fistful of carnival wins, two All-American awards, and an NCAA giant slalom championship.
He spent the next season again trying to make the Canadian team, during which his eligibility at UVM ran out. Then Stever Bartlett, head coach of the alpine ski team at Middlebury, reached out to Donaldson, offering him the opportunity to use his remaining college eligibility skiing for the Panthers. Because of NCAA rules, Donaldson couldn’t ski right away. “First, he had to spend a year in residence at Middlebury,” said Bartlett. “He couldn’t race in carnivals. But he hit the books, and he was out there every day, working with the other skiers. [Assistant alpine ski coach] Abby Copeland and I were floored: Here was a guy who couldn’t race; he could have been pissed off and grumpy. Instead, he pitched in and helped out. He showed some pretty good maturity.”
Katelyn Barclay ’15 was one of five first-year women on that year’s team. “We had a fairly young team, and Donnie was coming in at 25,” said Barclay. “At a place like Middlebury, you don’t usually see a 25-year-old athlete of Donnie’s caliber. . . . We all saw him as the ‘cool uncle’ . . . and we started calling him Uncle Donnie, and eventually the name really stuck around campus and then on the carnival circuit.”
When Donaldson did get a chance to ski for Middlebury, in the 2013 season, all he did was win six carnival races: five in GS, including the first four in a row, and one in slalom. He had a rough time in GS at the NCAAs, held at the Snow Bowl, but rallied to finish second in slalom, leading the men’s team to its second straight slalom title.
The biggest news for Donaldson came after the NCAAs were over. Based on his performance in Nor-Am Cup giant slalom races, he earned a starting spot in every World Cup GS for the 2013–14 season. That made some slightly amazing things at least theoretically possible: He could use his World Cup results to qualify for the Canadian team and perhaps even make the Olympic team for Sochi.
He spent the off-season getting ready, both in the gym and training on snow, in New Zealand and Chile.
His first-ever World Cup start came in Sölden, Austria, in October, and while he had a good first split, his day ended early when he skied out in the first run. In December, the World Cup circuit moved to Beaver Creek, Colorado.
Giant slalom day, December 8, on Beaver Creek’s Birds of Prey course dawned cold, with enough snow coming down to cause a race postponement. Once things got going, the fireworks came early. U.S. Ski Team star Ted Ligety demolished the field, and teammate Bode Miller finished second.
For Donaldson, starting 48th in his first North American World Cup, the goal was to finish in the top 30, to qualify for the second run, which is where you can score World Cup points: 100 points to the winner, down to one point for the person who finishes 30th. But even with his parents, his sister, and his brother-in-law in the stands cheering him on, it didn’t happen. He had a good top split on the demanding Birds of Prey course, but he got late and low on a gate about halfway down the course. He finished—the first time he’d finished a run on the World Cup—but missed the second run by four-tenths of a second.
“I just had nothing left in the tank,” Donaldson said in the finish area. “I spent it all up top and got down here and just had to fight to get to the bottom. I felt like I had a good run going. But then I made a big mistake. I had no legs, and I just couldn’t get high enough. I lost my speed there and had no speed for the whole bottom section.”
The day after Beaver Creek, Donaldson was on a plane for Europe and the iron of the World Cup schedule. He competed in GS on the tough track at Val d’Isère, France, known to racers, for good reason, as Val Despair. He didn’t finish the first run. Then it was on to Alta Badia, Italy, one of the most storied GS hills in the world, where he again was a first-run DNF.
The rough start illustrates why skiers rarely jump to the World Cup from college racing. World Cup courses are much tougher, half again as long, with surfaces that are often snow in name only. Race organizers firm up courses by injecting water into the surface or by tilling the snow and hosing it down. It’s not quite skating-rink hard, but close.
And for Donaldson, there is also the matter of tackling the World Cup on his own. Catherine Donaldson says her son “has been his own coach for a long time. He had a brief cup of coffee with the Canadian team. But otherwise he’s had to do it all on his own. He sets up his own trips, rents his own car, works on his own skis.” He does connect with the Canadian team at World Cup sites, but he’s otherwise a one-man band.
Forest Carey ’00 also came to college ski racing after chasing World Cup success. A three-time All-American and later head alpine coach for the Panthers, he’s now head coach of what’s called the World Cup multi- group for the U.S. Ski Team. His charges are Ligety and Miller, arguably the two best skiers in the history of the U.S. men’s team. “It’s cool to see David coming from college to earn a World Cup spot on his own,” Carey said. “He’s got eight starts on the World Cup that no one can take away from him. That being said, the challenge is enormous. The Nor-Am circuit is a good one, but it’s all in the comfort of North America. The courses are shorter and not typically prepared with water; you don’t get the gnarly conditions that you find regularly on the World Cup.”
Carey pointed out the importance of equipment at this level. “He’s probably preparing his own skis, and that adds a lot to the burden. And he’s having to ski on new equipment,” thanks to some FIS rule changes governing World Cup GS skis, making them longer and thinner, with less sidecut. “The guys on the World Cup have it pretty well sorted out. They’re skiing as well now on the new stuff as they did on the old skis. Donnie will still be getting used to them. With all that, and having to deal with his own finances, it’s just a huge challenge. To be ranked in the top 30 on the World Cup at the end of the year would be a huge success.”
Those who know him best will tell you that Donaldson is nothing if not persistent. Which is why he’s determined to come back and finish up the courses he needs to get his Middlebury degree. But first, there’s the matter of chasing the dream that began at Georgian Peaks almost 25 years ago.
Kip Harrington, head coach of the Canadian development team, has coached Donaldson and known him for years. If Uncle Donnie’s quest seems at times quixotic, Harrington reminds us that Donaldson, once just a skinny kid, “has been a little bit behind the curve all the way along. But he’s always gotten there eventually.”
Tim Etchells ’74 is a freelance writer in Ferrisburgh, Vermont. In the winter months he’s more likely to be found on the ski slopes—either at the Snow Bowl or at ski racing events near and far, covering the sport for national magazines.