Tamara McKinney – The Original Lindsey Vonn

originally printed in Ski Racing magazine, March 2013TMcK

Before Picabo, Lindsey, Bode and Ted made ski racing trendy in the U.S., there was Tamara. While for race fans, they’re all household names and each career deserves single-name fame, Tamara McKinney is the original.

 She was the first American woman to win the overall World Cup title, racking up 18 wins and 45 podiums over a mind-bogglingly successful career. A three-time Olympian with four World Championship medals, there are also ten U.S. titles thrown into her lengthy resume – if you just count those won on home snow.

 “All my National titles came from slalom and GS, and beyond those ten, I have at least one from New Zealand and also Argentina,” recalls McKinney. “Nationals are less serious, so after a long season in Europe, it’s also fun. It’s something of pride and recognition within your own country. With all your teammates spread out over FIS races, Europa and World Cup, men’s and women’s tours, it’s great to get together and finally see your friends. But the titles are important and I remember as a junior it was a tremendous honor to get in and see the World Cup-level racers. And at Nationals in Sun Valley, my results earned me my first World Cup slot.”

 McKinney was only 16 at that race in Sun Valley. Eager up-and-comers can take a page from her playbook when Squaw Valley hosts the U.S. Alpine Championships this March. The California resort has been McKinney’s longtime home, where she’s raising her daughter while blending coaching with a real estate career. Like mother, like daughter – Francesca, 16, has inherited some technical speed genes from her mom.

 “The Nationals are a great opportunity for the local race kids,” explains McKinney. “Some of them will get to forerun. My daughter is so mad, because she had a chance to forerun, but now she’s been invited to Western Regionals in Alaska that same week. But this is an opportunity to see how you stack up against your peers. It’s a good point race to get your numbers down. It’s definitely important, since you also have [ski] companies looking at racers to decide sponsorship.”

 Asked what events and racers she’s looking forward to at her hometown event, it was like asking which puppy is cutest. She said, “Oh God, I always have an aversion to picking a winner. I love watching all of them!”

 That disclaimer firmly in place, McKinney attacked the topic like it was the Schladming course, first mentioning the young racer most often compared to her.

 “Mikaela Shiffrin has raised the bar, and without putting extra pressure on her, she’s a rising star. Being removed a bit, I don’t see day-to-day training, so it’s hard to guess…Julia [Mancuso] is a hometown favorite here at Squaw. She’s been really generous with my daughter; regardless of that, we always want to see her do well. And I’d love to see Marco [Sullivan] do well and Steve Nyman is on a great recovery year. Nick Daniels and Bryce Bennett are local juniors who are up-and-coming. It’s hit-or-miss of who I know, so I don’t feel I’m an authority.”

 Maybe the endearingly modest Ms. McKinney hasn’t read her own bio? Although she’s backed off from coaching lately to focus on her career at Sotheby’s, the Olympian has logged plenty of race hill hours since retiring from World Cup.

 “When Francesca was a baby, I coached various levels, like J1s and J2s. When Julia was a J3, she’d ditch her practice to come train with us. When my daughter was older, I coached the local Tahoe League until she was 11 and we joined Far West. Last year, I decided I was spreading myself a little thin and decided to focus more on real estate and be more of a soccer mom, driving my daughter to races.”

 Not too many soccer moms have their own namesake run. Squaw’s new owners, KSL, surprised McKinney last year when they named a run after her. Fittingly, “Tamara’s Run” is on the east side of Olympic Lady.

 McKinney summed up the impact of the Squaw Nationals saying, “The younger racers will get to see ski racing from a world level, but within reach. They’ll see the human side, someone taking off their boots, routines at the start, inspection – not just the glamour of the sport. All the people here in Squaw, all the racers, locals and famous World Cup heroes – there’s a feeling of being one family.”