Castilleja senior Madison Ringham took some time to reflect on how far she has come since joining the junior skiing team at the Kirkwood Mountain Resort as a sixth grader.
"I was reflecting a lot as a senior from when I started," Ringham said in a recent telephone interview. "At that time I had no idea I would be competing at this level. I thought my competitive career would end when I got to high school."
Not only has her career thrived, Ringham is going international. On Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, she'll be heading to Kappl-Paznaun, Austria, for the Freeride Junior World Championships, which begin Jan. 24.
Freeride skiing incorporates backcountry skiing, usually in areas not normally designed for public use. In other words, it's off the beaten track and up to the individual skier to scope things out for themselves and set a course that will score points with the judges.
While Ringham is based at Kirkwood, she skis competitively all around the Tahoe area and in Alaska, among other places.
She qualified for the Junior World Championships after winning the Kirkwood Regional and finishing second in three other regionals.
"Selection is normally based on how you place the previous season at Tahoe and in national competitions," Ringham said. "With COVID we were only allowed to compete in regionals, and so they took the top finishers of each regional. I was disappointed there was not a national competition."
The COVID-19 situation was both a blessing in disguise and a frustrating experience for Ringham.
As schools went online in March of 2020, Ringham was fortunate enough to move her base to Kirkwood, from where she had spent nearly every snowy weekend since she was born.
"My parents had it set up where one would ski in the morning and the other in the afternoon, each taking turns watching me," Ringham said. "Finally, when I was two, they put me on skis so we could be together. That also happened with my younger brother (Ryan Ringham, a sophomore at Valley Christian, where he plays football and runs track)."
In March of 2020, Ringham was a veteran of two competitive years on the Kirkwood Freeride team (ages 15-18) after spending several years with the junior team learning freeride skills.
"When I was offered a spot on the freeride team I jumped at the chance," Ringham said. "Since there weren't many girls, we ended up skiing with the boys and they pushed us to get better."
By the time she was ready for competition, Ringham knew she had improved a lot but still had no idea where she fit in.
"I finished fourth in my first competition and I was stoked about that," she said. "The next day I was in another race and I was thinking 'what is going on?' I didn't feel like I knew where I was going."
She won that competition.
Ringham joined Castileja's cross country team as a freshman in the fall of 2018, thinking it would help her develop leg strength. Building friendships was an added bonus.
"They pushed through with me in all the different workouts," she said. "It felt like we were running for each other and we depended on each other. Skiing is not like cross country. While we push each other, it's still an individual sport."
In three years with her teammates, Castilleja won two Central Coast Section Division V titles and twice placed among the top five at the state meet.
This spring, Ringham will be back running track and field with the 4x400 meter relay team.
Able to spend the entire winter of 2020-21 at Kirkwood proved helpful. She had commuted from the Bay Area to Kirkwood every weekend during winters, sometimes getting stuck in traffic that added hours to what is normally a 3-4 hour drive.
As Ringham was about to start her senior year of high school, the Caldor Fire, which eventually consumed over 221,000 acres near South Lake Tahoe, broke out. Two weeks later, it reached Kirkwood.
"I was really scared about what happened," she said. "I grew up in Kirkwood and I didn't know if we would lose our house or not. The firefighters did a great job. I was able to watch the webcams and see them go up the car lifts. I had friends there who could see it creeping closer."
And then she saw the effects first-hand.
"It got close but everything stayed intact." she said. "You can see the burn scars even with the snow. Mainly we're all just thankful."
There was a lot of snow.
"I was living in Kirkwood during the record snowfall and just living it up, skiing every day," Ringham said. "I started learning new tricks."
Which helped lead her to the Junior World Championships, where unlike her previous competitions, she will be unable to complete a practice run before she competes.
"The first time I ski the venue will be my competition run," she said. "In preparation for this change, I have been visually inspecting lines at Kirkwood, Emigrant Lake, and even last weekend when I went to Sugar Bowl.
"The main thing I look for are markers that tell me where to go, like mounds of snow or trees, and try to memorize my path from the visual inspection only. It is much harder to inspect this way and adds a bit of nerves to the competition."
Ringham started a GoFundMe account to help her make the trip.