CARRABASSETT VALLEY, Maine — It took the biggest loss of Hig Roberts’ life to get him back on his skis.
It’s a loss he said he wants back more than anything, but Tuesday, on the foggiest of days at Sugarloaf for the U.S. Alpine Championships, Roberts had one of his brightest days since that loss.
Roberts sat in third place in the men’s giant slalom after his first run, but catapulted to first after a blistering second through the hazy mist on the arduous Narrow Gauge trail.
A few tense moments later, after the final two skiers finished their runs, Roberts was a national champion.
“It all happened so fast,” Roberts said. “Whenever you do really well, you don’t really know what’s going on. It’s kind of hard to process. I never counted (Tim) Jitloff or Ryan (Cochran-Siegle) out.”
Jitloff and Cochran-Siegle, a pair of U.S. Ski Team racers, still had to run as Roberts waited.
Five-time National GS champ Jitloff came across the line 0.14 seconds back. Then, a voice boomed from the speaker: Cochran-Siegle, the winner of Saturday’s super-G, had gone down and wouldn’t finish.
“I just sat there and didn’t really pay attention, and kind of let the cheers do the talking,” Roberts said.
It was a cheer that Roberts didn’t get that he said left a void in his excitement.
His younger brother, Murphy, died last summer, and after that Roberts said he wasn’t sure what was going to happen with a promising career that included breaking onto the national team the previous year.
“He always saw me as someone who could do anything, and keep pushing this dream I have,” Roberts said. “To not have him here is the most empty feeling in the world. These days are awesome, but you want to have a call with him, you want him to text you.”
Roberts skied independently this year, but had help from his technician Eric Dasko, who made his way to finish line to share a long embrace with Roberts after the win.
Murphy was there in spirit for Roberts, as well.
“Every run is for Murphy,” said Roberts, who sports “Send it for Murph” on his helmet, and his brother’s initials on his undershirt. “I believe that I’m doing this for a reason, and I’m doing well right now because I’m keeping him close to heart, and I’m not letting that special bond and that push he always had for me go away.”
Roberts said he had a good feeling about Tuesday’s race. Even getting bumped around through the middle of the course — a point where he said he yelled out Murphy’s name — couldn’t stop Roberts from winning a national title.
Neither could Jitloff.
“They’re not that easy to get,” Jitloff said. “You know, I have seven of them, and each of one of those was hard work to get. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. That’s why I say I think Hig can be pretty proud of himself today. He skied great in very challenging, difficult conditions.”
Jitloff, who was 0.04 seconds ahead of Roberts after the first run, said the conditions were just as tough a competition as the other racers.
“The top was pretty dark, and the bottom was pretty much zero visibility, so it was definitely challenging. It opened up a little in the middle there, but you know, it had all the makings of a challenging second run,” Jitloff said. “I tried to fight through as best I could. I found myself in some trouble. I went on my hip on the top section there just because I was trying to go for it.”
Jitloff settled for second, 0.15 seconds ahead of third-place finisher Kieffer Christianson, the defending event champion who ended Jitloff’s four-year reign in giant slalom last year.
Christianson had his own troubles Tuesday just before his first run.
“My zipper broke as I was about to go, so it was nice that I was able to get some help and zip-tie it,” Christianson said. “It’s a pretty disadvantage with your suit flapping, so it was nice that they were able to help me out.”
Christianson said he was able to get back into it mentally, but couldn’t say for sure if his suit zipper issue played a role in putting him in fifth place after the first run.
He was able to leapfrog David Chodounsky, who finished fifth, and the DNF for Cochran-Siegle put Christianson on the podium.
Cochran-Siegle had to settle for one title this week, and he ironically made it to the finish area with just one pole, as well.
“Lost my pole, lost my hand up top and then had a lot to come back from, had some trouble in the midsection and skied out,” said Cochran-Siegle, who held a 0.49 second lead over Jitloff after the first run.
Brian McLaughlin, 10th after the first run, finished fourth.