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From small Colorado town to the biggest stage

Jeff Caspersen
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
AP file photoAlice McKennis of the United States soars down the course during a training run for the Women's World Cup Downhill ski race in Lake Louise, Alberta, on Dec. 1
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Gone are the days when Alice McKennis could ply her trade in relative obscurity.

Occasional phone calls from her hometown newspaper have been replaced by a deluge of interview requests, from media outlets in all corners of the world.

It all comes with the territory of the New Castle native’s new title: Olympian.

Life has certainly changed for McKennis, who will compete for the U.S. Ski Team in Wednesday’s downhill competition at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

“I have all sorts of people calling me,” said the 20-year-old McKennis, who gained fame – and her ticket to the Vancouver Olympics – with success during her first full season on the World Cup circuit. “It’s still a little overwhelming, but I think I’m getting better at handling it. I’m just winging it for now. It is kind of a unique story, coming from where I came from. It’s fun.”

Where she came from in the big picture is quite fascinating.

McKennis, who grew up on a farm just outside New Castle, got her start at Sunlight Mountain Resort, strapping on skis for the first time as a 2-year-old. The Glenwood Springs-area mountain, which doesn’t quite pack the name power of neighboring resorts in Aspen or Vail, is where she learned to ski. And ski fast.

It didn’t take long for the knee-high youngster’s innate talent to surface.

“She had a very natural inclination to ski the fall line,” said McKennis’ dad, Greg, the man responsible for introducing Alice to the slopes. “She was very balanced. Left, right, it didn’t seem to make any difference to her. Within a couple weeks, she was skiing on her own. At that age, that’s pretty great.”

McKennis began racing at 6 years old, kicking off her competitive career with Sunlight’s youth program. In no time, the precocious speedster was setting the stage for a promising future.

“Alice was Buddy Werner and winning everything and she was promoted to the ski team,” said Bob Lockard, Sunlight Winter Sports Club’s present-day Buddy Werner program director. “She was a phenom at age 6.”

On the move

After a season at Sunlight, McKennis and her family were off to bigger mountains. She skied for clubs in Vail, Steamboat Springs, Summit County and Aspen before moving on to Rowmark Ski Academy in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“We’d move in for the winter, all three of us,” said Greg, whose older daughter, Kendra, also ski raced. “It was a huge family effort. Honestly, I’d say that, since age 10, every decision made as a family was based upon Alice’s schedule. Camps, offseason training, it’s a year-round thing.”

“We moved around so much to get the best coaching and training,” Alice said. “I think it definitely helped. It definitely worked.”

Devoting her formative years to skiing paid off for McKennis, who’s blossomed into one of the United State’s top alpine skiers. She is one of 22 alpine skiers on the U.S. Olympic Team; 10 of those are women.

A sudden rise

After years of competing at a high level, McKennis landed a spot on the U.S. Ski Team’s developmental squad at 18 years of age.

She followed up the selection by winning NorAm Cup titles in downhill and super-G in 2008-09. That earned her guaranteed World Cup starts in both disciplines this season.

Nobody expected what followed. Her rise was as fast as her downhill runs.

McKennis, rostered on the U.S. Ski Team’s C squad and with just a single World Cup start to her name entering the 2009-10 campaign, finished 10th and 18th in downhill races at Lake Louise, Alberta, in early December.

Out of nowhere, this Western Slope farm girl had made a splash on the biggest of stages.

She continued to rack up points as the season wore on, peaking with a ninth-place downhill finish in St. Moritz, Italy, on Jan. 30. Just a few days earlier, she learned that her dream had come true. She was selected to the U.S. Olympic Alpine team.

Skiing in the Olympics had long been McKennis’ goal. She suspected she’d make it this time around, but she took nothing for granted in the days leading up to the announcement.

“My head coach, Jim Tracy, told me [of her selection],” McKennis said. “It was a lot of relief. After the relief set in, I was really excited. It was kind of surreal for a while. It didn’t sink in for a couple days.”

McKennis wasn’t sure what to expect as she set off for the Vancouver Games, where she’ll zip down the Whistler slopes in pursuit of Olympic glory.

“It’s definitely going to be a learning experience,” she relayed. “From what I hear, it’s above and beyond anything I’ve dealt with, with the media and people and everything. I’ll definitely learn from it.”

No matter how overwhelming the sideshow proves to be, McKennis is doing her best to keep it all in perspective. Ski racing is her career and Wednesday’s race will be nothing new.

“It’s still just another race,” she stressed. “I still want to go out there and try my hardest, do the best I can. You never know. I’ve had good results. Maybe I can sneak in there.”

After all, she more or less snuck her way into the Olympics with outstanding performances.

“It’s all happened so fast,” McKennis said. “I came into the season being a rookie on the World Cup team. It’s all happened so quickly.”

No matter her final result, there’s no stripping McKennis of her new title. No matter what happens on the slopes of Whistler, she’ll always be an Olympian.

Her dad put it best.

“Regardless of how it turns out for her, just being an Olympian is plenty.”

jcaspersen@postindependent.com


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