What Makes a Champ: Alice McKennis

Megan Harrod
2016-06-08 14:27

From local ski hills to the PyeongChang Olympics, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) encompasses all athletes that share a passion for skiing and snowboarding. We explore what makes each skier and rider a champion with stories from the U.S. Ski Team, U.S. Snowboarding and U.S. Freeskiing, next to kids winning a NASTAR medal, landing their first cork 7 or joining a club team. Alongside USSA’s mascot Champ, take a look at how all of these athletes strive to be Best in the World.

As we continue to explore what makes USSA athletes champions, we’re learning more than we ever expected. To be a champion is holistic – it goes beyond the medals and the titles. It’s someone with great character and an undying belief in themselves; it’s someone who loves their sport with an unmatched passion—whether they’re still actively pursuing it or not. We are honored to share these stories with you. In this installation, Alpine Press Officer Megan Harrod sits down with U.S. Ski Team athlete Alice McKennis to discuss #WhatMakesAChamp.

Watch out, ski world—there’s a new (HEAD) World Cup Rebel in town. When you meet Alice McKennis (New Castle, CO), though, “rebel” is not necessarily the first word that comes to mind—that is, until you watch her throw herself down a mountain at 70+ mph. Sure, she’s genuine and kind, but don’t let that sweet smile fool you—McKennis is one of the gutsiest skiers you’ll encounter. This American Downhiller is legit—tougher than the nails she currently sports in her right elbow.

Just two months after she won her first Audi FIS Ski World Cup downhill at St. Anton in 2013 during her career-best season, McKennis suffered a season-ending injury from a crash at the downhill in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The “crime scene,” as McKennis affectionately calls it, saw McKennis being whisked away with her right tibial plateau shattered into about 30 pieces. Most athletes would see this as a career roadblock, but McKennis is not “most athletes.”

Fast fast forward to March 7, 2015. The setting is Garmisch, Germany and it’s a beautiful, crisp spring morning with a hard Kandahar track prepped to perfection for the downhill. Looking for redemption on the hill that took her out in 2013, McKennis channeled that nervous energy and laid down a solid run to ski into 13th place and put the bad memories in her past. In fact, she crushed those memories and buried them so deep that we didn’t even talk about it this season.

With seven top-10 downhill finishes and one victory on the World Cup circuit, McKennis has proven time and again through hard work and a warrior’s spirit that the World Cup is her home and she’s not going anywhere soon. Though she shattered her elbow after banging it on a gate during the alpine combined in Soldeu-El Tarter, Andorra at the end of the season, McKennis is feeling good as she gets strong for the 2017 season while in Park City for conditioning camps.

Alice McKennis celebrates with her team after winning in St. Anton, Austria in 2013. (Getty Images/Agence Zoom-Christophe Pallot)

So, how did McKennis foster such a keen sense of resilience? She admits that it comes from within. “I have fought really hard to get to where I am in life,” McKennis notes. “When I feel down, I think about other times I have had to fight and persevere and that inspires me to know I can get through anything one way or another.”

It’s more than that, though. This hardworking spirit is engrained into McKennis and can largely be attributed to her upbringing. McKennis grew up on a ranch with her father Greg and older sister Kendra in western Colorado. Her mother passed away when she was just five years old, so McKennis became very tight with her father and sister. She recalls summers spent on the ranch working or riding horses all day—sometimes riding her bike to the barn each morning and not returning until dinner. 

Alice and her older sister Kendra. 

McKennis started skiing at Sunlight Mountain Resort in Glenwood Springs, CO at age two, and has always been fueled by competition. She was a competitive equestrian until she was 15, but when work on the ranch lessened in the winter, her father would rent a tiny apartment or hotel room in a ski town—starting with Vail and then later Aspen—so she and her sister could ski race. The girls would share a bed, and dad would sleep on the couch. Since they were homeschooled, they had freedom to pursue their dreams in both horseback riding and ski racing.

“My childhood taught me a lot about responsibility, accountability and how at times you need to stick to your guns when when things get tough,” says McKennis. “All of these attributes certainly have had an impact on my athletic career.”

A young McKennis was a competitive equestrian and ski racer.

Inspiration can also be found in role models on the hill for McKennis, who looks to teammate Andrew Weibrecht (Lake Placid, NY) as a source. “Currently I am pretty obsessed with Andrew Weibrecht's skiing, and in a non-creepster way!” says McKennis. “I love the angles Andrew gets and the power and speed he generates from every turn. His skiing is masterful.”

But when she was growing up, it was all about Daron Rahlves, Hermann Maier and Michael von Grünigen, “Michael had a really amazing mustache,” she says through a laugh. Turns out, her boyfriend Pat Duran, who works for HEAD as U.S. Racing and Team Manager, can also grow a pretty mean stache.

McKennis smiles with her dad and boyfriend, Pat Duran, after running Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon. 

McKennis finds balance in the offseason by giving herself time to enjoy the other things in life and take a step back from ski racing: spending time with family and her boyfriend, rowing the Grand Canyon—her favorite accomplishment outside of the sport—camping, mountain biking, fly fishing and more.

Two things you might not know about McKennis:

1)She travels with her fly tying kit. “It's nice to have a hobby on the road,” she says. “I used to travel with my friendship bracelet making kit as a kid so I guess this is the more mature version of that.”

2)Growing up, she was starstruck by Bode Miller (Franconia, NH). And now that they’re teammates? She still is.

Through dedication and hard work, McKennis has cemented herself as one of the top American Downhillers in history and has tasted the top step of the podium. Even so, she’s quick to note that being a champion isn’t all about winning. We asked her our three questions on what she believes makes a champion.

U.S. SKI TEAM: In your words, what makes a champion?
Alice McKennis: To me a champion is someone who keeps fighting for their goals. They may never achieve all of their goals and at some point in life it might be time to move onto different avenues, but they don't give up when things get too hard. Success isn't always about winning; it can be about the small personal achievements.  

U.S. SKI TEAM: Do you remember the first time you felt like a champion?
AM: One of my proudest moments when I felt like a champion was when I raced again in Garmisch where I broke my leg three years ago. I was really on edge about racing there again and was scared to go back to the "crime scene." I held back in the training runs just to get a feel and to be comfortable, but when it came to race day I fully sent it with total confidence and had a pretty good race! That was a really great feeling—not only to overcome the physical challenges but to overcome the mental challenge as well.

U.S. SKI TEAM: What is the biggest piece of advice you have for aspiring kids who want to be sitting where you are today?
AM: Don't ever forget why you started ski racing! Because it's fun! It can be so easy to get wrapped up in results and to really stress yourself out if you're not doing well. At those moments it's key to take a step back and to remember the deepest meaning of ski racing for yourself, your passion for sport and your love of skiing. Then go free skiing…free skiing is the best remedy for any frustration!

McKennis races to 13th place in Garmisch in 2015. (Getty Images-Mitch Gunn)

You have the chance to ski with Alice and a bunch of other current and former U.S. Ski Team athletes and rad women at Keely’s Ski Camp for Girls, started by U.S. Ski Team alumna Keely Kelleher, at Mt. Hood this summer. 

Lastly, a big shout-out goes out to McKennis’ sponsors: HEAD, Briko, Leki, Reusch, Aspen Snowmass and Coldwell Banker Mason Morse. Make sure to follow Alice’s adventures from horseback to the mountain via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and her website.