Tamara McKinney was the best American woman on skis in the 1980s. She was only 16 when she first finished in the top three in a World Cup ski event in 1978, and her dominance in the sport continued through her victory in the combined event at the International Ski Federation (FIS) World Alpine Ski Championships in 1989. She is still the only American woman ever to have captured the World Cup overall title, and her 18 career first-place finishes (nine in slalom and nine in giant slalom) constitute an American record.
A Family Affair
Skiing runs in McKinney's family. Her mother, Frances, worked as a ski instructor in the Lake Tahoe area when McKinney was a child. McKinney, the youngest of Frances's seven children, was often left in the lift shack in the care of the lift operators and of her brothers and sisters while her mother taught. "I had skis on my feet before I could walk," McKinney told Deirdre Donahue of People Weekly. "My family strapped them on and toddled me around."
Three of McKinney's siblings skied on the U.S. ski team before she did, including her brothers Steve and McLane. Steve, who was killed by a drunk driver in 1990, was the first man to go faster than 200 kilometers per hour on skis, and he held the world speed-skiing record seven times. Sister Sheila McKinney first made the national team when she was 12 and skied in her first international race at 13. Her competitive skiing career ended at age 18, when she crashed into a pole during a World Cup downhill race at Heavenly Valley, Nevada, in 1977. She spent weeks in a coma, and although she did eventually recover, she did not return to skiing.
Skiing was not the only sport practiced by the family. McKinney's father, Rigan, owned and operated the Stony Point horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky, and was a championship-winning jockey in steeplechase before he died following a stroke in the mid-1980s. McKinney herself was an accomplished rider as a child. Her sister Laura now owns Stony Point, and McKinney and her daughter Francesca often return there for visits.
Skiing on the World Stage
McKinney joined the World Cup tour in 1977, the same year that her older sister Sheila was injured. By 1978 the tiny Tamara McKinney-she stands 5 foot, 3 inches "on tall days"-had already established herself as a contender, when she finished third in a World Cup slalom event in Piancavallo, Italy, shortly after turning 16. At 17 she competed in her first Olympics, in front of a friendly American crowd in Lake Placid, New York, but she fell in both the slalom and the giant slalom. "I was completely overwhelmed," she later recalled to Brian Bennett of the Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal. "Once I got in the start [gate] and everybody started going crazy, I had like an out-of-body experience. I felt like I couldn't move my legs."
|1962||Born October 16 to Rigan and Frances McKinney|
|1977||Joins the World Cup tour|
|1977||Older sister suffers major injuries during World Cup downhill race|
|1978||Finishes in top three in a World Cup event for the first time|
|1980||Competes in her first Olympics, falling in both events|
|1982||Fractures right hand|
|1984||Finishes fourth in the giant slalom at the Olympics|
|1987||Suffers a broken ankle that prevents her from competing for much of the early winter|
|1990||Retires from competitive skiing|
|1990||Brother, Steve, killed by drunk driver|
|1996||Becomes member of the FIS Women's Committee|
|1997||Daughter, Francesca, born|
The next year McKinney proved her skill by winning the World Cup giant slalom title, and two years after that she stunned the world by winning the overall World Cup. No American woman had ever won the overall World Cup before, and only one other non-European, Canadian Nancy Green, had ever managed the feat. McKinney was a favorite to win a medal in the 1984 Olympics, even appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated 's Olympic preview issue, but the stress of having been a favorite for two years was beginning to show. She skied poorly in her first giant slalom run, and even though she had the fastest time on the second run, she still finished fourth, .43 of a second behind the bronze medal winner. She missed a gate and was disqualified in the slalom.
In 1989, after several weak years caused in part by family stress (both of McKinney's parents and her brother McLane died in the mid-to late 1980s), McKinney came back to reclaim her title as the best American woman on skis. Although she was unable to capture a World Cup title she did take the gold medal in the combined event at the FIS World Alpine Ski Championships in Vail, Colorado, finishing a mere .04 of a second ahead of Yugoslavian skier Mateja Svet. At a press conference after her win, McKinney revealed that her feet had been completely frozen when she raced-the slalom had been run when the air temperature was 24 degrees below zero-and that she was still suffering from frostbite on two toes on her left foot. McKinney retired in 1990, shortly after winning the World Championships.
A Different Kind of Education
McKinney, like most world-class skiers, was unable to go to college or to do many of the things that other normal teenagers and young adults do because she spent so much of her life training. But despite the fact that her formal education was interrupted, McKinney still tried to learn as much as she could anyway. As she told Saturday Evening Post contributor Walter Roessing: "There's no question that travel is educational…. I've been to some wonderful places that aren't usually seen by girls my age. I have enjoyed the chance to experience many different cultures, and I can speak German and a little French."
Life after Skiing
McKinney lives in Squaw Valley, California, with her daughter, Francesca, who was born in 1997. McKinney remains involved in skiing: She has served on the FIS Women's Committee since 1996, and she also coaches the Squaw Valley junior racing team, which included 2002 Olympic skiers Julia Mancuso and Marco Sullivan.
Awards and Accomplishments
|McKinney had 18 wins in World Cup races in her career, nine in slalom and nine in giant slalom.|
|1981||Scores first victory, in giant slalom in Switzerland|
|1983||World Cup champion, giant slalom|
|1983||World Cup champion, overall|
|1984||World Cup champion, slalom|
|1989||FIS World Championships, combined event|
In the run-up to the 2002 Olympics McKinney carried the Olympic flame down a Squaw Valley ski slope in front of a crowd of more than 1,000 people who had gathered to cheer for her. She was accompanied by four-year-old Francesca, who is following in her mother's ski tracks: Francesca is already competing in skiing races. The large crowd that had gathered to watch McKinney ski and to get autographs at the bottom of the slope "kind of surprised me, because I had figured by now that everybody had forgotten me," McKinney told Bennett. As Bennett put it, "Not likely." As one of the most successful American skiers in history and the only American woman to have captured the overall World Cup title, McKinney is unlikely to be forgotten any time soon.
Beech, Mark. "Tamara McKinney and Phil Mahre, Skiers: February 6, 1984." Sports Illustrated (March 18, 2002): 21+.
Callahan, Tom. "Their Success Is All in the Family." Time (January 30, 1984): 44-47.
Donahue, Deirdre. "U.S. Alpine Racers Are Prospecting for Gold in the Snow." People Weekly (February 13, 1984): 39-42.
Johnson, William Oscar. "A Flight So Fancy." Sports Illustrated (February 13, 1989): 14-21.
——. "Mountain Melodrama." Sports Illustrated (February 20, 1989): 32-36.
Roessing, Walter. "High Hopes on the Slopes." Saturday Evening Post (December 1987): 64-67.
Bennett, Brian. "McKinney's Flame Still Burns." Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky). http://www.courier-journal.com/cjsports/news2002/02/03/sp020302s149449.htm (January 8, 2003).
"Tamara McKinney (USA)." Ski World Cup. http://www.skiworldcup.org/load/champions/women/mckinney/01.html (January 8, 2003).
Sketch by Julia Bauder