originally printed in The Tahoe Daily Tribune – March 2013
Since leaving the US Ski Team, Jonna Mendes undeniably enjoys her post-racing life in Sun Valley, Idaho – but she sure misses Lake Tahoe. A product of the Heavenly Race Foundation, Mendes moved to the south shore at age three; soon started skiing and called Tahoe home throughout her successful ten-year stint as a World Cup speed specialist. This spring, at the end of March, Mendes made a nostalgic visit to her old Tahoe home and Squaw Valley – hired by the 49ers charity foundation to ski with donors.
“The 49er Foundation holds a yearly fundraiser at Squaw,” says Mendes, now 34. “I think I’ve been going to it for about ten years; plus I’ve tried to make it back as often as possible for the Emily Clothier race [at Heavenly]. There are a handful of friends from the area I stay in contact with, and since I moved from Lake Tahoe, I’ve always looked for opportunities to return and raise my family here – it’s a killer place to grow up!”
The racing talent started early – learning to ski the slopes of Heavenly at age four, being picked for the US Ski Team at age 16, and heading to Mammoth at 17 for her World Cup debut. With valuable points being awarded to the top-30 finishers, Mendes settled for a still-impressive 31st in her first big-time super-G race.
Initially competing in four disciplines, Mendes narrowed in on the speedier events of super-G and downhill in her early twenties. By her retirement in 2006, Mendes had racked up four National titles (2-GS, 2-DH), and competed in two Olympics and four World Championships. Her bronze medal in the St. Moritz super-G in 2003 was her career highlight.
It was at the World Champs in St. Anton that the popular racer met her future husband, Will O’Toole. An avid skier, he was then working with production at NBC Sports and living in the Big Apple. While relationships are normal, the question often for many retired athletes is what do you do when the hoopla is all over – sell chapstick?
Mendes recalls, “After I met Will, I moved to New York full-time to be with him, plus it was a lot easier to fly home on breaks from Europe. Then after I retired, we got married and I used a Ski Team program to go to college at NYU. At the same time, I was hired by the US Ski Team to coach regional projects and work with the national development team.”
Scooting often across the country to various resorts, Mendes also coached a ski clinic in Aspen with other team retirees, Donna Weinbrecht and Picabo Street. ‘Powder Girls’ was an offering by the USST Foundation and was a yearly fundraising endeavor.
“Through all the coaching I was doing, I found I could actually articulate,” says Mendes. “Just because you’re good at doing something, like racing, doesn’t always mean you can get through to athletes – but I found I could really connect with people in my coaching and I just loved it.”
In 2010, the Mendes/O’Toole household added son Declan, and the family – not particularly wanting to raise a family in the city – left New York a year later. Soon after, Mendes was offered her current job in Idaho with The Community School, which had just started a new program called the Sun ValleySkiAcademy.
Describing the program, Mendes explains enthusiastically, “The Community School is an outstanding prep school in Sun Valley that’s been there forty years or more. They’ve produced several Olympians and have always supported and been creative in ways to help athletes train without sacrificing their education.
“I was hired as a recruiter to bring in new athletes to the program, but my duties have evolved to marketing the academy, touring with families, liaising with faculty to monitor grades and managing schedules and academics. I’m also the point of contact for all the people who’ve given us their children to board for the term.”
Mendes blends these work particulars with raising Declan, now age three and a ski enthusiast, with travel to gigs like the Squaw Valley appearance for the 49ers. She sums up, “In the ski industry, post-career, there are few jobs – so when the Sun Valley opportunity came along, I couldn’t pass it up. But I still use every chance I can to get back to Tahoe!”