Something happens to Sydney Palmer-Leger when she clicks into cross-country skis.

“She’s super kind and fun and warm and open when you’re speaking to her,” said University of Utah head nordic coach Miles Havlick of the sophomore who hopes to defend her two national titles at this week’s NCAA Ski Championships at Soldier Hollow and Park City. “And then, when she puts on her race bib and clicks into her skis, she’s another person.”

In fact, there are moments in a race when she even looks different.

“You can see the grit and determination in her face,” he said. “You see skiers coming by and then you see this person double the tempo of the others. It’s Sydney, and you can see she’s moving super fast. It’s really challenging to get her to slow down and conserve energy. But that’s a lot of what’s made her successful.”

Palmer-Leger took up cross-country skiing because it was the sport that captured the heart of her big brother.

“I wanted to follow in his footsteps,” said Palmer-Leger. “It started out as something fun to do. I just loved being outside. I was mountain biking in the summer and it was something to do in the winter.”

Utah Ute skiers begin defense of NCAA championship this week on home snow

While she enjoyed cross-country skiing with her family, it was when she earned a trip to junior nationals at age 12 that changed how she viewed her afternoons on skis.

“They were bigger races than I’d experienced, with all the fastest kids in the country,” she said. “I loved racing up with all of the older girls.”

It didn’t hurt that she raced well against older, more experienced athletes. It stoked that natural competitive fire in her gut.

Palmer-Leger moved to Sun Valley for her last two years of high school, even as she continued to pursue international competition. In March 2020, she was in Germany for World Juniors when COVID-19 began to spread across the U.S. 

“We got back, and I got a call from my high school saying don’t come back,” she said. “I haven’t been to school in person since then.”

Part of that is COVID-19. But the other factor is that for members of collegiate ski teams who are also pursuing Olympic dreams, online classes are a gift.

“There is so much more flexibility,” she said. “It allows me to travel and compete.”

Since then, she said she’s only had a couple of weeks at home as she tried unsuccessfully to make the Olympic team by competing in World Cups and other international events.

“It’s exhausting,” she said of juggling school, college skiing and international competition and travel. “But really fun. … I went from Fairbanks to (Park City) to Norway for World Juniors, and then home for two days. It’s definitely difficult but that’s the reason I came to Utah. Miles and (Utah head coach) Fredrik (Landstedt) were pretty flexible with us.”

She said each athlete sits down with coaches and figures out not just a training plan, but also a school and competition schedule that will work for them.

“The highlight of my year has been traveling with the team,” she said. “Racing World Cup is very different. It’s more hands-off, a little more intense.”

While Palmer-Leger missed out on making the Olympic team, her teammates Novie McCabe and Sophia Laukli both managed to earn spots on the team and ski in Olympic competition.

“I thought I had a shot of making it,” Palmer-Leger said. “It’s kind of luck, like getting World Cup starts, and then skiing well in those starts.”

She did not do as well as she’d hoped, but she was thrilled for her friends.

“Even though those races didn’t go as planned, I still got to go to my first World Cup races and race in college,” she said. “I got to go back over to Europe and race at World Juniors, and I got a top-six finish. … It was a hectic, fun year, and even though I didn’t (realize) my goal of making the Olympics, I can push and work as hard as possible so I can make the next one. I’ll be at a prime age.”

For now, though, Palmer-Leger is focused on skiing her best at this week’s NCAA Championships this week on the course she’s skied all her life. Her focus, however, isn’t on defending her titles in classic and mass start.

“I’m trying not to have expectations because of last year,” she said of surprising herself by winning both as a freshman. “Especially because this is home turf. It will be fun to have my family, friends, everyone who watched me when I was younger compete this week.”

She will approach these races like she does when she’s trying to balance her desire with her determination. 

“It’s mentally challenging racing at a high level,” she said. “So it’s about making sure it’s fun. To handle the stress, when I start getting in my head, I focus on things beside the result.”

One of those things will be enjoying skiing for a championship on the course where her mother carried her in a pack when she was just 4 days old.

“It would be an incredible dream to be competing in the Olympics (if it returns to Utah) at Soldier Hollow,” she said. “I’ve been doing this since I could walk. I have loved endurance sports since I was little.”

Palmer-Leger will compete on Thursday and Saturday at Soldier Hollow. Alpine events were postponed Wednesday, so they’ll be Thursday and Friday at Park City Mountain Resort. All events are free.

Amy Donaldson is a contributor to the Deseret News.