Vesterstein's Olympic dream started in Duluth, reaches Beijing, with Estonia in the middle
Duluth native will be competing in two Olympic events for the nation of her grandfather's birth at the Beijing Olympics.
DULUTH — It's hard to find three points on the globe further apart than Minnesota, Estonia and China.
At the center of this global journey is a dream, held by Katie Vesterstein, a University of Utah skier with Duluth roots.
Vesterstein, 22, will be competing for Estonia this month at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing in both the women's slalom and giant slalom. Her journey started here and has hit several other points in between.
It starts with a scene one could easily imagine as part of a television commercial: Mom and Dad bring a cherubic little girl from the bunny hill at Spirit Mountain to the nearby McDonald's.
“I definitely remember those days as a kid. There was never really a point where I don’t remember skiing,” she said to the News Tribune from Utah on Friday before departing for China on Sunday morning.
That's not exactly the beginning for the Vesterstein family.
Paul Vesterstein came to the United States from Estonia, then a part of the Soviet Union, as a displaced person in the aftermath of World War II. He was sponsored by and worked at the Duluth Area Family YMCA and got a degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1953. Skiing was part of his family's heritage before he came over, but in 1957, he combined this heritage and some investments from friends into a ski shop. The family has since sold it and moved on to other ventures, but it stands as Continental Bike and Ski today.
Paul Vesterstein always kept his native country close as his business career continued, up to and including hosting the president of a newly independent Estonia on a state visit to Minnesota in the 1990s.
That's where Katie, his granddaughter, comes in.
She quickly outgrew the bunny hill, and by age 7, Katie and her family started to pursue ski racing.
“It was always trying to be better, I always wanted to go faster, it was like, 'I don’t want to wear the harness and I want to go on my own,'" she said.
Chasing her goals
Katie and her family moved out of the Northland at about age 10, lived for a few years in the Twin Cities and started getting even more serious. Her sophomore year of high school was devoted to the junior national team. By her senior year of high school, she'd moved out to Utah in pursuit of bigger mountains and more opportunities. By 2016, she was competing and finishing in the top 20 at the U.S. national championships.
She walked on to the Alpine ski team at the University of Utah. Utes Alpine head coach J.J. Johnson said he first saw Vesterstein's competitive side when he made her an alternate for the NCAA championships in her first season and how that drove her to earn the right to be on the team.
“Her work ethic with how she trains and the ability, she’s gotten the most out of what she can get every day,” Johnson said.
Like in many collegiate sports, coaches are limited in how many hours they can spend with their athletes, who also have academic responsibilities. But when it came to training and discipline, Johnson said Vesterstein didn't need to be reminded, saying, "I have to cut her off from what she does because she’ll overdo it. How she got to where she is now has been basically from persistence, and just going and training and working on things and always wanting to be better.”
The Utes ski team has won the last two national championships that have been completed (the 2020 event was abandoned midway through because of the initial outbreak of COVID-19).
In addition to the successful results, the university benefits from the legacy of the Salt Lake City Winter Games, which took place 20 years ago this month. The Olympic stadium for that event was on the University of Utah's campus, and just last month, Vesterstein raced in Park City on the same hill where Janica Kostelic of Croatia won a gold medal in 2002.
Vesterstein was a second-team All-American in 2021, finishing 10th in slalom in the NCAA meet. She has three career podium finishes at Utah, including a pair of runner-ups to Amelia Smart, a World Cup racer and 2022 Canadian Olympian.
But Vesterstein is not simply an all-work, no-play type. When the snow disappears, she hops on her dirt bike and is a top racer there in harescramble and enduro races. Though the dirt bike trails are more horizontal, she said there's a lot of carryover with ski racing.
“It’s both looking for a line and trying to find the fastest way from point A to point B,” she said.
Racing for Estonia
In 2018, Vesterstein officially changed her "skiing nationality" to that of her grandfather's country. The Estonian ski federation had been considering Vesterstein for the 2022 Games for over a year, and her exploits at the collegiate level helped her earn enough FIS (Federation Internationale de Ski) points to qualify.
“It’s really exciting to compete for a country that’s so involved and behind me in a way,” she said.
Estonia has competed in its own right in the Olympic Games as far back as 1920 (1928 for the Winter Games). After the country, located due south of Finland across the Gulf of Finland, broke away from the Soviet Union, it has participated in every Olympics since 1992. Estonia has won seven Winter Olympic medals, all of them in Nordic (cross-country) skiing.
Vesterstein is the only female Alpine skier in the Estonian delegation, which includes a male Alpine skier and 24 other athletes.
Her first race will be 10:15 a.m. Monday (8:15 p.m. Sunday, Duluth time), as the giant slalom begins the women's ski program. The slalom is scheduled for 10:15 a.m. Wednesday (8:15 p.m. Tuesday, Duluth time).
Though there's no simulating an Olympic environment, Vesterstein has seen evidence of the competition level she is to face all around her. Twelve current and former University of Utah skiers are participating in Beijing, representing five national teams.
Johnson said there's not a lot of words to describe when the athletes you coach take their abilities to the pinnacle of the sport.
“We consider all our athletes our kids. It’s proud, it’s exciting. It brings back all the emotions you had as an athlete. It’s really, really fun and gratifying to see them chase after their dreams and go.”
Because she hasn't raced against many of her potential competitors, Vesterstein was hesitant to state a particular goal other than to focus on the process and put together clean runs in both events.
“I’m hoping to just gain a lot of experience and exposure to being around some high-level athletes and take away some key learning points from it,” she said.
After the Games, Vesterstein plans to use the extra year of eligibility granted all 2020-21 athletes by NCAA waiver to ski and work on a master's degree in finance.
It's too soon to tell if this is a one-time opportunity, but she's looking forward to making the most of the cultural opportunities of the Olympic experience.
And no matter where she finishes, she'll be able to reap the benefit of dedication and discipline she picked up in those long days between the bunny hill at Spirit Mountain and the starting gate in China.
“It’s only propelled me in all aspects of my life. Regardless of making the Olympics or not, I’d say it was worth it, 100%,” she said.