Vail’s John McMurtry to be honored for his contributions to ski racing
Special to the Daily
Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series that profiles the Vail Valley locals who were inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame on Saturday.
VAIL — John McMurtry is one of many ardent fans of ski racing in the Vail Valley who would make the daily trek to the hill this past February as the World Championships came to town. But as he watched the U.S. Ski Team win five medals, there was a special piece of him that reminisced about the role he played decades ago that is still a key part of the USA’s ongoing success.
On Saturday, McMurtry joined nine others as he was inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Steamboat Springs.
McMurtry, who today serves as the chief development officer for the Steadman Philippon Research Institute in Vail, is most known within the sport as the coach of the women’s team in the early 1980s, winning the Nations Cup title in 1982, helping steer Tamara McKinney to the overall World Cup title in 1983 and being a part of the remarkable success of the 1984 Olympic Team in Sarajevo.
But one of the memories that sticks with McMurtry is the vision he provided several years later when he was asked to return to the team to implement an alpine development program. That program, which was deployed in 1989, is still in place today and has been pivotal in the USA remaining a global alpine power throughout several decades.
“I am absolutely overwhelmed and humbled about joining the Hall of Fame,” McMurtry said. “So many of my heroes and mentors are in the Hall, and I never dreamed I would join them!”
“I represent a generation of talented coaches, great athletes, a visionary sports medicine team and dedicated volunteers, fundraisers, trustees who, symbolically, will join me on the stage Saturday!”
McMurtry’s development plan was simple. Given the large geographic scope of the USA, he proposed splitting the country into three regions — Eastern, Rocky/Central and Western. Each region organized camps and competitions for junior athletes within the region. Top athletes would compete nationally and internationally, and then bring their skills back to the region to cross-pollinate with others. McMurtry, who returned to the team in 1987, had his plan approved in 1989. Today, the same structure remains in place and has provided a pipeline for Olympic champions such as Picabo Street, Tommy Moe, Diann Roffe, Julia Mancuso, Ted Ligety, Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn.
“Following the 1988 merger of the U.S. Ski Team and USSA, I worked with Bob Beattie, Chuck Ferries and the USSA’s Howard Peterson to develop and implement a national development plan, which resulted in the USSA Regional Development Program,” McMurtry said. “I’m proud to see that the basic structure remains in place today and continues to evolve more than 25 years later.”
Like any great coach, McMurtry has a set of indelible memories from his career. He can quickly reel off the names of every athlete who was on the Nation’s Cup-winning team in 1982 — still the only U.S. team to grab the honor.
“This was the first and only U.S. team to win an alpine Nation’s Cup,” he said. “And in those days, you had to score in the top 15 to earn points (today it’s top 30). This unique group of athletes truly characterized the ‘team first’ ethic you needed to win.”
He also recalls that March 1983 afternoon in Furano, Japan, when McKinney became the first U.S. woman to win an overall World Cup title and Phil Mahre clinched his third. Or that cloudy day on Feb. 13, 1984, in Sarajevo, when Debbie Armstrong won gold, Christin Cooper silver and McKinney was fourth, missing by just four-tenths after winning the second run.
McMurtry cut his teeth in the sport under the watchful eye of legendary coach Willy Schaeffler, who was his mentor growing up in Denver and as a member of the NCAA champion University of Denver Ski Team. He went on to coach in Schaeffler’s Ski J.E.T.S. junior racing program. He coached at China Peak in California before joining the U.S. Ski Team as development coach in 1976, going on to coach the women’s World Cup and Olympic technical teams, which included stars such as Christin Cooper, Cindy Nelson, Tamara McKinney and Debbie Armstrong.
Today, as chief development officer of the Steadman Philippon Research Institute, McMurtry and his associates work to prevent ski injuries through research and education. He first joined his mentor Dr. Richard Steadman in 1984, taking a break to return to the team, then coming back in 1994.
Years later, and now an athlete parent, he still holds dearly to the lessons he learned while working as a coach.
“I learned the importance of ‘team’ and chemistry in developing a successful process, product or outcome,” he said. “But one the most important characteristics I learned from our athletes, coaches and leaders was the importance of commitment, passion, perseverance, dedication, humility and learning how to manage disappointment, and overcome adversity.”
On Saturday, McMurtry took the stage in Steamboat, joining nearly 400 other honored members of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame. He will be formally enshrined in it this September in a special ceremony at the actual Hall of Fame in Ishpeming, Michigan, the birthplace of organized skiing in America.
Amid the honor is the satisfaction of knowing the role he’s played in providing opportunities for kids to advance in the sport — including his own.
“When we put the program together 28 years ago, never in my wildest dreams did I think my three ski racing daughters would be thriving and developing in the USSA Rocky/Central region as members of Ski & Snowboard Club Vail,” McMurtry said. “As a parent, I am incredibly fortunate and blessed to see this all work and continue to evolve through the experiences of our children. Call it karma!”
Tom Kelly is vice president of communications for the U.S. Ski Team.