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Road to Sochi: Alice McKennis uses Lessons from Ranch Life on Ski Slopes

U.S. Ski Team

The Road to Sochi is a look at the ten athletes from the Aspen area who are training with the hopes of making it onto the 2014 Winter Olympic team.

This week, instead of heading to the ski slopes, we’re taking you to a cattle ranch in New Castle. That’s where ski racer Alice McKennis grew up. She was riding horses just as early as she was on skis. And, her family says a lot of the lessons learned on the ranch are reflected in her drive on the slopes. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen reports.

When you log onto Alice McKennis’ website, you’ll see more than just pictures of the 24-year-old skiing. She’s also fishing, rafting and sharp-shooting. The ski racer didn’t start out as a winter athlete. When she was young, she showed horses and competed around the country.

"The horses were a big, big part of our lives growing up and there was even a time when I considered retiring from ski racing to pursue the horse thing a lot more, but in the end, I chose skiing," McKennis says.

Now Alice is completely dedicated to the sport. In 2010, she landed a spot on the World Cup team and placed tenth in her first race. Then, she surprised herself by making it onto the Olympic team heading to Vancouver.

"I went into that 2010 season just hoping that I could place top 30 in a world cup event, and to be top 10 in two races prior to the Olympics was pretty mind-blowing for myself."

Alice’s specialty is the “downhill” competition, where a ski racer reaches speeds upwards of 80 miles per hour, as she glides down icy courses, maneuvering wide turns.

"Downhill, in regards to ski racing, is for sure the most intense events because you’re not turning all that much, but you have a lot of forces, you have a lot of high speed and there are jumps, you have to have good body position, and your line has to be perfect, and it all comes down to hundredths of a second, so in the span of a two minute race, you have to be hitting all your marks," she says.

Earlier this year, Alice was hitting all of those marks during a World Cup race in Germany. But, about a minute and a half into the competition, she wiped out, hard. In a YouTube video that shows the crash, medical staff race to McKennis, who’s obviously in pain.

"I remember all of it. My technique wasn’t perfect on one turn and I hit some uneven snow and it just twisted my ski to where it was going the wrong way. I just basically hyper-extended my knee to an extreme extent and the force of my femur coming down into my tibial plateau caused it to shatter," she says.

And shatter it did, into 30 pieces. Since that crash in March, Alice has been defying the odds and recovering quickly. Now, she says she’s ready to compete in Sochi.

"I’m hoping to be on snow at the end of October out in Colorado. I definitely feel like I’m pretty much ready."

"I see a lot of me in her, probably unfortunate for her," says Greg McKennis, Alice's father.

He says her drive is likely inherited and comes from ranch life early on.

"(She has) a single-minded focus on a goal, and I’ve always lived that way and my other daughter is kind of that way too, she just puts her mind to it. And, growing up on the ranch, they worked on the ranch, there were no excuses, you know, you’re not going to go skiing, you’re not going to ride your horse until your chores are done and your homework’s done," he says.

These days, McKennis travels the world to watch his daughter compete. And, he’ll go to Russia if she makes the 2014 Olympic team. He says he’s incredibly proud of her success.

"Oh! - beyond proud! To have seen the dedication, to have a child who’s been in the Olympics and been a top competitor on the World Cup. It’s a wonderful experience to share with her."

Alice has a challenging road ahead. She’s training for one of four Olympic spots on the women’s downhill team. She won’t find out until right before the Olympics whether she’ll compete in Sochi.

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