In her first ever FIS alpine World Cup — in Levi, Finland, in mid-November — Ava Sunshine did what no U.S. skier had done in two decades. She scored world cup points in a slalom race (a feat accomplished by finishing in the top 30).
“I knew it was in me to make the flip,” Sunshine said about her results in Levi, using ski-racing lingo to refer to earning a second run. “I talked to my technician on the gondola before the race, and we were just saying how I had nothing to lose, I had done no world cups, no one’s really expecting anything.”
“It can only go up from here,” she realized, “so I might as well just go for it.”
Mikaela Shiffrin, who won both slalom world cup races in Levi, named one of her reindeer Sunny after her new teammate. [The prize for winning the Levi races is a reindeer.] It was, said Sunshine, “really sweet.”
At the Killington World Cup over Thanksgiving weekend, 20-year-old Sunshine did not make the flip (earn a second run) in the giant slalom. In slalom, she straddled a gate and was disqualified.
Still, it’s a bright dawn for Ava Sunshine.
Unlike most world-class ski-racers, Sunshine was not born on skis — nor was she born with the last name Sunshine. Until this year, she was known as Ava Sunshine Jemison. She dropped her last name and now uses her middle name as a last name “because it sounds better,” she said, with a smile that could become her trademark.
Her two younger siblings also have fun middle names. Her sister’s middle name is Violet and her brother’s is Cash.
Born in Denver, Colorado, Sunshine was 8 when her family moved to Edwards, Colorado, near Vail Resort. The change was not so Sunshine and her siblings could ski more frequently. The family just wanted to get out of the city.
Living in the mountains, Sunshine started skiing. She also learned to surf around the same time, whenever her family was visiting either the Pacific or Atlantic coast. Her Instagram has as many surfing pics as skiing. She even competed in a few surfing competitions. Sunshine and her mom and siblings now call Carlsbad, California, home.
Sunshine was a good ski racer, but not great yet. She graduated from high school in Vail in spring 2020 and realized that she needed a change of scene. So for the 2020-2021 season, she did a “gap year” at Burke Mountain Academy — a ski-racing academy in northern Vermont where both Mikaela Shiffrin and Olympian Nina O’Brien are alums.
“That was when I decided I would pursue skiing no matter what,” Sunshine said. “I'm going to try to get as good as I can get, to the highest level I can, whatever that looks like.”
At the time, she thought college ski racing might be the most viable path.
The focused atmosphere at Burke, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when the academy was an island of training and racing, suited Sunshine — who’s known as a hard worker. She thrived with the coaching too, and her ski career began to take off.
“It was a good accumulation of all the pieces coming together,” she said.
Last season, she won a silver medal in super-G at the world junior championships (a surprise because she had not trained much super-G). She also claimed the overall NorAm title, which gave her a world cup start this season.
“I remember the first two weeks after I won the NorAm title, it was even hard to think about [the world cup] because I was like, ‘Whoa, like, that’s crazy!’” she said. “It made me nervous for sure.”
Her nerves calmed a bit after a summer of hard training. Competing in New Zealand in late August, Sunshine was on par — and sometimes beating — her teammates, like Katie Hensien, who scored her first world cup giant slalom points at the 2022 Killington World Cup this weekend.
“Training with all these girls, that made it a lot more manageable,” Sunshine said. “The biggest hurdle was definitely learning to adapt and train with these girls.”
Mark Smith, one of her coaches in Vail, is not surprised by Sunshine’s rise.
“She works really hard, she’s a gifted athlete, and she doesn't let pressure get to her,” he said. “She's just very, very relaxed. She just goes with the flow and always just puts in 100 percent. So yeah, I'm not surprised at all.”
For all her intensity, Sunshine is one of the U.S. women’s team driving forces in creating fun TikTok videos.
By the time the Soelden World Cup came along in October, Sunshine was feeling confident. But the race was canceled due to weather — a “blessing in disguise” for the young American skier.
“All summer long and all fall, every interview I did and every friend asked about Soelden,” she said. “So there was a lot of build-up around it. By the time it was canceled, I was already prepared to race. So going into the Levi slalom [a month later], it almost in a weird way felt like I had already started my first world cup.”
In Levi, Sunshine gave a glimpse of the competitor that she could soon become. Shiffrin took note. She had not yet seen Sunshine that morning. So, in the hospitality tent, Shiffrin went over to say hi. Unlike many of the racers, Sunshine was not watching the race on the giant TV in the tent, even though it was hard not to watch. “I'm like that is probably the hardest thing you're going to do all day is not see what's going on the TV,” recalled Shiffrin. “But Ava just seemed set, and I imagine there were some nerves. When she skied, it looked like she was an athlete executing a plan, skiing really well. That was super impressive.” Although both Shiffrin and Sunshine grew up in the Vail Valley — and attended Burke — the two skiers did not formally meet until a few weeks ago. They are seven years apart in age. But Sunshine is following in Shiffrin’s tracks, hoping to ski all four disciplines — slalom, GS, super-G, and downhill — on the world cup and hopefully in the Olympic Games. This year, she will focus on slalom and GS — the two “tech” disciplines in skiing — then hopefully add super-G on the world cup level soon. At 2023 world juniors, she will compete in super-G. “I definitely want to do speed,” she said. “I hope to get good at downhill.” And perhaps soon, Sunshine will win her own herd of reindeer. To date, Shiffrin has won six. At the Killington Cup, a junior racer asked Sunshine if she always wanted to dedicate her life to ski racing. “Since I was really little,” Sunshine replied. “With any career, there are many ups and downs,” she advised the younger racer. “Sometimes the downs are really hard, and your mindset might change where you don’t hold on to [your dream], you’re not sure. “But if you still have a little bit of fire left, then the moment you decide to really put all your energy into it, that’s when things come together.”
Written by Peggy Shinn An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered seven Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.