Looking back, Tamara McKinney can see clearly the magic that touched her career in ski racing. Then, as if averting her eyes, she chooses not to take notice of the twin specters of injury and death that seemed to wait at the finish line, daring her, time after time, to go back up the hill again.
Instead, she will quickly focus on the present and her new career of “helping other people.”
Formally retired from competition at 28, McKinney is the official spokeswoman for Jimmie Heuga’s Mazda Ski Express, a three-month series of charity events aimed at raising $1 million to fight multiple sclerosis.
It is a perfect match, McKinney and Heuga: World-class ski racers, former neighbors in Squaw Valley and conquerors, in their own ways, of adversity. For Heuga, it was a triumph of will over a crippling physical disease. For McKinney, victory came only after acceptance of loss and adjustment to the slow, painful mending of not just broken limbs, but a broken heart.
Shortly before Frances McKinney died in 1988, she returned to her youngest daughter a medal with a faded red ribbon on which was inscribed: “Second Place Girls Giant Slalom 1966.” Since Tamara was only 4 at the time of the race, her mother kept it for safekeeping.
Now, the little medal hangs in a place of honor among the World Cup trophies and the 1989 World Championship gold medal in Tamara’s bedroom at Squaw Valley.
During the 1960s and ‘70s, life in the McKinney family revolved around skiing. Frances, who was an instructor at the old Sky Tavern and Slide Mountain near Reno, moved her seven children west from Lexington, Ky., so they could ski--and race.
Sheila McKinney was the first to achieve prominence in racing, but serious head injuries, suffered in a World Cup downhill fall at Heavenly Valley in early 1977, ended her promising career.
“She has improved gradually over the years, but there are still some lingering effects,” Tamara said recently of her sister, who lives with two other sisters on the family’s Stony Point Farm in Kentucky.
Two years after Sheila’s accident, Tamara joined the World Cup circuit.
A European coach recalled for Nick Howe of Ski Racing his first impression of her: “In 1979 I saw this American girl, a curious little person with her mouth full of metal and beautifully thick hair she wore like a cape, so long she could sit on it. She was always laughing and giggling, and I thought, ‘Who is this child?’ Then I saw her ski and I thought, ‘Oh, my God . . . ‘ “
McKinney’s skiing was advanced for her years--light but decisive, with an almost instinctive feel for the correct line down each course--and in 1983, she won the World Cup overall championship. “That was a year of magic,” McKinney said. “I was just a twerp, only 20. But it was something really special.”
The next year’s racing schedule included the Winter Olympics at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, and the week before the Games, McKinney, at 21, made the cover of Time magazine, along with Phil Mahre.
“Suddenly, I had 15 people calling me every day and wanting me to do something,” she said at the time. “After a certain point, the publicity, the media and the pressure just didn’t register anymore.
“There was a lot of extra travel, in addition to travel with the ski team. . . . My energy level dropped. It reached the point where it was too hard to get excited, and you have to be excited to race.”
She was able to get excited enough to place fourth--but out of the medals--in the giant slalom, then failed to finish the slalom.
McKinney bounced back sufficiently to win four World Cup races that season--she ended her career with 18 victories, more than any other American--and in February 1985 took the combined bronze medal in the World Championships at Bormio, Italy. During the winter, she learned that her father, Rigan McKinney, was seriously ill with cancer.
After finishing second in a World Cup giant slalom at Lake Placid, N.Y., Tamara called home with the news and learned that Rigan, a Hall of Fame steeplechase jockey who had remained in Kentucky to raise horses, had died. Three days later, despite the devastating news, she won the giant slalom at Waterville Valley, N.H.
Later, she told Howe, who traveled with the U.S. women’s team: “When I called home from Lake Placid, my mom told me that my father had won over 39% of all his (steeplechase) races. I didn’t know that. So I decided I’d better work on my average.”
In the 1987 World Championships at Crans-Montana, Switzerland, McKinney again misfired in her quest for a gold medal, coming away with another bronze in the combined.
Then, the following November, with the 1988 Winter Olympics on the horizon, McKinney broke her left leg in training at Copper Mountain, Colo., and didn’t get back on skis until the end of the year. Arriving in Calgary in February without having raced internationally all season, she proceeded to fall in the first run of the giant slalom and then again, two days later, in the first run of the slalom.
Her box score for two Winter Olympics: Four races, zero medals.
