On February 3, the day of his 20th birthday, Berkeleyan Keith Moffat, strapped on his skis, tightened his helmet and stood at the top of the downhill course in the mountains of Crans-Montana, Switzerland.
The starter went off and Moffat careened out of the gate, gathering speed as he raced down the course that had been set up for the Alpine Junior World Championships. Moffat, who had been ranked the #2 downhill racer in the world for his age in 2010, finished the course in 1:38:16, garnering him a fourth place finish. It was the best American time in a sport that is usually dominated by Europeans.
“It was tough but I’m happy with how I skied,” Moffat told a reporter on the scene. “Right now I’m just looking forward to the super G and hopefully get an opportunity to slide in there tomorrow.”
That opportunity never came. As Moffat, a Berkeley High graduate now studying at Dartmouth College, was warming up for the super G, he collided with another skier and fractured an elbow and broke his left leg.
“He came over a little knoll and there was a recreational skier there,” said Moffat’s father, David, an architect in Berkeley and an editor at UC Press. “He hit the guy and crashed. He was trying to avoid him.”
It was a bitter blow for the young athlete, but Moffat has overcome much more difficult obstacles. In January 2010, during a race in Austria, he tore his ACL and the meniscus in his knee, which required surgery and took months to recover. Bone breaks are easy in comparison, he said.
“It was an unfortunate event,” said Moffat last week from his home in north Berkeley, just a day after he returned from Switzerland. “I was injured last year. I feel with this one it is a lot easier to cope with because I know I can recover from this.”
Remarkably, Moffat is not the only Berkeley resident on the U.S. Ski Team, and not the only injured Berkeley racer either. Foreste Peterson, 17, a junior at Berkeley High and a new member of the “D” or development team, broke her ankle earlier this year.
Most members of the U.S. Ski team have grown up in mountain resorts, like Park City, Utah, Vail, Colorado, or even Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe. It is unusual to have even one, let alone two, members from an urban area.
But from the time Moffat was two and a half, he has loved to ski. His family traveled to Squaw Valley every weekend and enrolled the three boys in the resort’s “Mighty Mites” program. (All three have been racers) By the time Moffat was eight, he had made the Squaw Valley Ski Team.
“The minute Keith gets into the mountains he exudes happiness and he has since he was five,” said his mother, Wendy Walker, a college consultant. “He is happiest while skiing.”
Moffat, who also loves soccer, spent one year in normal classes at Berkeley High and then transferred into the school’s independent study program so he could race during the winter. Peterson is also in the independent study program.
Moffat graduated from Berkeley High in 2009 and went off to Dartmouth, which recruited him to be on both its ski and soccer teams. Darmouth is on the quarter system, which permits Moffat to take off the winter quarter and not miss too much school, said his father. He has been on the U.S. Ski Team for two seasons, first on the developmental team and then on the “C” team. There are four tiers in the U.S. Ski Team, ranging from A-D with A being the highest.
Moffat is a powerful skier and in 2010 was the top-ranked male skier in the United States in his age group in the downhill, giant slalom, and super G. He was ranked #1 in the world for his age in the super G, #2 in downhill, and #7 in giant slalom, according to Walker.
“He is highly focused and committed,” said Walker. “Skiing is both a team sport and an individual one and Keith thrives in that atmosphere.”
Walker and David Moffat had traveled to Swtizerland to celebrate their son’s 20th birthday and watch him compete. They were there when the accident happened, and stayed with him while he was helicoptered to a hospital for surgery and during the long flight home.
Competitive athletics is inherently dangerous and athletes get hurt all the time, said Walker. The family is trying not to dwell on Moffat’s injury, but look to next year when he will return to the U.S. Ski Team on its C team.
“It’s a physically challenging sport, particularly when you are a speed skier,” said Walker. “You have to stay positive and look forward. This is just standard fare for skiing, let alone ski racing.”
But Walker is not happy about the conditions that led to Moffat’s accident. He should never have been in the same area as a recreational skier, she said. While World Cup races segregate racers from recreational skiers, the Alpine Junior World Championships does not.
“They should have a dedicated area for warming up,” said Walker. “They do at the World Cup. This is the equivalent of the World Cup for juniors.”
Moffat is already thinking ahead to next year.
“Racing is a thrill,” he said.