Last of her era, Alice McKennis eyes one more crack at that Olympic podium
Alice McKennis can tell the finish line is close by simply looking at those around her. Lindsey Vonn, the greatest downhill ski racer of all time, is retired, as are Olympic gold medalist Julia Mancuso and four-time Olympian Stacey Cook.
When McKennis first joined the U.S. ski team ahead of the 2009-2010 season, the speed team roster looked a whole lot different. And that can be a difficult adjustment to make for a veteran skier who is starting to realize she’ll be among the next to step away.
“It was hard for me because I felt a lot of my original crew wasn’t there and that was a huge adjustment for me to make,” McKennis told The Aspen Times earlier this spring of this past season. “I missed them, for sure. It was definitely a changing of the guard and it’s a much different team dynamic than it was three years ago. We don’t have our huge superstars of Lindsey and Jules.”
But this doesn’t mean the finish is here quite yet. McKennis, who is from New Castle and grew up skiing at Sunlight Mountain Resort near Glenwood Springs, is a two-time Olympian and hopes to add a third to her resume before it’s all over.
After having spent a little bit of time with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, McKennis has long been a mainstay among American downhill skiers and will be part of the national B team this coming winter. Breezy Johnson, Laurenne Ross and do-it-all star Mikaela Shiffrin were the only women named to the A team for the 2020-21 season.
“In ski racing you only have so much longevity, I’d say, physically with the demands of this sport and what it does to your body. But my sights are really set on the next Olympics in 2022,” McKennis said. “We’ll have a really strong team heading into the 2022 Games. These next two years are going to be really strong building years for the team.”
The highlight of McKennis’s career is arguably the 2018 Olympic downhill in South Korea, where she finished fifth, only two spots behind bronze medalist Vonn in her final Olympic appearance. McKennis also started the 2010 Olympic downhill in Vancouver, but was disqualified. She missed the 2014 Olympics recovering from injury.
Medical hardship has been prevalent during her career. Not long after the 2018 Olympics, McKennis broke her leg during an offseason training camp in Mammoth and would ultimately miss the entire 2018-19 ski season.
“Finishing 2018 so strong and really skiing well and feeling confident and then to have everything shatter at a moment’s notice was really challenging,” McKennis said. “For a while we actually thought I would ski in 2019 and race that season, but with some complications it ended up taking an additional six months more than we thought.”
No stranger to recovery, she bounced back during the 2019-20 season, where she finished 28th in downhill and 33rd in super-G for the World Cup season. Once has she finished top 10 for the season in a discipline, which came via a 10th-place finish in downhill after the 2012-13 season.
McKennis will be 31 by the time the next ski season rolls around, assuming it does in fact take place amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. The coming season includes the 2021 World Championships in Italy; although, its organizers are trying to push it back to 2022, after the next Winter Olympics in China.
By no means has McKennis, who splits her time between her homes in Minturn and Moab in the offseason, said she’ll hang up her ski boots after the 2022 Games. Her success in the 2018 downhill has kept her hungry for more, but with so much roster changeover over recent years, the time to pass the torch to the next generation likely isn’t far off.
“To come in fifth and be so close to the podium in the Olympics was really special and an unbelievable moment for me and my family,” McKennis said. “You always think about the success you have and that gives me a lot of confidence. I know I still have the same skiing ability and skiing potential. I know that hasn’t left. It’s just a matter of preparing the right way and being ready to where I can show that potential again.”
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This past season brought with it Hailey Swirbul’s greatest individual result as a professional cross-country ski racer. But any real satisfaction she received always came when racing alongside her teammates, notably during world champs.