McKinney's Career: Triumph and Tragedy : Skiing: Despite Olympic disappointment, she overcame adversity to become one of the greatest American skiers. (2023)

Looking back, Tamara McKinney can see clearly the magic that touched her career in ski racing. Then, as if averting her eyes, she chooses not to take notice of the twin specters of injury and death that seemed to wait at the finish line, daring her, time after time, to go back up the hill again.

Instead, she will quickly focus on the present and her new career of “helping other people.”

Formally retired from competition at 28, McKinney is the official spokeswoman for Jimmie Heuga’s Mazda Ski Express, a three-month series of charity events aimed at raising $1 million to fight multiple sclerosis.

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It is a perfect match, McKinney and Heuga: World-class ski racers, former neighbors in Squaw Valley and conquerors, in their own ways, of adversity. For Heuga, it was a triumph of will over a crippling physical disease. For McKinney, victory came only after acceptance of loss and adjustment to the slow, painful mending of not just broken limbs, but a broken heart.

Shortly before Frances McKinney died in 1988, she returned to her youngest daughter a medal with a faded red ribbon on which was inscribed: “Second Place Girls Giant Slalom 1966.” Since Tamara was only 4 at the time of the race, her mother kept it for safekeeping.

Now, the little medal hangs in a place of honor among the World Cup trophies and the 1989 World Championship gold medal in Tamara’s bedroom at Squaw Valley.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, life in the McKinney family revolved around skiing. Frances, who was an instructor at the old Sky Tavern and Slide Mountain near Reno, moved her seven children west from Lexington, Ky., so they could ski--and race.

Sheila McKinney was the first to achieve prominence in racing, but serious head injuries, suffered in a World Cup downhill fall at Heavenly Valley in early 1977, ended her promising career.

“She has improved gradually over the years, but there are still some lingering effects,” Tamara said recently of her sister, who lives with two other sisters on the family’s Stony Point Farm in Kentucky.

Two years after Sheila’s accident, Tamara joined the World Cup circuit.

A European coach recalled for Nick Howe of Ski Racing his first impression of her: “In 1979 I saw this American girl, a curious little person with her mouth full of metal and beautifully thick hair she wore like a cape, so long she could sit on it. She was always laughing and giggling, and I thought, ‘Who is this child?’ Then I saw her ski and I thought, ‘Oh, my God . . . ‘ “

McKinney’s skiing was advanced for her years--light but decisive, with an almost instinctive feel for the correct line down each course--and in 1983, she won the World Cup overall championship. “That was a year of magic,” McKinney said. “I was just a twerp, only 20. But it was something really special.”

The next year’s racing schedule included the Winter Olympics at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, and the week before the Games, McKinney, at 21, made the cover of Time magazine, along with Phil Mahre.

“Suddenly, I had 15 people calling me every day and wanting me to do something,” she said at the time. “After a certain point, the publicity, the media and the pressure just didn’t register anymore.

“There was a lot of extra travel, in addition to travel with the ski team. . . . My energy level dropped. It reached the point where it was too hard to get excited, and you have to be excited to race.”

She was able to get excited enough to place fourth--but out of the medals--in the giant slalom, then failed to finish the slalom.

McKinney bounced back sufficiently to win four World Cup races that season--she ended her career with 18 victories, more than any other American--and in February 1985 took the combined bronze medal in the World Championships at Bormio, Italy. During the winter, she learned that her father, Rigan McKinney, was seriously ill with cancer.

After finishing second in a World Cup giant slalom at Lake Placid, N.Y., Tamara called home with the news and learned that Rigan, a Hall of Fame steeplechase jockey who had remained in Kentucky to raise horses, had died. Three days later, despite the devastating news, she won the giant slalom at Waterville Valley, N.H.

Later, she told Howe, who traveled with the U.S. women’s team: “When I called home from Lake Placid, my mom told me that my father had won over 39% of all his (steeplechase) races. I didn’t know that. So I decided I’d better work on my average.”

In the 1987 World Championships at Crans-Montana, Switzerland, McKinney again misfired in her quest for a gold medal, coming away with another bronze in the combined.

