By Tom Kelly
Auden Pankonin clicked into his Head skis, pulling his goggles down over his Shred helmet. He nervously moved toward the starting wand, placing his Leki pole tips into the snow. His young mind was racing, thinking about the advice Olympic champion Ted Ligety had just given him.
The Welch Village racer from Hudson, Wisc, who skis with legendary coach Jim “Bubba” Coyne, had been in this position before at the Nature Valley NASTAR Nationals. But this was different. It was the Putnam Investments NASTAR Pacesetting Trials at Copper Mountain. There was a lot on the line for the number-two-ranked 7-year-old in America.
Last month, nearly a thousand racers sent in their view of “What Makes a Champion,” all for an opportunity to ski with Ted Ligety. Auden’s talked about his love for practice, the importance of sportsmanship and having fun. Ligety picked the winner himself.
“Auden’s video was awesome,” says Ligety on stage at Copper Mountain. “I chose him because I really liked his answer about passion, practice and perseverance."
“Ted Ligety is my favorite skier,” says Auden, now a whopping 8 years old. “I’ve watched him on TV a lot."
At 8 years old, Auden is a bit young to be starstruck. So he and Ted fit together well. “I was really happy when I first met him,” says Auden. “We met up at the racecourse. He told me to keep practicing and to always have fun."
There’s a lot to be said about that simple advice. It has to be fun.
As the start click clicked down, Auden looked pensively down the course on Lower Bouncer. At the bottom, Copper Center Village was filling with skiers. He began to focus. “I was just thinking about going down the course.”
Then he was off, arcing turns like a mini-Ted, gate after gate, before crossing the finish line to the cheers of his hero. But there was little time for high fives as Ted and Auden were whisked away for interviews with NBC. Team press chief Megan Harrod helped Auden wipe the snow off his skis and get his gear set for the cameras, standing next to one of the greatest ski racers of all time.
With their NASTAR runs in the books, it was time to go. But not so quickly. “Hey, Auden,” shouted Ligety, “let’s go and check out the super G.” So Ted and Auden went back up American Eagle, skiing down to the U.S. Ski Team Speed Center where the two slipped the super G course and wrapped up the storybook morning with hot chocolate at Copper Station.
There’s a lot to be said about the impact of heroes and role models. Auden Pankonin came to Copper with dreams. When Ted Ligety was Auden’s age, he had dreams, too. He was a young kid rubbing shoulders with the likes of Alberto Tomba and Michael Von Gruenigen at Park City’s America’s Opening. Who knows if Auden will point back to this day when he’s in the starting gate at the 2026 Olympic Winter Games?
It was a whirlwind day. Auden met fellow Minnesota native racers Lindsey Vonn and World Junior Champion Paula Moltzan. He met Champ, the U.S. Ski Team mascot.
But, most of all, this was Auden’s day to truly learn What Makes a Champion. Ted Ligety was that champion — as a ski racer and as a role model. He helped create a perfect day for a young ski racer. And he helped create a dream.