Dedication, faith lift Truckee skier to elite level

Special to the Sun
Courtesy of Guenther BirgmanSugar Bowl Ski Team racer Mark Engel of Truckee was named recently to the U.S. Ski Team.

Reaching the pinnacle of athletic success and making the U.S. Ski Team is a long journey most athletes can only dream of achieving. The hard work, dedication, financial hardship and personal sacrifice typically go unnoticed by most. Defying the odds through his sheer tenacity, a strong faith and the unwavering support of his family, Truckee local Mark Engel was recently named to the 2011 U.S. Ski Team.

Growing up as a smaller kid, Engel always had to work harder and ski a cleaner line to remain competitive. He started his career on the Alpine Meadows Ski Team at age 7, but chose to move to the elite program and coaching offered by the Sugar Bowl Ski Team when he turned 11.

Engel tuned his craft and his skis with meticulous precision to become a great technical skier. His results started to reflect his skills when he earned back-to-back FIS victories at Sugar Bowl at the end of 2007 season. The 2008 season started strong, but unfortunately, Engel suffered a season-ending injury when he tore his MCL later that year. Fighting back from injury, Engel slowly began to regain his competitive form; it took about a year and a half before he would retake the top step of the podium.

Probably the largest influence on Engel’s skiing was legendary Austrian ski coach Guenther Birgmann, who’d been recruited by Sugar Bowl Academy when Engel turned 17.

and#8220;I remember struggling with my mental attitude and trying to deal with too much self-imposed pressure,and#8221; Engel said. and#8220;It was my first big race of the year at the Utah Tech series where I’d struggled before, and I asked Guenther, and#8216;How do I not mess up?’ Guenther looked at me and spoke with his classic Austrian accent and said and#8216;It’s red gate, blue gate, right foot, left foot; just ski down the hill!’ I had one of my best performances at that race.and#8221;

Shortly after, Engel thought about giving up competitive ski racing, because he felt it was more important to follow his faith and attend the Horizon School of Evangelism in Southern California. At his last race that season, Engel said he didn’t feel any pressure at all, and#8220;Because in my own mind I was already done with racing and it didn’t matter as much. and#8230; But then I realized that there aren’t a lot of Christians who have the opportunity to share their faith with an audience of elite-level athletes, and I saw it as an opportunity share my faith and continue racing.and#8221;

That’s when things started to click.

Last year Engel won 14 FIS races, starting with back-to-back GS victories at Jackson Hole, Wyo.

and#8220;I didn’t qualify for the early-season Nor-Ams. I was a little bit bummed but still had some other races to go to,and#8221; Engel said of his season. and#8220;I remember Guenther telling me, and#8216;It doesn’t matter what races you go to; you need to ski fast.’ That comment inspired me and things started to fall into place. After that, I got some World Cup skis from Atomic and was able to ski consistently fast through the end of the year.and#8221;

At the end of the season, Engel was named to the U.S. Ski Team by virtue of making the objective criteria requirements.

As a club-level coach in the Western Region, later as the Western Region Coach, and now as Engel’s current coach, U.S. Ski Team coach Brad Saxe said he has enjoyed watching the Truckee skier grow as a racer for a number of years.

and#8220;He was never the biggest guy or the one you pinned for certain success,and#8221; Saxe said. and#8220;The success he did achieve was personally inspiring to me because his situation reminded me of my own youth and#8212; always the small guy that had to work harder than others.

The coach attributed Engel’s success to his work ethic and his approach to his sport.

and#8220;He lives and breathes ski racing. He is the consummate student of the game,and#8221; Saxe said. and#8220;As coaches we really have a very small impact on the whether or not an athlete reaches the pinnacle of sport. Only an athlete that has a high level of intrinsic drive such as Mark can have an impact at the highest levels. Mark’s faith and his drive have carried him to a spot on the U.S. Ski Team and will propel him to success on the international level.

and#8220;I, for one, feel lucky to be able to watch it happen first hand.and#8221;

Engel’s career record includes 20 FIS victories, an additional 16 podiums and eight overall Western Region Championship titles. He was recently named the recipient of the Lake Tahoe Ski Club’s inaugural Bud Jones Memorial Scholarship and has been supported by Sugar Bowl and Treble Cone Race Academies, Far West Masters and the Dave Van Ruiten Memorial Scholarship.

and#8220;It’s been a great honor being named to the national team, and I couldn’t have done it with out the support of my family and everyone who’s helped me along the way,and#8221; Engel said. and#8220;I’m really excited to take my skiing to the next level of international competition and I can’t wait to get back on snow!and#8221;

and#8212; This article was submitted to Sports Editor Sylas Wright at

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