Utah skier returns to what she loves
They call it Agony Hill for a reason. It takes most members of Utah's ski team at least 16 minutes to hike to the top of the 1,500-foot mud mound just north of the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City. Alpine skier Chirine Njeim just calls it another obstacle.
Last fall, Njeim, a 24-year-old senior from Lebanon, was the first to reach the peak when the team last hiked it. She felt a bolt of energy at the foot of the hill that day.
"Here I am outside with my friends, running, doing what I love," she said. "It's not going to kill me, and I just did it."
She wonders, though, what Kyle would have done on that hill. Cracked the 14-minute mark, maybe 12? Or just simply cracked a smile? More than a year before Njeim raced up that hill so effortlessly, she was in an entirely different race against time. She was the primary caretaker of her boyfriend, Kyle Hopkins, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor in May of 2007. Njeim -- a two-time Olympian who left her parents at age 14 to ski in Europe, then bolted to the U.S. at 16 to attend a ski academy -- put the skis away that whole summer of 2007.
There were no offseason trips to the jagged slopes in Chile or New Zealand. The only trips she made that summer, a time still painfully etched in her memory, were to Hawaii and Boston. In Maui, Njeim set out to learn how to surf from veteran wave-rider Hopkins. The only problem was that Hopkins, the then-43-year-old ski coach whom Njeim met while attending Rowmark Ski Academy in Salt Lake City, couldn't stay on the surf board. Throw in a short temper and the coordination of a drunk and Njeim knew something was wrong.
It was there, in a paradise of sand, sunsets and clear water, where the couple made its first excursion into a world of hell and hospitals. Doctors told Hopkins he had a brain tumor. They flew back to the States and went to see a specialist in Boston. The cancer was terminal. A 1 percent chance of survival.
"Kyle kept saying, 'I'm going to beat it, I'm going to beat it,'" Njeim said. "I believed him."
She didn't return to Utah until August, spending every day at Hopkins' side. It was the first time since moving to the U.S. that Njeim didn't travel back to Lebanon and spend most of the summer with her family. Instead, she shuttled her boyfriend to and from chemotherapy.
"I didn't do anything except take care of him," she said. "That was my job. All I thought about was him getting better."
Her job didn't change too much when she returned to Utah, with Kyle, for the fall semester. She went to class, drove back to her house more than an hour away from campus and took care of Hopkins.
Morning. Noon. Night. Day after day.
Njeim was absent for almost all of fall ski training, as her teammates were given daily briefings on Hopkins' status. By November, though, Hopkins insisted Njeim join the team for a four-day team retreat in Colorado.
"That was really the first time I left him," she said. "And the last time I heard him talk."
On the final night of the retreat, shortly after Njeim hung up the phone with Hopkins, he was rushed to the hospital after having difficulty breathing. His body was shutting down.
After a week, Njeim made the decision to bring him home. A week later, she had another race, this one a three-day event in Park City. She didn't want to go, but Hopkins, using a makeshift alphabet board, spelled out that she had to.
Before and after each race those first two days, she called him. She was constantly on the phone.
"If I could have raced with my phone on, I would have," she said.
She didn't show up that third day. Instead, she stayed home, where Hopkins spelled out "I think I'm dying."
He died that same day, Dec. 17, 2007.
"I was super nervous. I had no idea how she was going to handle it," teammate Mikaela Grassl said. "We figured she might not be coming back."
So did Njeim.
"I didn't know what I personally wanted," said Njeim, who was told she could redshirt the season, which didn't officially start until January. "I didn't think I could race."
Maybe it was a change of scenery: She moved to Salt Lake, closer to her teammates. Maybe it was the memory of Hopkins insisting she stick to the slopes. Maybe it was not letting down her friends and teammates who called every day since August to check in on her. Or maybe it was all those things that led to her comeback.
"To me, it sounded like, 'Oh my God, that must be a nightmare,'" teammate Chelsea Laswell said. "What's really cool about Chirine is that she tries hard for everybody. She never wanted to let this team down."
In Njeim's first race back, just 20 days after Hopkins died, she led the Utes with a sixth-place finish in the slalom at Steamboat Springs, Colo.
"I was pretty shocked at how well she dealt with it all," Utah director of skiing Eli Brown said. "Skiing was an outlet for her."
Njeim went on to finish the season as one of the country's best, qualifying for the second straight year for the NCCAs, at which she finished in the top 20 in both the slalom and giant slalom. She helped the Utes capture third place.
Last summer, Njeim's life got back on schedule. She went back to Lebanon to see her family for the first time in almost two years. She got back to workouts with her teammates. And she even acted like a normal college senior in the fall, getting a house with her teammates and spending time with them away from the snow.
"We didn't really start to know Chirine until right before Kyle passed," Grassl said. "Now we're all a lot better for it. It's made us a lot stronger, like a family.
"That's really special, because most teams can't stand each other when they come off the ski lift."
Njeim will come off the lift for the final time as a Ute at the NCAA championships starting Wednesday in Bethel and Rumford, Maine. Only now can she finally focus on skiing when she's at the start gate.
No matter what happens then or at the Olympics in Vancouver in 2010, she'll always appreciate how much fun she has barreling down mountains. And as she showed her teammates last fall at Agony Hill, she'll equally appreciate staring up at one, too.
"It's way worse watching this guy in bed, just wishing he could walk," Njeim said. "So why not run?"Sean Quinn is a contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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