Then, the following November, with the 1988 Winter Olympics on the horizon, McKinney broke her left leg in training at Copper Mountain, Colo., and didn’t get back on skis until the end of the year. Arriving in Calgary in February without having raced internationally all season, she proceeded to fall in the first run of the giant slalom and then again, two days later, in the first run of the slalom.

Her box score for two Winter Olympics: Four races, zero medals.

But in Canada, her leg still ached--and so did her heart. Frances McKinney, 62, was hospitalized with a recurrence of cancer, and Tamara spent most of the Games dodging reporters, who were pressing her for details on how she was holding up.

After her final chance for an Olympic medal came crashing down, McKinney said: “I don’t know if it has left any void in my life, because I don’t know what it feels like to win a medal (in the Olympics). I’ve had many great things happen in my career. I’m no different just because I don’t have an Olympic medal.

“I’m proud to have skied for the United States. I tried my heart out, but it wasn’t enough. Now, I just have to look ahead. I have other things in my life. There are people I love and want to be with.”

Soon after Tamara returned home, her mother died.

A month later, her brother, McLean, with whom she frequently ran practice slalom gates at Squaw Valley, committed suicide.

“She loved skiing,” Tamara said the other day, referring to her mother. “She stays with me, and I take all the inspiration I have for the sport from her.”

On Feb. 2, 1989, an inspired McKinney finally broke through for a gold medal, winning the combined event in the World Championships at Vail, Colo.

“It was a little bit of magic,” she recalled. “Not because of myself, but because of all the people who believed in me. I was glad to be able to do it for them, to win a gold medal here at home in the United States.

“I had some good times and some hard times between 1983 and ’89, but I was able to come back strong, and that’s what made that day so special.”

She also earned a bronze in the slalom five days later, but it was the gold medal that marked the climax of her 11-year career as an active member of the U.S. ski team, although she didn’t know it at the time.

On Oct. 18, 1989, while training on the glacier at Saas Fe, Switzerland, McKinney severely injured her left knee, an accident that knocked her out of action for the 1989-90 season and, ultimately, for good.

“Racing was a lot of fun, but I don’t miss it that much,” McKinney said. “I enjoyed traveling and getting to know different cultures, and I’ve kept a ledger with all of my experiences, so I could remember them. But the past is past. I’m concentrating on my new job with Jimmie Heuga’s Mazda Ski Express. It just feels like the right thing for me to do now.

“Jimmie was an early hero of mine. While he was out tearing up the hills of Europe, I was learning how to read. I actually saw his father more because he worked on the tram at Squaw Valley. His family was always around our family.”

Heuga, now 46, won a bronze medal in the 1964 Olympic slalom at Innsbruck, Austria. His racing career ended six years later, when it was learned that he had multiple sclerosis. Through a rigorous regimen of physical exercise and mental conditioning, he has been able to remain relatively active.

The Jimmie Heuga Center in Avon, Colo., is a nonprofit scientific research center founded to help the physically challenged, chiefly those with MS, maximize the quality of their lives.

“The idea is to show people what they can do, not let them dwell on what they can’t do,” said McKinney, who will make appearances at many of the Ski Express’ 31 events and give racing clinics for the participants.

At each event, teams of three skiers will contribute at least $1,000 a team, the money sometimes coming from sponsoring companies or raffles and such. The skiers will try to make as many runs as they can in a four-hour period, then race in a giant slalom. The winning team will be determined at each location on a combined basis of money contributed, runs made and times posted.

The 31 champion teams receive expenses-paid trips to Vail, Colo., for the national finals April 10-14.

Last year, $521,000 was raised for the Jimmie Heuga Center.

California stops on this year’s Ski Express are Squaw Valley on Feb. 15, Sugar Bowl on March 10, Mammoth Mountain on March 15 and Snow Summit on March 16.

Between trips for the Ski Express, McKinney plans to spend as much time as possible at the home she and her older brother, Steve, built in Squaw Valley. Last summer, they added a garage to the house, which faces the Olympic Lady ski slope.

Steve, who raced on the U.S. ski team in the 1970s and flew a hang-glider off Mt. Everest in the 1980s, was the first skier to surpass 200 kilometers per hour in a straight speed run.