But in Canada, her leg still ached--and so did her heart. Frances McKinney, 62, was hospitalized with a recurrence of cancer, and Tamara spent most of the Games dodging reporters, who were pressing her for details on how she was holding up.
After her final chance for an Olympic medal came crashing down, McKinney said: “I don’t know if it has left any void in my life, because I don’t know what it feels like to win a medal (in the Olympics). I’ve had many great things happen in my career. I’m no different just because I don’t have an Olympic medal.
“I’m proud to have skied for the United States. I tried my heart out, but it wasn’t enough. Now, I just have to look ahead. I have other things in my life. There are people I love and want to be with.”
Soon after Tamara returned home, her mother died.
A month later, her brother, McLean, with whom she frequently ran practice slalom gates at Squaw Valley, committed suicide.
“She loved skiing,” Tamara said the other day, referring to her mother. “She stays with me, and I take all the inspiration I have for the sport from her.”
On Feb. 2, 1989, an inspired McKinney finally broke through for a gold medal, winning the combined event in the World Championships at Vail, Colo.
“It was a little bit of magic,” she recalled. “Not because of myself, but because of all the people who believed in me. I was glad to be able to do it for them, to win a gold medal here at home in the United States.
“I had some good times and some hard times between 1983 and ’89, but I was able to come back strong, and that’s what made that day so special.”
She also earned a bronze in the slalom five days later, but it was the gold medal that marked the climax of her 11-year career as an active member of the U.S. ski team, although she didn’t know it at the time.
On Oct. 18, 1989, while training on the glacier at Saas Fe, Switzerland, McKinney severely injured her left knee, an accident that knocked her out of action for the 1989-90 season and, ultimately, for good.
“Racing was a lot of fun, but I don’t miss it that much,” McKinney said. “I enjoyed traveling and getting to know different cultures, and I’ve kept a ledger with all of my experiences, so I could remember them. But the past is past. I’m concentrating on my new job with Jimmie Heuga’s Mazda Ski Express. It just feels like the right thing for me to do now.
“Jimmie was an early hero of mine. While he was out tearing up the hills of Europe, I was learning how to read. I actually saw his father more because he worked on the tram at Squaw Valley. His family was always around our family.”
Heuga, now 46, won a bronze medal in the 1964 Olympic slalom at Innsbruck, Austria. His racing career ended six years later, when it was learned that he had multiple sclerosis. Through a rigorous regimen of physical exercise and mental conditioning, he has been able to remain relatively active.
The Jimmie Heuga Center in Avon, Colo., is a nonprofit scientific research center founded to help the physically challenged, chiefly those with MS, maximize the quality of their lives.
“The idea is to show people what they can do, not let them dwell on what they can’t do,” said McKinney, who will make appearances at many of the Ski Express’ 31 events and give racing clinics for the participants.
At each event, teams of three skiers will contribute at least $1,000 a team, the money sometimes coming from sponsoring companies or raffles and such. The skiers will try to make as many runs as they can in a four-hour period, then race in a giant slalom. The winning team will be determined at each location on a combined basis of money contributed, runs made and times posted.
The 31 champion teams receive expenses-paid trips to Vail, Colo., for the national finals April 10-14.
Last year, $521,000 was raised for the Jimmie Heuga Center.
California stops on this year’s Ski Express are Squaw Valley on Feb. 15, Sugar Bowl on March 10, Mammoth Mountain on March 15 and Snow Summit on March 16.
Between trips for the Ski Express, McKinney plans to spend as much time as possible at the home she and her older brother, Steve, built in Squaw Valley. Last summer, they added a garage to the house, which faces the Olympic Lady ski slope.
Steve, who raced on the U.S. ski team in the 1970s and flew a hang-glider off Mt. Everest in the 1980s, was the first skier to surpass 200 kilometers per hour in a straight speed run.
Early last Nov. 10, while driving home from the San Francisco Ski Ball, his car apparently began acting up, so he pulled over to the side of Interstate 5 just south of Sacramento and climbed into the back seat for a nap until dawn.
The car was struck by another driven by a drunk driver and Steve died of his injuries that afternoon. Steve McKinney, whose 6-year-old son, Stefan, lived with him and Tamara in Squaw Valley, was 37.
More than a month has passed since the accident, and although Tamara McKinney still feels pain, she said: “Steve was a great inspiration to me and was instrumental in getting me started racing. He will always be with me . . . “