Two years before Sarah Hoefflin won Olympic gold in slopestyle at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, I met her on a secluded beach in Thailand. Hoefflin, a member of Switzerland's national ski team, was in Southeast Asia to recover from an ACL tear sustained during a training camp in Austria.
Recovery was tough on her and she contemplated quitting skiing competitively. But it was her love of the sport that motivated her to push through. No one, including Hoefflin, expected she'd be standing on the top of the Olympic podium just two years later.
Going into her final run in PyeongChang, Hoefflin had scored an 83.80 and a 27.80. She needed a big run to claim the gold. With her final jump, she hit a switch left side double 900, which earned a score of 91.20 and secured her gold medal.
Born in Geneva, Switzerland, Hoefflin moved with her family to England when she was 12, which meant a transition from skiing every weekend to only a handful of times each year. It was on a university-sponsored ski trip when she was 20 years old that she entered her first freestyle competition—and won.
The following year, she set aside her career goals in medicine and joined the Swiss Ski Team.
While winning has never been Hoefflin's primary motivation–she gets more satisfaction from landing a new trick, she says–after a victory like hers in PyeongChang, she's as dedicated as ever to perfecting her craft.
When did you start freestyle skiing?
I was just doing my thing on the ski trip. I was doing little 360s off the side of pistes and one of the guys came up to me and said, "You should do the freestyle competition." I had literally never watched it before. I had no idea what it even was. That was when I went into the park for the first time in my life.
Is that when you began skiing competitively?
Yeah. I did the ski competitions at university. I won them all with my 360s. I learned to do backflips during that time, and was winning comps with a backflip. Then after university, I was like, I want to go do a ski season. And that's what I did.
How did you go from winning competitions to joining the national team?
The Swiss team and Swiss coach were at one of my first ever competitions–the SFR freestyle tour in Val Thorens in 2015. I didn’t win the competition, but after my run, the coach asked me if I wanted to join the Swiss team. After joining the team, I was able to train with a coach and it also allowed me to ski year-round, which is so good for practicing tons and learning new things.
Did you feel like you were late to the game, starting your career in your 20s?
At first, I did, until I broke my ACL at 25 before competing in my first ever World Cup tour. When I came back the following year and still managed to do well, I realized it doesn’t really matter how old I am anymore. Also, I think my level matched the girls’ level when I started competing on the World Cup tour two years ago. If I started the World Cup tour now, I would have absolutely zero chance of doing well because the women's level in freestyle skiing has increased so much in the past couple of years.
When we met, you had torn your ACL. What was that recovery like?
I spent six months at home doing rehab. For me, it was a little bit of a race, because I only had six months to get better before going to Thailand. And then I really wanted to go from Thailand to New Zealand to ski.
Did you ever consider giving up your pursuit of skiing professionally after your injury?
I had this huge doubt about whether I should continue or find a real job. I've always thought it's easier if you're already a pro and then you have an injury. For me, it was really hard. It seemed too out of my reach.
So, I did think about just quitting and just skiing for myself instead of being a pro. I didn't really think about if I wanted to be a pro or not. I just wanted to ski. The general rule is if you work well at something–if you ski well–you'll get wherever you want.
What motivated you to keep pushing forward?
I just really love skiing. I wanted to get back to it. I knew that I got to a level that was quite good before. My coach had been pleased with me and I thought, well, maybe I have a shot at this.
What was your experience like and what were you feeling while at the Olympics?
It was an awesome park, but I was so nervous. I actually had three days of training that went really badly. I hurt my heels. I had hurt my knee a little bit at the X Games two weeks before. I was stressed and nervous.
I wasn't really liking it. Then it got to the actual day and I was like, why am I worrying? It's just skiing. If worst comes to worst, I go home and I'm an Olympian. Just have fun.
Was there a point where you realized you could win?
After my run, I did have a feeling when I landed that it was a podium position. I never knew I was going to win. For me, it's not about the results. It's about how I ski. And I was really, really stoked that I was able to get the switch double in my run. The whole run went well and I was really pleased.
What was it like coming home to Switzerland?
I did a ceremony in Geneva, and it was probably the craziest day of my life. It was just non-stop. We went from A to B to C. It was just interviews, smiles, and selfies. Then interviews, more selfies, and autographs. I was like, what the hell is this? I went on two TV shows. I don't even know which ones. That night I felt sick because I was so tired, so exhausted. I was like, woah, this is way beyond anything I could have ever imagined.
Has life gone back to normal for you yet?
I'm still being invited to do interviews now and I still have invitations to do things, which I think is really cool. I enjoy it. I just don't want things to change too much. I don't want my motivation for skiing to go. I don't want this to change the fact that I really like skiing. I don't want to be just a media monkey at the expense of skiing.
Does competing change the way you approach skiing?
Not really, except that I maybe ski less since I compete. You don’t really get to ski as much when you travel and compete a lot.
Have you set your sights on a second Olympic win?
I have no idea! Anything is possible. It's four years. It's such a long time away. I definitely want to keep skiing. I think I'll just stop when I get sick of it. At the moment, I really love it. I really like traveling and being with the team.
What's next for you?
I still have a lot of tricks that I want to get better at. I don't think my level at the Olympics is the end or the best I could do. I could do so much. I could learn some new doubles. I want to keep doing that. There's no point trying to say, "I want to be first. I want to win, this or that." If you want to win it, you've got to be better than everyone else. So, you should really focus on skiing.