Molding the next generation of badass girls

By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

During one of Keely Kelleher’s summer ski racing camps in Mount Hood, Ore., the coaches decided it was time to show the girls another type of skiing.

So the group of 25 girls, ages 11-16, loaded their backpacks with water and lunch, shouldered their skis, and took an hour-and-a-half hike above the Palmer Lift, led by their five coaches.

“It was a big hike,” said Alexa Coyle, a 13-year-old Big Sky Ski Education Foundation racer who lives in Bozeman. “We went straight up, really far… We got to see a lot more of Mount Hood.”

Along the way, a few of the girls thought they wouldn’t be able to make it, says Kelleher, 28, a Big Sky native and ex-World Cup racer who started the camps in summer 2011. “We got to talk them through it and see these mental and emotional battles inside their heads.”

But they all did, and they have group photos from a spot they named “Illumination Rock” to prove it. Once they’d soaked in the view, the girls skied a mile of perfect, low-angle corn snow back down.

“They got to the bottom and were so excited,” said Kelleher, who runs the camps while working toward a degree in business at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. “That was the most rewarding experience of my life, seeing them accomplish something really tough.”

Coyle credits the “fun, competitive atmosphere” at camp for pushing her to be a better racer. “Seeing the level of girls from over the region opened my eyes,” she said, noting the coaches also impressed her.

Kelleher’s all-female staff are all current or former World Cup racers and Olympians. With a ratio of 5 to 1, the girls receive individualized feedback every run, as well as during dry land training, Kelleher said.

As the first ski racing and big mountain camps in North America for girls, Keely’s Camps have drawn skiers from around the country.

Another BSSEF racer, Annika Linkenbach, 13, described camp as “life-changing.”

“I made a commitment and dedication right after that camp,” said the Bozeman resident, referring to a summer session at Mount Hood. “I set my goals and reached them because of it. It really helped with my confidence in the sport of ski racing.”

Linkenbach also attended a big mountain camp at Snowbird this past winter and is signed up to return to Mount Hood this summer. The all-girls environment “made it a lot more comfortable,” she said.

While the race camps are already popular – registration for one of the summer sessions at Mount Hood filled up within two hours of opening online this year – Kelleher, now a professional big mountain skier, wants to grow the freeride offerings, as well.

Designed for 10- to 17-year-olds who want to “take their skiing to a new level,” the big mountain camps at Snowbird teach skills like learning to ski lines and drop cliffs fluidly and safely, throwing 360s, and an introduction to avalanche safety.

On top of tackling angulation, cross blocking, powder skiing, and visualization, Kelleher and her coaches see themselves as role models.

“When I was that age I didn’t have that many female coaches, so I was always hanging out with the boys,” Kelleher said. “It was awesome, but it would have been inspiring to see a woman coaching and skiing as hard as the kids. I tell the girls, ‘Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and ski really hard. It’s awesome to be a strong skier and a strong athlete.’”

This is what makes the camps one of a kind, says Annika’s father Jeff Linkenbach, who also coached Keely as a junior racer.

“Keely creates a culture where there’s no negative drama,” he said. “It’s all about staying positive and supporting each other. I really believe in what she’s doing for these young women… [It provides] a safe, supportive environment that brings out the best in them and gives them confidence they can carry into the rest of their lives.”