Go For The Gold: Heather McPhie
On a rainy night in February 2010, Heather McPhie looked destined for an Olympic medal. The mogul skier had qualified third for the Olympic final — behind teammate Hannah Kearney and then-reigning Olympic gold medalist Jennifer Heil from Canada. And leading up to the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, McPhie had made the podium in the three World Cup mogul competitions.
McPhie began her final run.
“It was the best run of my life,” she said. “I had no idea how fast I was going because I was in such great control.”
On her final air, she went “massive” in a back layout. Too fast and too high, she was already fully extended and had no way to slow herself down. She landed off balance and in a whirl of white slush, her Olympic dreams were dashed.
Kearney took gold, Heil silver, and U.S. teammate Shannon Bahrke won the bronze medal.
Now with the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games approaching, McPhie, 28, wants to go massive again — but this time end up on the medal stand. She’s added a new air to her routine, a difficult off-axis 720, or D-spin. With a higher score for degree of difficulty, the trick helped her win the first two World Cup competitions this season.
Not bad for a mogul skier who was once terrified of jumping.
McPhie’s ski career began at Bridger Bowl near Bozeman, Mont., where she was born and raised. Her parents were both ski instructors, so they had McPhie and her two older siblings on skis early. But their youngest child liked gymnastics too, particularly tumbling on floor and vault (beam and bars very much “not my thing,” she said). When she was 12, McPhie brought her gymnastics skills to the hill and joined the Bridger Ski Foundation freestyle program.
So petite that she couldn’t buckle her hand-me-down boots, McPhie loved skiing the bumps. But the jumps scared her. So her first year, she skipped them.
Mike Papke, the Bridger Ski Foundation freestyle program director and head coach, quickly figured out that McPhie was fine once she was in the air. She was just afraid to go off the jump. So he stood in the transition to the jump and didn’t allow McPhie to slow down or veer off as she approached the ramp.
“Once she figured it out, she took off,” he said, pun intended.
Since then, she has pushed her airs — sometimes too far, making it difficult to ski clean runs.
“I’m so stubborn about pushing the sport,” she said. “I love to do big tricks and push myself.”
“Several times, she could have taken the easy way out and done a simpler trick and made the U.S. Ski Team,” said Papke. “She’s always driven the sport. She would look at what the boys were doing and say, ‘Why can’t I do that?’”
A four-generation Montanan, McPhie comes by her pioneering spirit genetically. Her great-grandfather, Sam P. Eagle, moved west from Pennsylvania in 1902 to bartend in Yellowstone National Park. Six years later, after the Union Pacific Railroad extended a line to the park’s west entrance, Eagle and a partner opened Eagle’s Store and then helped found what would become the town of West Yellowstone, Mont.
McPhie’s family still owns Eagle’s Store, and she even worked the store’s soda fountain briefly one summer between training camps. But it was easier for her to work closer to home at her parents’ business, McPhie Cabinetry. When she was 16, she became the cabinetry company’s bookkeeper, and she only backed off last spring because international travel and inconsistent Internet connections made it stressful to pay employees and bills on time. She even did payroll from the Olympic Village during 2010 Games. Proud of her roots, McPhie competes wearing a Montana belt buckle.
When she was 18, McPhie skied in her first NorAm Cup, then took fourth at nationals in March 2005. In January 2006, she competed in her first World Cup.
But it took four years — and a change in her approach — before she made a World Cup podium. Going into the 2010 Olympic season, McPhie backed off her big jumps.
“I wasn’t skiing as well when I was throwing my new tricks,” she said.
She also started seeing a sports psychologist.
“We always considered her somewhat of a mad scientist,” said Papke. “She was hard on herself and would think of many options that would affect her career. [The sports psychologist helped her] figure out the pressure she didn’t realize she was putting on herself.”
Less than a month before the Opening Ceremony for the XXI Olympic Winter Games, McPhie tied for her first World Cup win. She followed with two more podium performances that January. Suddenly, she was on the U.S. Olympic team headed to Vancouver.
“Nobody expected I would qualify for that Olympics,” McPhie said. “I was 27th in the world coming into that season; I didn’t have World Cup starts. So to get my first three podiums before the Olympics, it was crazy to come in ranked second in the world. It was so unexpected that I don’t think I was quite prepared.”
Her ever-present smile belied her unease, as did her near-perfect qualifying run. In the final, she looked like she was bound for an Olympic medal … until she hit the bottom jump and crash landed her back layout. She ended up 18th.
“I’ve asked myself a million times, did I make a mental error? What kind of an error was it?”
They are questions she has not yet answered. Instead, she has focused on amping up her airs again — adding the D-spin, which she perfected through Red Bull’s high performance program — and “just putting in the miles.” Precise technical turns and big airs put her at the top of the podium in the first two World Cups this season.
“She made the decision to do the D-spin at every single competition, and I knew that would pay off, she knew that would pay off,” said reigning Olympic moguls champion Hannah Kearney.
Though McPhie struggled to land her top air at the 2013 Lake Placid World Cup and ended up 35th, then had similar problems at the Calgary World Cup last Saturday, U.S. head moguls coach Garth Hager wasn’t worried, noting that her head is in the right place.
For her part, McPhie is still smiling and looking forward.
“My energy and my passion and my plans go through Sochi,” she said. “[This time] I know a lot more what to expect.”
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Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.