20 Aug Local Knowledge: Hometown Hero Heather McPhie
To watch Heather McPhie ski freestyle moguals is akin to witnessing perfection. Nailing bump after bump with precision and speed only to launch off jumps and dazzle onlookers and judges with spins, backflips, twists and turns midair. Landing, she continues the aggressive jaunt down the slope, reaching speeds of 30 miles per hour and completing a course that is 270 meters long in less than 30 seconds.
For McPhie, this perfect moment is the accumulation of years and years of dedicated practice, strong family and community support, and obvious passion. The result was an Olympic debut in 2010 and another shot to qualify for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, this December. And it all began in Montana.
McPhie first learned to ski at Bridger Bowl when she was 3 years old, but prior to that her parents carried her down the ski hill in a backpack at Bridger and neighboring Big Sky Resort. In 1996, the former gymnast joined the Bridger Ski Foundation’s competitive freestyle team at age 12 and credits the organization for teaching her the fundamental skills that landed her on the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team in 2005.
“To see an athlete who I originally had to buckle her boots to then being the best in the country — it is great,” said Mike Papke, who remains Bridger’s freestyle coach and the foundation’s program director. “As an athlete in the sport myself, it’s way more emotional as a coach. I still get goosebumps when I’m in that setting watching my athletes compete at any level, but on a national stage it’s great to see a local athlete excel.”
McPhie qualified third for the finals during the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, but an over-extended back layout was too fast to stick, landing her in 18th place. That outcome only seemed to motivate her. Heather’s 2012-13 ski season — her “most successful to date” — included three World Cup wins in Finland, Austria and Sweden as well as two other World Cup podiums. She successfully defended her National Championship title in California this spring and finished the season ranked third in the world for freestyle moguls.
As a fourth generation Montanan who now resides in Park City, Utah, McPhie takes pride in her Bozeman beginnings. Each time she skis, she wears the Northern Division belt buckle that she won when she competed with Papke’s team in 2004. “For me it is an amazing reminder of home and helps me feel connected to my roots which is very important to me,” she said, noting that her brother, sister and parents still reside in Bozeman. “One of my coaches, Garth Hager, made the belt and it has the Olympic rings, my nickname, the “Made in Montana” logo and much more. I always have it in my carry-on because it is one of the things I am most sentimental about.”
And despite the fact that Heather has spent nearly a decade skiing on slopes across the globe, her most epic powder day still remains at her hometown resort, when Bridger received 100 inches of snow over the course of three days in 2003. She spent the day navigating through “the most snow I have ever skied” with Papke.
Q&A with a Hometown Hero
Big Sky Journal: While earning your turns at Bridger Bowl and Big Sky, did you even imagine that you’d become an Olympic athlete?
Heather McPhie: I have always loved watching the Olympics and maybe some part of me dreamed of being there when I “grew up,” but I didn’t even realize mogul skiing was an Olympic sport until 1998 and at that point I felt so far away from achieving something like that, that it was not a focus of mine. Most people don’t believe me, but I really was terrible at the sport my first several years. My last couple years of high school it became a dream of mine to make the U.S. Ski Team, but I would say I didn’t really dream of going to the Olympics until 2009. I was always working toward something and pushing myself for so many years, but my goals developed slowly. I was really moved when I watched Jonny Moseley win the gold in 1998 and watching the 2002 Olympics live in Salt Lake City made a big impression on me as well.
BSJ: What lessons did you learn from the 2010 Olympics that you’ll use to help qualify for the upcoming games?
HM: One of the most powerful lessons was how amazing it feels to be a part of something so positive in this world and what it really feels like to have the honor to represent your country on the world stage. In terms of performance, I learned to train more like I want to compete so I am ready for the speeds I get up to when I am really in the moment. Another thing I learned was how amazing the Bozeman and Big Sky communities truly are. I have always had great support and they came out in full force to the fundraiser myself and a couple other Olympic hopefuls from the area had in 2009. The way the community rallied for me during the Olympics still gives me goosebumps. I felt so supported and I will forever be grateful for where I grew up.
BSJ: So, how does one train for the Olympic Games?
HM: That is a really tough question to answer. I doubt anyone starts out their career with a plan of training for the Olympics. It is hours and hours and years and years of practice. Sometimes I had no idea what I was really training for; other times I had set goals like making finals at a Nor-Am tour event or qualifying for the U.S. Ski Team. My training now consists of six days a week of workouts written by my strength coach Alex Moore — this involves road biking, lifting weights, plyometric training and much more. I also water ramp in the summer (where you wear normal ski boots and skis, put on a life jacket and helmet and practice your tricks into the pool), chase snow year round (the only month I wasn’t on snow this year was June), work with my mental strength coach, and do my best to focus on eating well-balanced meals no matter where I am in the world.
BSJ: Do you remember the first backflip you ever landed on skis?
HM: I definitely remember my first backflip on snow! It was in Zermatt, Switzerland, over 10 years ago. My gymnastics background was helpful for learning the trick and I had done a lot of flips on the water ramps, but throwing it on snow for the first time was really scary! The biggest thing I remember is thinking, “What am I supposed to do with these poles?” and so I just left them in the snow and did my first couple backflips without poles! It was scary, but I knew the reward would be worth it. I love to push myself and I really enjoy being upside down. Learning a backflip was a big turning point for me in terms of my career, because I started to love jumping instead of being terrified of it!
BSJ: What is your greatest strength as an athlete?
HM: I am very coachable. If I put my mind to something and really focus on it, I can change it. I’m also willing to work as hard as I need to in order to accomplish what I set out to do.
BSJ: What is currently your biggest challenge? And what do you consider your biggest success to date?
HM: My biggest challenge at this point in my career is continually checking in and trusting my intuition and walking the fine line between pushing myself and the sport in the way I dream and doing what I am most prepared to do. My biggest success to date is qualifying for the 2010 Olympics. Really stepping up my performance under such pressure and going from 27th to 2nd in the world in the span of a few months was the time I feel I have dug the deepest to find what I am truly made of.
BSJ: What is your trademark trick?
HM: The trick I am best known for is my d-spin (an off-axis 720), which I have competed consistently in the World Cup for the past two seasons. I absolutely love to throw it, and have loved pushing myself and the sport. I am also working on a back full (a laid out backflip with a full twist). My dream is to compete a back full and d-spin at the Olympics in 2014. At the World Championships last year I was the first girl to compete these tricks in the same run and I am doing everything I can to be ready to compete both of my more difficult tricks regularly this upcoming season.
BSJ: Do you have any advice for young athletes hoping to go for the gold?
HM: My main advice would be to focus on your own personal goals pertaining to the things you can control as much as possible instead of worrying about the outcome. Having a goal of going to the Olympics or winning a gold medal is fantastic and it can help get you out of bed in the morning when you are exhausted or feeling a little less motivated, but it is also something that happens once every four years, and so much is outside of your control when competing in a judged sport. If you have a goal, such as winning a gold medal, hang on to that dream, but then break it down into smaller goals that are slightly outside your reach but still feel attainable to you at whatever point you are at in your sport.
BSJ: Do you plan to return permanently to Montana?
HM: At this point I dream of getting back to Montana permanently within the next several years. While I continue to compete for the U.S. Ski Team, I will remain in Utah. U.S. Ski Team members have some great opportunities for college in Utah that I plan on pursuing again once I retire. After that I hope my boyfriend and I can both find careers we are passionate about in Montana so I can come home!