Hailey Duke aims to work her way back to Olympics after brain surgery

ccripe@idahostatesman.comOctober 6, 2013 

  • HOW TO HELP

    A fundraiser for Hailey Duke will be held Oct. 29 at 10 Barrell Brewing Co. in Boise. The event lasts from 5 to 9 p.m. and features raffle items and a silent auction.

    For more information on Duke, visit haileyduke.com. You can follow her on Twitter, @haileyduke.

    Also, you can watch Duke’s YouTube video explaining her tumor and surgery by clicking on this story at IdahoStatesman.com.

On Feb. 5, 2013, doctors removed a benign tumor from Idaho skier Hailey Duke’s pituitary gland.

On Feb. 7, 2014, the Winter Olympics open in Sochi, Russia.

Duke, cut from the U.S. Ski Team after the 2011-12 season because of declining performance and unable to compete on the World Cup circuit for most of 2012-13 because of her tumor, has made it her goal to ski in those Olympics.

She finished 30th in the women’s slalom in the 2010 Olympics.

“I know where my skiing is and I know where it can be,” Duke said. “The funny thing is, I’ve already done that. I’ve already gone through these steps and I’ve already climbed the ladder. It’s a path I’ve already kind of bushwhacked through already. Now I get to go back through it again and with a way better advantage — first, I have a lot more experience and a lot more smarts about me than when I was 21; and my health is a hell of a lot better.”

Duke’s path is short — there isn’t much time — and in some ways simple.

In skiing, results prevail. She expects to compete in four lower-level events beginning in November — one in Finland and three in Colorado. If she produces high finishes there, she might be able to attract the attention of the U.S. team and get one of its coveted spots on the World Cup circuit — the ultimate proving ground.

Her career-best World Cup finish is eighth.

“With ski racing, even if you’re at the top and it looks like you’re completely guaranteed (a spot), there are no guarantees,” Duke said. “It’s more realistic than people understand. The only way I’m going to prove that is just by going out there and doing it.”

Her coach, Patrick Purcell, gives her a 50/50 chance. Purcell worked with Duke in 2006, when she was on the Park City (Utah) Ski Team, and accepted her offer to coach her comeback this summer.

“She’s got a huge performance demand right up in November,” Purcell said. “She’s got to Babe Ruth this thing. She’s got to hit a home run. And she knows that. That’s kind of the exciting, fun aspect of it.”

Duke, 28, hopes her health — and the training benefits it provides — will allow her to overcome the odds.

She can trace symptoms of the tumor — fatigue and inability to recover from difficult workouts, among them — to when she was 17.

The tumor was discovered last fall after a routine blood test indicated something was amiss. She was about to embark on an independent season on the World Cup.

“It was a shock and a half,” Duke said.

Doctors expressed two concerns — that the tumor could grow and press on the optic nerve, causing blindness, or get so close to the carotid artery that it couldn’t be removed safely, she said.

They tried treating it with medicine while she competed in four World Cup events in late 2012.

“I had every side effect listed,” she said.

She stopped taking the medicine and stayed on the road in Europe, but her health didn’t improve enough to compete.

She opted for surgery. Any nervousness about the scope inserted through her nose and near her brain was erased by eagerness to get her life back on track.

“Luckily, of all the brain surgeries you could have, this one was the most accessible,” she said. “… When I came out of it, my first thought was, ‘I take it back. This does not feel good.’ ”

By April, she could work out.

By June, she was skiing in California.

She spent July skiing in Oregon and recently spent 10 days on snow in Chile.

“It’s like a whole new body — it’s pretty awesome,” she said.

Now it’s time to find out what that body can do.

And for that, she has to tell her story to strangers.

Skiing independent of the U.S. team means she has to foot the bill for her expenses. She already has raised money to cover training and coaching, but she still needs to fund her travel for competition.

The Capital High grad has settled in Sun Valley, where she was born.

“The last thing I want to do is sit people down and have a giant conversation about me,” she said. “… It’s one of the more brave things I’ve done. It’s not like I have a marketing degree. I’m having to make it up on my own.”

She’s more comfortable with the pitch she plans to make to the U.S. Ski Team — the one where her skiing does the talking.

“They know what I’m capable of,” she said. “I’ve been their athlete — I was on there for five years. They know my potential. They just need to see the speed again.”

Purcell remembers a similar Duke story from seven years ago. Three years out of high school, she needed to make the U.S. team or move on.

She made it.

“She’d never been to a U.S. team camp,” Purcell said. “She’d never been nominated to the team. She didn’t have exceptional results when she was younger. She just had fortitude and perseverance. … That’s why you can’t write an athlete like this off. She’s just full of stick-to-itiveness.”

Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat

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