Early last Nov. 10, while driving home from the San Francisco Ski Ball, his car apparently began acting up, so he pulled over to the side of Interstate 5 just south of Sacramento and climbed into the back seat for a nap until dawn.

The car was struck by another driven by a drunk driver and Steve died of his injuries that afternoon. Steve McKinney, whose 6-year-old son, Stefan, lived with him and Tamara in Squaw Valley, was 37.

More than a month has passed since the accident, and although Tamara McKinney still feels pain, she said: “Steve was a great inspiration to me and was instrumental in getting me started racing. He will always be with me . . . “

FAQs

Who is the greatest American skier of all time? ›

Bode Miller, in full Samuel Bode Miller, (born October 12, 1977, Easton, New Hampshire, U.S.), American Alpine skier who won six Olympic medals—more than any other male American skier—and won the men's World Cup overall championship in 2005 and 2008.

Who is the greatest female skier of all time? ›

Mikaela Pauline Shiffrin OLY (born March 13, 1995) is an American two-time Olympic Gold Medalist and World Cup alpine skier. She is a four-time Overall World Cup champion, a four-time world champion in slalom, and a six-time winner of the World Cup discipline title in that event.

Who is the greatest ski racer of all time? ›

The 9 Greatest Ski Racers of All Time
  • Mikaela Shiffrin is the only skier still active on this list. ...
  • The female best race skier, Lindsey Vonn, with 82 victories, picture: USSkiTeam.
  • Ingemar Stenmark, the unbeaten champion and winner of 86 World Cups, picture: Radisporten Sverige.
5 Oct 2022

Who is the best Olympic skier of all time? ›

Kjetil André Aamodt of Norway is the most-decorated Olympic alpine skier with eight medals (four gold, two silver, two bronze).

Is Mikaela Shiffrin the greatest skier of all time? ›

Shiffrin's dominance in shorter, technical events like the slalom and giant slalom is without question; she's the winningest slalom skier of all time and the winningest American woman skier of all time in giant slalom.

Who is the best skier in the world 2022? ›

After 34 events, Marco Odermatt of Switzerland had clinched the season championship.

Who is the best female ski racer? ›

Lindsey Vonn

What is the hardest ski run in the world? ›

The Streif – Kitzbühel, Austria – Max Gradient 85%

Arguably the most famous ski run in the world, let alone the steepest ski runs in the world, the Streif is a truly extreme slope. Ski racers around the world each year head to Kitzbühel to compete in the Hahnenkamm ski weekend.

Do ski racers make money? ›

On average, most pro skiers make anywhere from $30,000 to $125,000 a year before taxes, which means that most of them are doing it for the love of the sport and not the money. Especially since you usually do not get paid unless you finish first, second, or third.

What is the hardest downhill ski race? ›

The Streif is a source of pride and fame for the town of Kitzbühel. It's 3312 m (2,058 mi) long, incredibly technically difficult, insanely steep (with a maximum grade of 85% (40.4 degrees), and drops for a vertical of 860 m (2,822 ft).

Who is the fastest Olympic skier? ›

Beat Feuz wins fastest-ever downhill, 41-year-old Johan Clarey takes silver | NBC Olympics. In the fastest Alpine skiing race in Olympic history, Beat Feuz was quickest of all. The 35-year-old Swiss averaged a Winter Games record 68.7 mph to win the men's downhill gold medal, his first in three Olympic appearances.

Which country has the most Olympic medals in skiing? ›

The event is traditionally dominated by Alpine countries; as of 2022, Austria has a commanding lead in total medals with 128 and in gold medals with 40.

Who became the oldest Olympic alpine skiing gold medalist? ›

Johan Clarey, 41, becomes oldest Alpine skiing medalist ever | NBC Olympics.

Why didnt Mikaela Shiffrin finish the race? ›

Shiffrin, who has rarely failed to finish a race in her 11 years as a professional skier, could not recover her footing in time to remain on course and was disqualified from the competition, which continues with a second run Monday afternoon.

Did Mikaela Shiffrin lose her father? ›

Jeff Shiffrin died after injuries sustained in a Feb.

