This had to be a case of mistaken identity, Karin Harjo thought, when a little girl in the crowd asked for an autograph.
Surely she was waiting for two-time Olympic champion Mikaela Shiffrin and not the U.S. women's assistant speed coach . So Harjo smiled and politely told the child that day in Killington, Vermont, "Mikaela will be coming along soon."
"But I want yours," the kid replied.
Flattering for one of the few women coaching on the World Cup circuit. Harjo's hoping to pave the way for even more women to step into a top-tier role with national teams, even if she doesn't really view herself as any sort of trendsetter in a male-dominated field. She sees herself simply as coach — an Olympic-level coach at that.
"You definitely recognize that there has to be a leader moving forward in any route," Harjo said. "If I can create opportunities for others to have an opportunity, then that's a success. If you can inspire other women, by all means, that's really quite humbling, because there are plenty of other women before me that created the opportunities that I currently take advantage of."
The International Ski Federation didn't have a definitive number on how many female coaches currently are on the World Cup circuit. There is Norway's Karina Wathne, who's part of a mentorship program through the federation, and Eileen Shiffrin, who works with her daughter, Mikaela, the recently crowned Olympic gold medalist in giant slalom.
Other than that, they are few and far between.
"Crazy," said Julia Mancuso, who recently stepped away from skiing due to chronic hip ailments. "Having Karin coach the U.S. now is really cool. I think it's definitely going to change things. I hope that other women see there is a career in coaching at the very top level."
Being Norwegian, Harjo joked that of course she was "born on skis" and the sport is in her DNA. She didn't really race as a kid, partly because her parents were missionaries and the family spent time shuffling between Norway and Japan.
"With the amount of moving we did, it never allowed us to be in one place to join a team," explained Harjo, whose husband, Randy Pelkey, coaches the South Korean men's speed team.
Harjo has spent 20 years in the business and coached at all levels, from 4-year-olds to senior citizens, from working with NorAm racers to now helping out head speed coach Chip White with downhillers such as Laurenne Ross, Stacey Cook and Alice McKennis. On race days, the list extends to Lindsey Vonn, who's the favorite in Wednesday's downhill race.
"Karin works her (butt) off," Ross said. "She works harder than any of the men."
Her big break in the sport was provided by Lester Keller, who hired her as a western region coach. He was impressed innovative ways and how she's "tenacious in trying to improve on what is available so the evolution is an upward trend," Keller said in an email.
She was working with the tech side before being brought over to the speed team this season. She also set a World Cup slalom course in Flachau, Austria, on Jan. 15, 2016, becoming one of the very few women to do so on that level.
This is how the opportunity came about: Shiffrin's coach was home helping her recover from a knee injury at the time. Women's head coach Paul Kristofic needed someone to fill in and thought of Harjo.
"It wasn't even a heartbeat-missed in his mind, for me to set the course," Harjo said. "That's a testament to the team in itself, of hiring capable coaches that are here to do the job and it's not about someone because of their gender. It's just, 'All right, you're here to do a job. Great, next one up.'"
Maybe it's the start of something.
"It would be valuable to have more female coaches," said Atle Skaardal, the chief of race on the women's side for FIS. "In terms of the technical things it shouldn't matter if it's a female coach or a male coach who do the technical corrections."
The life of a ski coach can be solitary, but it's made easier by having her husband on tour as well. That is, when they get the chance to meet up — the two circuits often go in different directions. The two met while wind surfing and have been married for seven years. When not traversing the world, they live in Underwood, Washington, which is directly across from the Hood River.
Should FIS ever wanted her to serve in a mentorship role, she would gladly raise her hand.
"I didn't choose to be a coach because I was female. That's where the gender part to me is actually kind of foreign," Harjo said. "It's like, 'Well, why wouldn't I do this?'
"We have the opportunity now to become whatever we want to be. That's mentality I've brought into coaching and into the sport."
AP Sports Writers Andrew Dampf and Eric Willemsen contributed to this report.
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