Professional skier Sabrina Cass is proud of her heritage. The 2020 Cheshire High School graduate was born in the United States, but since her mother Flavia grew up in Brazil, Cass enjoys being able to visit the South American country in the summer and immerse herself in the culture.
She actually learned to speak Portuguese before learning English in her home country.
“I love having the opportunity to go to Brazil,” Cass said. “I like being bilingual and speaking another language.”
As a youngster, Cass remembers her family joking that she could ski for Brazil. Over the past year, she’s turned that joke into a dream come true, and she’s made history.
Last month Cass, 19, became the first Brazilian mogul skier to compete in the Winter Olympics. On a trip to Beijing, China, she took on the world’s elite in two qualifying races.
“It was a very moving experience,” Cass said. “I was very proud to represent my family and Brazil.”
In mogul skiing, freestyle racers navigate a series of bumps or mounds of snow with precise turns. Skiers also perform aerial tricks by clearing jumps on the course.
“I love mogul skiing. It’s different than just having a smooth run,” explained Cass, who started running when she was 10 years old. “When you’re going to bring something new to the snow, it normally takes about a year to get comfortable with it.
Ever since she was young, Cass had dreamed of being an Olympian, but first she had to make an impact on the world stage. In a watershed moment three years ago, Cass won the World Junior Women’s Moguls Championship at Chiesa in Valmalenco, Italy. She initially didn’t qualify for the trip, but when a rider got injured, Cass took her place.
“It was a big milestone,” Cass said. “I thought I would go out there and have fun, but I didn’t expect to win.”
Soon after, Cass received a spot on the US national team. She raced for them on the International Ski Federation (FIS) circuit until she chose to switch teams to Brazil in April last year.
“I felt I had a better opportunity to achieve my goals with the Brazilian Federation (snow sports), but I’m very grateful to Team USA,” Cass said.
She estimated that it took two to three months to officially switch teams.
“There was a lot of paperwork,” Cass explained. “I had to write a letter to Team USA explaining my decision. They were very understanding.”
She has also reached out to Brazilian and world federations.
“If you’re not released from your team, you have to be out for two to three seasons,” Cass said. “I am grateful to the federations that made it easy for me.”
Cass would have liked to train in Brazil, but since they don’t have many winter sports venues, she mostly trained in the United States and Europe. Needing a coach, she approached former teammate Nessa Dziemian, who retired from Team USA last year.
“As the only mogul skier, I practically trained like my own team,” Cass explained. “Luckily I was able to train with my old club team (Wasatch Freestyle in Utah).”
The FIS season usually starts in November or December and then ends at the end of March. Depending on their results, skiers are ranked on a point scale. To compete in the 2022 Winter Olympics, runners had to be in the top 30 by January 14.
“This year I kept checking more than usual,” said Cass, who opened her season Nov. 20 at the Idre Fjall Open in Sweden. “The Olympic season is more stressful because everyone wants to get there.”
This season, Cass was disappointed to be diagnosed with COVID, but ended up missing just one race.
“I wasn’t really affected, but you still want to be in all your competitions before the Olympics,” Cass said.
Despite the setback, Cass was still able to place 29th at the deadline and earn his trip to China. The Brazil Federation CEO reached out to Cass while she was skiing at the World Cup, which took place Jan. 13-14 at Deer Valley Ski Resort in Utah.
“I cried and hugged my mom and my coaches,” Cass said.
Beginning her Olympic journey on Jan. 25, Cass flew 15 hours from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Qatar, then took a seven-and-a-half-hour flight to Beijing.
“I slept on the flights, so it helped pass the time,” Cass explained.
Although she did not need to be quarantined, she had to take two COVID tests before leaving the United States and then test two more negatives upon arriving in China on January 27.
After her long flights, she also had to travel four and a half hours to reach one of the four Olympic villages in Beijing. Cass appreciated having two days to tour the campus and pick things up in the gift shop.
She also liked having the chance to see the race course at Genting Snow Park A&M Stadium, located in Chongli District, Zhangjiakou City and Hebei Province.
“Sometimes the jumps don’t line up as well over the bumps, so you have to be ready for that. You want to make sure you land in the right spot,” Cass explained. “For me, after my first jump, I’m trying to do a right turn, so I’m looking for the best way to do it.”
Since she normally gets two days of training before an event, Cass appreciated having four days in China. She persevered through temperatures as low as minus 19 degrees.
“It was so cold,” Cass recalled. “I’ve never been in such a windy place, but it wasn’t bad because the ups were short and the descents fast. There was also a heated cabin.
She remembers having a mix of emotions before making her Olympic debut on February 3.
“I was definitely a little nervous, but my coach says nervousness (energy) and excitement go hand in hand,” Cass said.
In the first qualifier, she finished in 21st place (62.20).
“It was a little stressful, but I’m glad I finished my race,” Cass said. “I made a mistake on the first jump, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t make another one.”
The top 10 racers qualified for the finals, but the remaining skiers had another shot on February 6. Finishing 16th (62.12) in his second run, Cass missed reaching the next round.
“I definitely felt less nervous,” Cass recalled. “Training went really well, but I was disappointed to make the same mistake I made on my first run.”
All in all, she enjoyed making history as Brazil’s first mogul skier.
“It is still difficult for me to admit that I am an Olympic athlete. Knowing that I was able to work hard enough and make it (to the games) means a lot,” Cass explained. “I know an American boy who decided to ski for Australia. He said I inspired him to do it.
Cass was not introduced to the other nine Brazilian Olympians before the Games, but she was lucky enough to befriend them in China. Four of the athletes remained in his village.
Due to COVID, Brazil only let the flag bearers march in the opening ceremony, but Cass still watched the event on campus.
“It was so great to meet athletes from different countries too, like (American snowboarder) Chloe Kim,” Cass added.
She was pleasantly surprised by the support she received from Brazil.
“I got so many messages from people on Instagram. It felt good to know they were behind me,” Cass said.
She also enjoyed learning that the people of Cheshire followed her Olympic journey.
“It was such a great feeling to know that I had the whole town on my side,” Cass said.
Growing up, Cass didn’t realize the impact mogul skiing would have on her life. At 9 or 10, she tried the event for the first time at the Sugarbush Resort in Vermont.
“We had family friends up there and they were skiing in the freestyle program,” Cass said. “At first I said I didn’t want to do it (the bumps). My parents made me try it and I loved it.
Cass is grateful to have had coaches who thought she could compete professionally. Before her races, she thinks back to advice she received when she was 13.
“One of my coaches told me, ‘This is your canvas and now go paint it,'” Cass recalled.
During his final three years at CHS, his family moved to Park City, Utah during the winter months, then returned to Cheshire in the spring. As a change of pace, Cass also loved how her family allowed her to try playing field hockey.
“Their support meant everything,” Cass said. “Without their sacrifice, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
She loved sharing her passion for skiing with her brother. A 2021 CHS graduate, PJ Cass has won medals at the national level.
“Running with him helped me be more confident,” Cass recalls. “I was always trying to keep up with the boys (growing up).”
After the Olympics, Cass returned to Cheshire for a few days before leaving to train in Utah. She hasn’t decided if she will try to make another Olympic run.
“I haven’t given it much thought yet. I think it’s easier to take it year after year than to make a decision right away,” Cass explained. “I will continue to ski with Brazil this season and try to achieve the best results in the last two competitions.”
Whether she returns to the Olympics or not, Cass hopes her story will inspire more athletes to work towards their dreams.
“It’s cool to be part of history and I hope it (my experience) will shed some light on winter sports in Brazil,” Cass said.