What was Mikaela Shiffrin's dad accident? ›

"As all that was happening for me, my dad was being rushed to the hospital." Jeff Shiffrin had suffered a severe head injury in an accident at the family's Colorado home. He died on Feb.

Is Kim Kardashian a good skier? ›

The 41 year-old moth-of-four posted a TikTok video of herself on the slopes, winning positive reaction to her skiing skills and the fact she was skiing in a crop top. “It turns out Kim is actually a very good skier, seeing as she easily flew down the hills on a set of black and yellow skis and poles.

What country has the best ski team? ›

The undisputed champion of the world of skiing is undoubtedly France. Its many resorts are easily accessible and are the most popular European winter holiday destination in the world.

Do Olympic skiers get to practice on course? ›

In downhill and super-G, competitors get one run to post their fastest time, with one major difference: In downhill, skiers are permitted practice runs to get to know the course, while super-G competitors are not.

Who is the best female downhill skier? ›

1. Lindsey Vonn. Lindsey Vonn is one of the most successful athletes in all of alpine skiing and is considered one of the greatest skiers of all time. A former World Cup alpine ski racer for the US Ski Team, she won more World Cup Crystal Globe titles in her career than any other skier, man or woman.

Who is the most successful ski jumper? ›

Widely considered to be the greatest male ski jumper of all time, he won five Winter Olympic medals (four gold), nine World Championship medals (five gold), and 22 Finnish Championship medals (14 gold).
...
Matti Nykänen
Individual wins46
Indiv. podiums76
Indiv. starts130
Overall titles4 (1983, 1985, 1986, 1988)
12 more rows

What is the fastest ski racing event? ›

The Alpine skiing men's downhill event holds the distinction as the sport's fastest and most dangerous discipline. With its swooping blind turns, heavy compressions and high-speed jumps, the downhill is an all-out brawl against the laws of physics in the name of speed.

Do heavy skiers go faster? ›

As it turns out, yes, a heavier skier will go faster thanks to how gravity works. Being bigger will produce more drag and resistance which can also slow you down. Together gravity, drag, and snow resistance will determine your speed.

Which country has the hardest ski runs? ›

Most Difficult Ski Resorts
  • Chamonix, France. It is home to a World Cup downhill course and has some of the most challenging off-piste terrain. ...
  • Fernie, Canada. ...
  • Jackson Hole, USA. ...
  • Kicking Horse, Canada. ...
  • Palisades Tahoe, USA (formerly Squaw Valley) ...
  • St Anton, Austria. ...
  • Verbier, Switzerland. ...
  • Val d'Isere, France.
27 Oct 2021

What is the hardest skiing level? ›

You might also notice a double black or an occasional triple black diamond,. Trails marked as green are the easiest, blue is intermediate and black is hardest, with additional diamonds indicating extra challenge.

Is skiing a rich hobby? ›

Ski resorts are not known for being cheap places to eat and drink. Also, lift passes can be very expensive, especially in North America. All this may suggest that skiing is a rich person's sport. But, with some careful planning, skiing can be much more affordable.

Is ski racing a hard sport? ›

There is little doubt that it may be the most physically demanding sport out there. A few ticks against it include not being very technical compared to some other sports (I'm sure I'm going to get blow back from that statement) and, because of its long duration, racers can recover from mistakes and still do well.

How much does it cost to be a ski racer? ›

The total cost for a junior ski racing career can top $500,000, according to a 2019 survey by U.S. Ski & Snowboard of ski clubs, academies and colleges. That total includes everything from ski camps and academy tuition to more-specialized equipment and racing fees.

Do triple black diamonds exist in skiing? ›

“The Black Hole” at Smugglers' Notch Resort in Vermont

Named the Northeast's only triple black-diamond run by the resort, The Black Hole is almost as scary as it sounds. The terrain is a combination of steep slopes, abrupt cliffs, and bumpy moguls, all of which run through woods full of trees.

Is Nordic skiing easier than downhill? ›

Nordic tracks are situated on terrain that is generally quite gentle when you compare it to Alpine skiing terrain. The idea of Nordic skiing is to have an easier way of traveling through deep snow. The skating and gliding motion over snow is much more efficient than sinking into the snow on foot or even snowshoes.

