Heather McPhie was skiing before she was born, and it seems the Bozeman Olympian was born to ski.
At 29 years old, McPhie is in the best shape of her competitive career. She finished the 2012-13 season winning the U.S. National Championships in freestyle moguls. The victory ranked her in third place internationally coming into this season.
“I really feel like I’m on track,” she said in a telephone interview Tuesday, two days after flying back to Utah from her first World Cup competition in Finland, where she finished seventh.
Naturally, she would like to have won a medal. But she had the highest aerial score of the competition and finished 0.03 second off the podium times.
“That’s one bad pole plant,” she said. “I’m definitely hungry for more.”
McPhie’s event, freestyle moguls, is punishing and daring and requires its athletes to be part acrobat, part machine.
Skiers race down a long, bumpy course, carving turns so quickly that their legs seem to be pumping as fast and as hard as a jackhammer. To make the event even more difficult, two jumps are placed along the route, where the skiers perform a stunt while flying through the air. Scoring for the event is judged on turns, 50 percent; air, 25 percent; and speed, 25 percent.
Among freestyle mogul competitors, McPhie is known for attempting some of the most difficult aerial moves on the World Cup tour, earning her the nickname "McPhly."
It’s hard to believe that when she started freestyle skiing at Bridger Bowl Ski Area as a child, she would ski around the jumps because she was afraid.
“She now has one of the most difficult air packages on the tour,” said her former coach, Mike Papke, of the Bridger Ski Foundation in Bozeman. “She’s always pushing. She always wanted the girls to be doing what the boys were doing.”
McPhie said she has made a conscious decision to push her aerial acrobatics to the edge. It’s what fires her up.
“At first, I wanted to prove that I could do it,” she said. “Now I enjoy pushing myself. It sounds like a cheesy goal, but I hope to inspire others to pursue their passion.”
McPhie is so ahead of the competition in her aerials that the World Cup judges are scratching their heads about how to score her. There is no other female competitor to compare her with.
“I hope I’m paving a path that will become the norm,” she said.
On Wednesday, McPhie was scheduled to fly to Montana for a holiday break with her family. On Saturday she’ll appear at a fundraiser at Big Sky Resort at 4:30 p.m. in the Summit Hotel.
But the highlight of the day for her will be skiing with four generations of her family, including her grandmother, mother, sister and her sister’s children.
“Grandma decided to try skiing again, which is so exciting,” McPhie said.
That family connection and link to Montana is a big part of what keeps Heather McPhie motivated as she competes at the highest level of her sport. She recalled how nervous she was to tell her parents that she had decided to leave Montana State University in 2004 at age 20 to devote all her attention to skiing and competing in hopes of making the U.S. Ski Team. But Scott and Kristie McPhie were completely supportive.
Her parents never set out to raise an Olympic competitor. They just loved to ski. Kristie’s family was on the slopes at nearby Bridger Bowl or Big Sky every weekend as she grew up. Scott’s family owned a Utah ski shop.
“We never wanted to push our kids to win,” Kristie McPhie said, so Heather struggled initially with getting comfortable with the fact that “she really wanted to win.”
When she left MSU, McPhie set a goal of qualifying for the U.S. Ski Team by 2005, and she made it. But only a year later she fractured her lower back while practicing aerials on a water ramp. It was the type of injury that had ended the career of other competitors. Still, she was determined to recover from the injury and compete again.
“The doctor said it was pretty unlikely I would get back to my sport," she said. "But I never believed her.”
The injury, surgery and recovery were humbling experiences.
“For a couple of weeks, I was pretty immobile,” she said. “But I learned a lot about my body.”
Four years later, McPhie qualified for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. She climbed from 27th in the world to No. 2 in less than four months.
“I look back at the 2010 season and she did not have a spot,” Papke said. “To go to Deer Valley and win says a lot about that drive to never give up, to not let that chance slip away.”
She was skiing strong at the 2010 Olympics, placing third in the first round. But she fell during her second run after a back layout aerial maneuver. The crash wiped out any chance she may have had to earn a medal. She finished 18th. She was crushed.
“She carried that a long time,” her mother said. “She felt like she let everyone down.”
McPhie remembers sitting on the floor, crying as she read the well wishes that friends and family members had written on a banner welcoming her home after the Olympics.
“I’m really so gratified for where I grew up,” she said of the support she has had from her family, friends, community and the state.
“It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it, it’s such an embracing, supportive community, and that’s rare,” she said.
Although the Olympic crash rocked her spirits, Heather has once again battled back. In November, she was named to the 2014 U.S. Freestyle Moguls Team. Unfortunately, that doesn’t earn her a trip to the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Russia this February. She still has four more events that will determine if she qualifies for the U.S. Olympic team. The first race is Jan. 4 in Calgary.
Her hometown fans don’t see that as a problem.
“I think she has a really good shot to podium at the (2014) Olympics,” Papke said.
Heather also remains confident, not letting the pressure of competition cloud her underlying objective – to have fun and enjoy the experience.
“I’m grateful to have these opportunities,” she said. “I enjoy working really hard. The hard work is the easy part.
“Really, the way I look at it is, if I can ski the way I know I can, I’ll make the team.”