Meet Ansley Park’s Zoe Taylor
Zoë Taylor’s house in Ansley Park is filled with boxes, ready for her annual trek west to Colorado. Any former hesitation the Taylors had about their daughter transplanting her life each winter to train with the nation’s best telemark skiers are long gone, as quickly as she blazes through a course, crouching, lifting her heels and making the signature “tele” turns with expert dexterity.
Taylor left Saturday for her other home in Steamboat Springs, Colo., where she attends high school like any typical 16-year-old, but also trains and competes as the youngest member of the U.S. Telemark Ski Association’s “A” Team.
This season alone, her squad will travel to Austria, Slovenia and Spain, among other places for competitions.
Always on the move, this young star on skis.
Telemark skiing differs significantly from alpine skiing in equipment and approach. The boots are softer and allow for greater mobility, and the bindings are different, securing the toes while allowing the heel to move up and down. To make the “tele” turn takes balance and lower body strength.
“I have more fun when I do it,” Zoë said. “It adds a whole other level of complexity that you don’t really get on alpines.”
She’s used to being ahead of her peers with boots and poles. She first skied when she was 18 months old, and her first time on telemark skis was at age 6.
When she was 11 in 2006, Ken Recker, then captain of the U.S. National Telemark Team, spotted her taking on “Blue Ox,” at the time a double-black diamond (for experts only) run at Colorado’s Vail resort. He skied up to her father, Kenneth, and asked, “Is that your daughter? Have you thought about her racing?”
Truth be told, they hadn’t. But so adept was young Zoë that she competed at the U.S. Telemark Nationals that year and finished sixth, helped by the tutelage of telemark guru Ned Ryerson. The following year, she finished second at NASTAR Nationals, and Recker encouraged the Taylors to consider living seasonally in Steamboat Springs for her to make a truly serious attempt at the sport.
The Taylors noticed a change in their daughter as she showed such astounding prowess at the sport at a young age, beyond the normal validation of one’s abilities by high finishes at elite competitions.
“I think we were starting to see this real spark, and it was having a really amazing impact on her confidence and the way she envisioned herself was being shaped by this idea of being an athlete,” said Michéle Taylor, Zoë’s mother. “And we thought, ‘How can we not support that?’”
In winter 2008, when Zoë was in eighth grade, they rented a home in Steamboat Springs and it paid off as she made the U.S. Developmental Team at age 14.
Since then, she’s continued to progress. This past winter Zoë finished second overall in the U.S. National Championships elite division, which included runner-up finishes in the slalom, grand slalom, classic and sprint classic events.
“There were a couple races where I was extremely close to first place, and getting that sense and that feeling and realizing that I am really good at it was really a confidence-booster,” she said.
Like any sport, Zoë said, a lot of skiing is mental.
“Once you’re in the course, you can’t really think about anything, so I try to get my heart rate up, get excited and right before my race try to calm down, think about the course in sections and choose a word per section to focus on,” she said. “I think about the course and think about my strategies and race.”
Her family’s always had good timing on the slopes. Zoë’s parents met at Lake Tahoe, Calif., when they were seated in the same two-chair lift. It was held up for about 30 minutes during a driving snowstorm and Kenneth apparently claims he telephoned his mother that night to say he’d met the woman he’d marry.
That chair where they met now resides in the backyard of their home in Ansley Park, turned into a swing.
Yet, there’s also a lot to endure in choosing this living situation during her high school years. She splits time between Paideia in Druid Hills and Steamboat Springs High in Colorado.
There’s a physical toll as well. During her career, she’s suffered a bruised tibia, a sprained MCL and one spill severe enough to cause a concussion, whiplash and soft tissue damage in her lower back.
But there’s something about being on the move and whipping by those gates that keeps her going.
“It was always a hobby and I enjoyed it, but when I started racing I really enjoyed it,” Zoë said. “Actually being out there and racing and competing made me fall in love with it.”
Telemark skiing is still waiting for the ultimate respect of being named an Olympic sport, and Zoë said she’s confident it will be a part of the Winter Olympics by 2018.
Outside of skiing, she engages in an array of pursuits, including speaking to girls’ groups, running cross country, hiking the Appalachian Trail, singing in Harmony, an Atlanta youth chorus, and serving as an ambassador for Outdoor Nation, which mobilizes youths, hosts summits and provides grant money to promote outdoor living.
She’s also volunteered at Buckhead’s Shepherd Center and potentially may pursue a career in medicine.
“Right now my goal is to focus more on what I can do after skiing, because the skiing is an amazing part of my life and it’s really important to me, but I also do know that there has to be [something] beyond it and after it,” she said.
But in the meantime, those older skiers might want to watch their backs.