Is downhill skiing easy? ›

With proper instruction, learning to ski is not difficult. You can start enjoying the mountain atmosphere, and the whole experience of skiing, just after your first day on the slopes.

Which is faster skeleton or luge? ›

Which Is Faster: Luge or Skeleton? In two sports where having the fastest time means winning a gold medal, skeleton athletes clock speeds of 80 mph or higher, while lugers can travel up to 90 mph.

Why do speed skiers wear red? ›

Color correlates to speed.

“Red is a great color because it is not as dense, while blue requires more ink and in turn can decrease the porosity,” the designer reveals. “A lot of racers like white because no ink is used and therefore, (it's) at the best porosity.”

How do you not ski so fast? ›

The best way to slow down is to carve or “snow plow” long turns across the hill. That is, point your skis perpendicular to the base of the hill. (To slow yourself down even more, point the ski tips together in a snow plow or pizza-like stance.)

Has anyone ever won an Olympic medal for two countries? ›

Two athletes have won Summer Olympic gold medals competing for two different nations. Daniel Carroll first won gold in rugby union representing Australia at London 1908 and then again at Antwerp 1920 for the United States after he had stayed in the country following a tour there.

Do Winter Olympians get medals? ›

Shortly after the ceremony at the event location where they receive their edition of Bing Dwen Dwen, they pick up their gold, silver or bronze medals at the medal ceremony at a special plaza.

What country has the most stripped Olympic medals? ›

The country with the most stripped medals is Russia (and Russian associated teams), with 48, four times the number of the next highest, and more than 30% of the total. The Post-Soviet states account for more than 60% of the overall total.

Who is the oldest 2022 Olympian? ›

The oldest this year is Norway's Torger Nergaard, who at 47-years-old, is competing in his sixth Olympic Games. "I always try to have fun, so that's the most important thing I think," Nergaard said.

How old is the oldest Olympic medal winner? ›

Lida Peyton "Eliza" Pollock from the USA competed in the 1904 Olympic Games archery competition. She won bronze in the Women's Double Columbia and National Rounds and as part of the women's Team Round she won a gold medal. She was aged 63 years and 333 days when she won gold.

Who is the oldest Olympic gymnast to win a medal? ›

Hungarian gymnast Ágnes Keleti won individual gold medals at the age of 35 at the 1956 Olympics.

What American skier has the most Olympic medals? ›

1. Bode Miller (1997-Present) Resume: Five Olympic medals in three Olympics (one gold, three silver, two bronze), three more than any other U.S. male racer. One of only two men (Kjetil-Andre Aamodt of Norway is the other) to win Olympic medals in four events.

Was Eddie the Eagle a good skier? ›

He finished last in both the 70m and 90m events at the Games, but by virtue of being Great Britain's first Olympic ski jumper, he still set a personal and British record of 73.5 meters in one of his jumps.

What happened with American skier at the Olympics? ›

Horror injury ends American skier Nina O'Brien's Olympic campaign Back to video. “Nina sustained a compound fracture of her left tibia and fibula just short of the finish in the second run of the giant slalom,” the spokesperson said.

Who became the oldest Olympic Alpine skiing gold medalist? ›

Johan Clarey, 41, becomes oldest Alpine skiing medalist ever | NBC Olympics.

Did Eddie the Eagle break any bones? ›

"I fractured my skull twice, I broke my jaw, broke my collar bone, smashed my collar bone, broke three ribs, damaged my kidney, damaged my knee, damaged my ribs and all sorts of stuff". "Most jumpers don't get on a 90m until at least eight, nine, ten years, and I did it after about 10 months".

Did Eddie the Eagle break his jaw? ›

Broken bones

In the 20 months between Eddie picking up ski jumping and competing in the Calgary Winter Olympics, he put his body through tremendous trauma. “I fractured my skull twice – even though I was wearing a helmet – and I broke my jaw, smashed my collarbone, broke three ribs, damaged my kidney and knee.

What is the quote at the end of Eddie the Eagle? ›

If you have got a dream and you've got ambition, then go for it. You know, unless you try, you'll never know.

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