Tamara McKinney, at the peak of her career, was uncatchable on the slopes. Seen above, in 1987, she carves the course for the U.S. Ski Team in Crans-Montana, Switzerland. PHOTO: Lori Adamski-Peek
In the 1980s, Tamara McKinney skied fast down icy race courses across the globe, setting records and accumulating podium appearances in every event possible on the international circuit. She was the first American woman to win the overall World Cup title, and many of her records held strong until Lindsey Vonn began racing years later.
Today, McKinney channels her competitive and friendly spirit selling luxury real estate in her adopted hometown, Squaw Valley, California. McKinney, the youngest of eight siblings, was born in Lexington, Kentucky, but moved west when she was just a toddler, and spent most of childhood at her family's home in the Sierra mountains near Lake Tahoe. McKinney's parents were steeplechase jockeys who balanced a long-distance marriage. At one point, her father, Rigan, was the fastest jockey in the country, and a handful of her siblings also held positions on the U.S. Ski Team—including her brother, speed skier Steve McKinney—so, it’s clear, racing is in her blood.
“I got to break trail. I'm not counting rusty trophies. I got to do something when people didn't think it was possible.”
POWDER sat down with McKinney to find out which lessons she learned as a ski racer still resonate, the importance of giving back to younger generations, and why "you're never too cool to be nice."
POWDER: How did the being the youngest of eight kids influence you?
McKinney: Well, there were three basic rules: no whining, no crying, and no telling. As for the skiing part, my mom was working, teaching skiing. We lived about half an hour from [Squaw] Valley, and she didn’t want to leave me for the day. So, she would bring me (they didn’t have portable playpens in those days)…and bring a suitcase of pillows and quilts and set me up in the lift shack. The lift attendant would look after me, and my brothers and sisters would take me for a lap every now and then.
What were your early days like skiing around Squaw?
I learned from watching my brothers and sisters, following them, sometimes jumping in, having the opportunity to train with them, just being the little sister. I have nightmares of skiing the Gunbarrel at Heavenly Mountain in an ice mogul field, but I was never terrified in a bad way, just with a lurking adrenaline.
We'd ski around…whatever the conditions were good for, whatever the hill had to offer, but using our heads. That's the thing…to be aware of the surroundings that change daily and know that what's smart to ski one day isn't the same the next. That's something I'd like to see more of as people are pushing the boundaries, because we're losing too many bright spirits that are pushing the limits.
When did you find your confidence and realize you had potential to win?
It was a very quiet thing. I would learn from watching. There were two things that gave me that tangible feel like: I can do that. The first, the most memorable, was watching the 1972 Olympics from Japan on television when I was 9 years old, and Barbara Ann-Cochran won the slalom. She was an American from Vermont, from a skiing family, and she was little, like five-foot two-inches—just like me. I remember thinking: That! That's what I want to do.
For a number of years, they had the World Cup finals in Heavenly. As a family we'd take a trip up there, and we'd get to be right there on the hill, to feel it and see it. I remember where we were staying, the big excitement was my brothers jumping on the beds [at the motel], someone knocking on the door, and it was Jean-Claude Killy. It was the wrong door! It was having that proximity—to be able to feel the energy.
Do you have any favorite memories from your time on the World Cup tour?
I was fortunate I was able to put some good things together, but the lasting things are being able to live an inspired life, being able to travel with people who are like-minded, and meeting the [skiing] brother- and sisterhood all around the world. Luckily, I had the ability and the mentors. I was able to do some trailbreaking. Sometimes people will mention that I've got records that held until Lindsey Vonn broke them, and I just think: Gosh, I got to break trail. I'm not counting rusty trophies. I got to do something when people didn't think it was possible.
What's kept you in the Tahoe area all this time?
Probably the love of the mountains, waking up and breathing the fresh air. To raise my daughter in the fresh air, and hike up into the mountains, where we can get to the Pacific Crest Trail. But, beyond that, I have the ability to work and play in a beautiful area, and I don't take that lightly. When I get in traffic and smog, I have that feeling I don't belong. We all gravitate toward where we want to be.
Over the years what's the best thing that skiing's taught you?
It's the ability to go beyond—beyond the comfort zone where the outcome is not assured, but to be trying 1,000 percent, and being willing to fall on my face and get up one more time. Success doesn't come on the first try. To be a student of the sport, but also a student of life, to figure out what works and what doesn't. The other kind of funny, ironic thing is to never admire the turn behind you, because there's always one in front of you, and it's coming up fast. That willingness to be smart and kind—it doesn't mean you aren't cool. It probably keeps you alive in the mountains.