Keely Cashman skis down the slalom course at Sugarloaf on Thursday afternoon, on her way to a third-place finish in the slalom portion of the women’s Alpine combined. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

CARRABASSETT VALLEY — Entering Thursday’s slalom portion of the women’s combined championship at the U.S. Alpine speed championships at Sugarloaf, the top four skiers were bunched together as if they were crammed into an elevator.

Just 0.35 seconds separated fourth-place Madeleine Chirat and first-place Keely Cashman. Even in sports, like skiing, that milliseconds count, that’s close.

A muscle twitch at the wrong time. Catching an edge. A gust of wind.

“Anything really, especially in slalom, where the gaps tend to be greater. Any little mistake can cost you,” AJ Hurt said.

Hurt was in third place after Wednesday’s super-G, 0.25 seconds behind leader Cashman and just one-tenth of a second ahead of Chirat. When Chirat and her fellow French teammates elected not to run the slalom Thursday afternoon, the chase for the combined title came down to Cashman, Hurt and second-place Nina O’Brien, all teammates on the U.S. Ski Team.

“We’re all such good friends. I truly would have been happy for anyone who ended up winning, but it’s nice to be on the podium with my friends,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien ended up winning the combined title. Her slalom run of 43.91 seconds was the best of the day, and when paired with her super-G (1:15.28) pushed O’Brien to the combined lead. After she completed her slalom run, O’Brien turned and watched Cashman, the final skier in the field, run the course.

Standing in the starting gate, skiers know how close the race is, O’Brien said. They also have to push that fact out of their minds.

“Try not to think about it too much and just try and relax and not worry about it,” O’Brien said. “Just trying to stay loose and keep momentum going down the hill. I had a few little mistakes, but I was trying to go for it and keep it rolling when I did. Just move on as fast as possible.”

Nina O’Brian skis down the slalom course at Sugarloaf on Thursday afternoon to snag a first place win in the slalom portion of the women’s Alpine Combined event. (Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn) Andree Kehn

Thinking leads to overthinking, O’Brien said, and overthinking leads to slower skiing.

“I try not to overthink it. Thinking about what could happen never helps. Just try and hang out with everyone and stay relaxed,” O’Brien said.

Cashman ran the slalom in 45.61 seconds, fifth-best of the day, and that dropped her to third overall. It was Hurt, skiing the slalom in 43.94 seconds — three one-hundreths of  second slower than O’Brien — who benefited, and jumped into second place. Hurt finished with a combined time of 1:59.38, 0.19 seconds behind O’Brien.

“Flatter slalom is 100 percent my strength, as far as slalom goes. That benefited me a lot,” Hurt said. “It’s like a different sport than super-G, so you have to put whatever happened yesterday behind you and focus what you’ve been working on.”

Like O’Brien, Hurt said being bunched up with close friends took the pressure off.

“I’m so close to the two of them. Keely, I’ve known since I was little. I’ve roomed with Nina probably the last four months, 90 percent of the time,” Hurt said.