End of an era: Alice McKennis Duran calls it a skiing career after two Olympics
She knew it was time, even if parts of her refused to accept it. After all, a body can only handle so much, and Alice McKennis Duran had put hers through a lifetime’s worth of agony and recovery.
“This last injury, I think it was just one injury too much,” she told The Aspen Times on Wednesday. “It sort of pushed me over the edge a little bit with seeing the value and the risk and what it was all really worth to continue ski racing and to continue throwing my body down these icy slopes in nothing but a speed suit.”
A native of New Castle, McKennis Duran has been a longtime member of the U.S. ski team, going back to her World Cup debut on Dec. 5, 2008, in Lake Louise, finishing 51st in a race won by teammate Lindsey Vonn. Now 31 and with enough serious injuries over her career to impress even the iconic Vonn, McKennis Duran has decided to call it a career.
This past Saturday, she was a forerunner in the women’s downhill at the U.S. Alpine Championships at Aspen Highlands, her run serving as a victory lap for a career that included two Olympic appearances and a World Cup win. She was able to celebrate with many of her teammates, including fellow women’s speed team mainstay Laurenne Ross and tech specialist Resi Stiegler, who both plan to retire after this season, as well.
“It’s a little surreal that it’s over, but here we are,” McKennis Duran said. “I’m super thrilled with the celebration we had and it was wonderful to have everyone there and celebrate everyone that was part of it.”
McKennis Duran, who learned to ski at Sunlight Mountain Resort in Glenwood Springs and had a stint training with the Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club before joining the national team, entered this season with the hope of going for one final Olympic appearance at the 2022 Winter Games in China.
Her winter got off to a strong start by winning the delayed 2020 U.S. national championship in super-G back in November at Copper Mountain. But, about a month later in what would be her only World Cup event of the season, McKennis Duran crashed in the season-opening downhill in Val d’Isere, France, fracturing her fibula near her right ankle and doing some damage to her left knee that ended her season.
She’s still not fully healed from the crash, and had to get permission from her doctor to even slip the Highlands course on Saturday for her goodbye run. She doesn’t plan to be on skis again until next season, even if no speed suits are involved.
“It’s maybe time to move onto the next thing and save my body for the next 50, 60 years that I hopefully get,” McKennis Duran recalled having told herself while rehabbing this winter. “The overwhelming part of me knew this was probably the end of my ski racing career and I should start thinking about the future. But there was also a part of me that wanted to hang on and still wants to continue. Even going through the rehab process, the first three-and-a-half months I went about it like I was coming back to ski race. It’s just part of my mentality to not give up.”
McKennis Duran has kept track of the injuries. By her count, she spent roughly a third of her professional skiing career injured. She’s had five significant injuries, by her definition, including a 2013 crash that resulted in her tibial plateau (lower leg, just below the knee) being shattered into 30 pieces. She’s also had many minor injuries, such as a broken hand, that hardly make the list.
Still, despite the setbacks, missed races and months, if not years, spent in rehab, McKennis Duran was able to make a solid career out of it. She was part of the U.S.’s historically elite women’s speed team earlier in her career, a lineup headlined by Vonn. McKennis Duran’s career highlights include her fifth-place finish in the 2018 Olympic downhill in South Korea — Vonn won bronze that day for her final Olympic medal — and two World Cup podiums.
McKennis Duran’s lone World Cup win came in a 2013 downhill in St. Anton, Austria, while she also recorded a third-place finish in a 2018 downhill in Are, Sweden, only a matter of weeks after the Olympics. The Are race happened to have been Vonn’s 82nd and final career World Cup victory, with the Vail legend finishing just four wins shy of Ingemar Stenmark’s all-time record of 86 wins.
“I didn’t fully recognize it until just recently, talking with Resi and Laurenne, but it’s like, wow, it’s kind of the end of an era, really. Especially looking back on the women’s speed team, Laurenne and I, we are sort of the last holdouts from the Lindsey Vonn era,” McKennis Duran said. “We were part of that team that was the best downhill team for several years and we are stepping away. There have been a lot of up-and-comers the last few years and we’ve seen great results from a lot of the team. There is tons of momentum behind the team, so it is exciting to see what they’ll all do.”
McKennis Duran maybe didn’t get the most ideal finish to her career, crashing into the A-net in Val D’Isere, but found some comfort in getting a final slide down the Highlands course on Saturday. After all, Aspen is a town near and dear to her heart, and a place that played a significant role in her early development as a ski racer.
Had U.S. nationals been hosted just about anywhere else, McKennis Duran admits she probably wouldn’t have come to take part in the end-of-season revelry. As it happened, Highlands did step in to host the 2021 event, which served as the most ideal place for the former AVSC athlete to bid adieu to her resilient career.
“Really grateful for this past weekend,” she said. “It’s not like I did this alone. It was a lot of people helping me. It was nice to celebrate them and myself and the whole deal. I know I’m going to be sad about the decision. Like I said, a big part of me wanted to continue. I recognize retiring is the best thing for me in the long term. So yes, I’m happy, but it’s bittersweet, for sure.”
So, now what? McKennis Duran is still figuring that part out. She currently lives in Minturn with her husband of nearly two years, Pat Duran, who is a coach for Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. The couple also spends a lot of time in Moab, where they also have a place. McKennis Duran is only about five classes shy of finishing her business degree — a process that’s taken a good decade, which is nothing out of the norm for a professional ski racer — and has some business opportunities available to her through her sister, who raises cattle near Meeker.
Coaching could be in her future as well, but the big picture outlook remains full of unknown possibilities for the two-time Olympian.
“I’m not really sure what’s next for me. I’m definitely going to take a few weeks, a few months, to just sort of absorb a different type of lifestyle and take care of other family projects,” said McKennis Duran, who at least has a more immediate plan. “I’m going on a rafting trip next week. I’m really excited for that. Now that I’m retired and unemployed, I have a lot of time for extra stuff.”
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