Updated: Feb 28, 2021
By Annelie Hyatt.
In four years, alpine racing at Columbia has transformed from a casual, loosely organized niche in the Ski and Snowboarding Club to a vigorous team whose members have competed at nationals three years in a row. Leading this ambitious turnaround was captain Natalia Dorogi, SEAS ’21, who breathed a second life into the group with her insatiable passion for the sport and for team spirit—increasingly precious qualities given the isolation and apathy of remote school.
I was not sure what to expect when Dorogi appeared on Zoom, dressed in a seafoam-colored sweater in the New York apartment she shares with her sister. We started conversing in the animated, curious manner of strangers searching for some equilibrium. I got comfortable easily; Dorogi is as amiable and bright as she is reflective and attuned to detail.
“It all started on a really small mountain near my home in Central Massachusetts,” Dorogi recalled. “It was Super Bowl Sunday, and I was four years old. The mountain was empty and I just laughed a million times over.” She paused to chuckle at the memory, then admitted, “At least that’s the anecdote that my parents love to tell.”
Dorogi continued to develop her love for skiing throughout her childhood by attending ski training camps in New England with her family. “We’d make these fun day trips out of it,” she said. “Some families would have these winter homes up there, but we would never want to pay for a hotel or have that money to do that, so we would leave at 4:00 a.m. and stop at these maple houses and country stores in Vermont. I loved these kinds of adventures.”
Since then, skiing has been a form of social intimacy for her.“When you’re going up the ski lift, you’re going up for five to seven minutes,” she said. “And yes, it’s a sport where you’re going down the mountain, and you’re having fun there, too. But you’re really just spending time with your friends.”
Illustration by Brooke McCormick
Moreover, it rarely feels as cutthroat as some other sports. “The one thing I can say about skiing is that it’s all about you,” Dorogi said. “It’s your decision making on the slopes. It’s your preparation on that day. And it means that no one is your competition. You end up being friends with everyone and that is really unique in sports.”
Dorogi especially pushed against the idea that skiing is an essentially solitary sport. “Yes, it’s an individual sport and you’re going by yourself, but how you do really contributes to the team,” Dorogi pointed out. “For example, we’ve qualified for regionals, and from regionals to nationals, and the way you qualify is as a team.”
While participants can use their individual scores to advance to regionals or nationals, team advancement requires a certain score that cannot be attained by one member alone. The idea of team spirit in the Alpine Racing team would have been unheard of four years ago. While the Ski and Snowboard Club itself had a large community, the racing team did not, partly because of its high commitment, which demanded professionalism and a substantial fraction of one’s free time. Perhaps most problematic was the club’s want of social cohesion: when Dorogi joined, she observed that many found practices boring and uncomfortable if they weren’t friends with others on the team.
Dorogi sought to change this. Over the course of her first year at Columbia, she and her friends created ski practices that soon became mandatory for joining the club. These introduced many club members to racing as well as to the experience of being coached in the sport.
“You build it with a couple people who are really excited about it,” Dorogi said. “And once three to four people are really excited, more people catch on and say, ‘I didn’t think I would do this in college.’ It’s become a community where you’re just hanging out with your friends.”
In her freshman year, Dorogi attended regionals in Vermont. Many of her teammates came to support her. While she had originally been nervous for the event—outside of the standard pre-racing pressure, she was struggling from an undiagnosed ACL injury—she performed well enough in her races to proceed to nationals by herself.
Dorogi remembered the moment after her second race at regionals fondly: “No one else came to race except for me, but everyone was waiting at the bottom for me. And then they hear my time and we look at each other, and one of them started playing ‘We Are the Champions.’ And it was this whole feeling that we were excited together.”
The next year, they qualified for nationals as a team.
“I was so excited,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to be alone.’ It was just so exciting that there was this momentum from the previous year that led to all four of us going together.”
Nationals were held in Jackson Hole. There was a feeling, among them all, that this competition was not an end but a step toward someplace greater that they could only reach as a team.“We now had four people, including myself, who thought that skiing was amazing,” Dorogi said. “Who thought that the ski team is really good at Columbia, and we want to make it better.”
Last year, the alpine racing team entered unexplored territory when both their men’s and women’s team qualified for nationals.
“Both the girls’ and the guys’ team were supporting each other, bringing each other’s coats down, and talking a lot,” Dorogi said. “We also had race practices. For context, in some of the race practices that I started, there’d only be three of us going. And then this year, there’d be eight of us going on Monday night to ski in New Jersey.”
Nationals this year were held in Lake Placid, shortly before Columbia University moved online. The pandemic has, predictably, halted the alpine racing team’s activities. For Dorogi, this change has meant both aborted endings and aborted beginnings.
“You spend all these years on the team, and your senior season is your last hurrah,” Dorogi said, “And then it’s like, just kidding.”
This year would have also been her sister Kaya’s first season on the team, as a freshman: “My sister and I, we were gonna have a season together. But I still have some kind of hope—I might try and complete my master’s at Columbia, which would give me another year.”
Dorogi is also hoping that the outdoor setting of the sport, as well as the necessity for face covering regardless of the pandemic, might render team participation feasible in the coming semester.
The alpine racing team has been transformed from a small, informal community to one dedicated to competing at the highest level, and it fosters a deep camaraderie as part of that competition. This community is built on an acceptance of skiers at all levels, which Dorogi has promoted throughout her years at Columbia.
“My co-captain on the men’s side, Grant, is an incredible ski racer who was close to skiing at a top school,” she informed me. “So there’s this range where it’s people who are at the far end such as him and people on the other end who hadn’t skied a lot when they were younger. We’re all together on this team and excited about working toward this goal. Ability doesn’t matter as much, and it’s more about coming together and cheering for your teammates.”
Dorogi has also made participating on the ski team more accessible for those who struggle to afford the sport’s steep initial costs: “We have made dues significantly less expensive. And then beyond that, I’ve given some of my old racing skis to people on the team. We’ve always been thinking about how we can make it more sustainable for more people.”
Part of this comes from Dorogi’s personal experiences; she’s been using the same set of skis since the beginning of high school, and her sister uses her old ones. This can sometimes impede performance, as, unsurprisingly, skiing is easier on more pristine equipment. But Dorogi has accepted her circumstances, and focuses on what she can control.
“I can’t really control how much money I have to buy a nice pair of skis, but I can focus on my attitude at practice,” Dorogi said. “Am I going up or going down? Am I spending time with the people I want to spend time with? Am I focused? Am I doing extra workouts so that I’m a little stronger? All these little things add up.”
Dorogi sees the sport as a means through which she can reflect on herself and her performance and find strategies to better herself. She compromises neither her ambition nor her community focus as captain of the alpine racing team: While it might have been easier to set her sights on making it to nationals alone, Dorogi has labored tirelessly to enable other students to race alongside her.
“It’s not just throwing your body down a mountain really fast,” she said. “It’s going up the mountain for ten minutes with your friends.”