ASPEN, Colo. — Kiley Staples possesses a golden pass so powerful it just might help the promising U.S. ski racer jump start her career again.
By virtue of capturing the Nor-Am overall title last season, Staples gains automatic entry into every World Cup event in 2011-12.
Every single race.
Those words still sound almost too good to be true.
Staples plans on taking full advantage of holding skiing's version of a winning lottery ticket, beginning Saturday in the giant slalom at Aspen Winternational, which will mark her first World Cup event in nearly two years.
There was a time when the 22-year-old was one of the American skiers to keep a close eye on, someone who could ski every discipline, just like teammates Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso. But injuries held Staples back.
Fully healthy and coming off her best season yet, Staples is eager to get her career back on track.
"I've lost time, but I feel like I'm back to where I was before I got injured," Staples said after finishing up a freeskiing session on the giant slalom course Friday. "That's the only way I can look at it. I'm back to where I was, skiing as well as I ever have."
Three years ago, Staples was voted junior racer of the year by Ski Racing. She was well on her way to making her mark on slopes, possibly even earning a spot on the Olympic team bound for the 2010 Vancouver Games.
But that ambition ended when she tore her left ACL during a training run in the spring of 2009. She hit a rut on the course in Park City, Utah, landed awkwardly and heard her knee pop.
There went eight months. Along with it, any shot at the Olympics.
Since then, Staples has been steadily working on getting stronger and rounding back into form.
Last season, she took a giant leap forward as she won two events on the Nor-Am circuit — skiing's version of the minors — and finished on the podium in six more races. That helped her edge out teammate Julia Ford by 126 points for the overall title.
"To accomplish that was really satisfying and proved to myself that I'm back and can do this," said Staples, who also was bothered by a bone bruise in 2008.
On Saturday, Staples will step into a World Cup starting gate for the first time since Jan. 17, 2010, in Maribor, Slovenia.
That's emotional enough. But then there's this: The race comes at a venue that will no doubt trigger thoughts of her late father.
Mark Staples used to watch his daughter zip through the course when she was a forerunner at this competition. Back then, she was simply testing the slope out for the rest of the field.
This time, she's in the field. She knows her father would have appreciated that.
"This would make him happy," said Staples, whose father died three years ago of a heart attack. "Skiing is our way of life. We're a ski family."
Her father fostered that passion, raising all five kids to be avid skiers.
"It's tough with him being gone," Staples said. "But I know he would be excited for us."
Staples is joined on the ski team this season by her younger sister, Sydney, who made the development squad. But her season was recently derailed after she hurt her knee while training at Copper Mountain.
After the competition in Aspen, Staples will travel to Lake Louise, Alberta, for a series of World Cup speed races. Then, she will participate in a few Nor-Am events — just to stay sharp — before heading over to Europe for more World Cup action.
Might as well take the utmost advantage of her golden pass, especially if it might help her earn another spot next season.
"My goal is to score some World Cup points and take a step up," she said. "I feel like I'm ready to start stepping it up on the World Cup circuit again."
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