Former Westborough Olympians heading to Sochi’s Winter Games
By John Swinconeck, Contributing Writer
Westborough – Two former Olympians and Westborough High School graduates will be heading to Sochi to help support members of Team USA during the winter games.
Luger Ashley Hayden Walden and skier Nikki Stone will be headed to Russia in February.
Stone competed in 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway, but was then sidetracked by a potentially career-ending spinal injury. Doctors had warned her she would not ski again.
“There were times when I questioned if I could overcome it, and I went through depression,” Stone recalled. “A lot of people were doubting me. I found a picture of Joe Frazier. He won the Olympics with a broken fist. If he could come back, why couldn’t I?”
Stone said she also drew inspiration from a poem titled “You Mustn’t Quit,” given to her when she was 10.
In 1998, she made her dreams come true at the Nagano games, where she won the gold medal in aerial skiing.
“I couldn’t believe it after I won. You’re in the air for three seconds. Any millisecond something could go wrong and you lose an Olympic medal,” Stone said.
Today, Stone works as a motivational speaker and is the author of “When Turtles Fly: Secrets of Successful People Who Know How to Stick Their Necks Out.”
The 1989 Westborough High School graduate said her “greatest accomplishment is her two “amazing” children.
“They are 10 million times more powerful and important than an Olympic medal,” Stone said.
Stone lives with her family in Park City, Utah. She will travel to Sochi in conjunction with a Utah NBC affiliate, and will also work with athletes while there.
“At heart, I’m an Olympic junkie,” she said.
Olympic luger Ashley Walden recalled sledding on the hill at the back of Westborough High School as a youth.
“It was pretty steep, and we ended up in the road a couple of times. It sort of became the ‘banned spot,’” Walden said, and so the sledding spot was moved to a local golf course.
It wouldn’t be long, though, before Westborough hills were traded for ice tracks on which Walden would travel at breakneck speeds as a luger.
“I always watched (luge) on TV during the Olympics. It was one of my dad’s favorite sports to watch,” Walden said.
She was drawn to the luge because it was a “unique” sport, and when she saw a commercial by the US Luge Association’s recruitment program, Walden said she signed herself up first, and then convinced her parents to let her participate.
“You start doing it young, so by the time you’re competing at a high speeds, it becomes like second nature. … By the time you’re 18, 20 years old, you’re not scared to death,” Walden said. “A lot of people compare it to a roller coaster, but you have complete control.”
Walden won several national, North American, and world titles, and placed eighth at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah.
She announced her retirement in 2011. Today, she works for bobsled and skeleton teams in Lake Placid, N.Y., and helps coach the local luge club.
In 2006, she married Bengt Walden, a men’s single luger who competed for Sweden in 2002, and went on to compete for the US team in the 2010 games. He is now coaching the Norwegian team. The two share a home in Lake Placid, and have a nine-month-old baby.
Walden will be heading to Sochi to work with NBC, the network broadcasting the games this year, on their luge coverage.
The pressure of competing in the Olympics is unlike any other event, according to Walden and Stone.
“It doesn’t really hit you, until you’re actually there,” Walden said. “Especially for a smaller sport like luge, where at the largest [non-Olympic] race, you see maybe 5,000 spectators. In Salt Lake City, there were 35,000. You’ve never seen anything like it, as much as you try to prepare for it.”
“I had a lot of fears,” Stone said. “I considered myself the biggest baby. At one point when I was doing triple backflips, I would get sick to my stomach in the woods, I wanted to win that badly.”
Both Walden and Stone said they were thankful to the town of Westborough for their support when they were Olympians.
Walden was training and competing in luge even before she graduated Westborough High School in 1999. She recalled the challenges of balancing school and her athletic career: “I would travel from mid-October to March. I’d be gone a good chunk of the school year. … But the school was incredible and really supportive. They went out of the way to help me beforehand and to make up the work.”
Walden’s parents have since moved to Northbridge, but her mother, Kathy, still works for the Westborough School District. Walden said she frequently visits the area.
“The support was great when I was involved in the sport – all the local businesses, the community, everyone was helpful in getting me off the ground to start my career,” Walden said. “Westborough is a great little community.”
The town threw a parade for Stone when she returned from Nagano.
“The thing that surprised me was that the weather was atrocious – sleeting, hailing, snowing, and cold,” Stone said. “I thought that no one would show up. But the streets were filled. That showed me the support I had in this amazing little town.”
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