By Joseph T. O’Connor ExploreBigSky.com Editor

BOZEMAN – It was hard for Heather McPhie to stay focused when she clicked into her bindings in Finland on Dec. 15. Half an hour earlier, she crashed so hard on this mogul course in training she broke a ski.

Luckily, she had her backup Moment boards at the top of the hill, and her coach, Lasse Fahlen, to keep her calm in the starting gates.

“[We] had a good plan of just staying focused on myself and the few simple things that we were working on,” McPhie said in an email interview, thankful for her safety and the result of her efforts.

This ice running through her veins shot the Bozeman, Mont. native down the course and earned her first place in the opening World Cup mogul competition of the season. McPhie’s winning run included her signature D-spin, an off-axis 720-degree aerial.

McPhie, 28, is off to an epic start – she’s won the first two World Cup moguls competitions of the season and is currently ranked number one in the world.

With victories in Finland and Austria, McPhie is poised to control the circuit, and she’s determined to remain focused on her goal, to be overall World Cup champion.

“I had a feeling she was ready to do well this year,” said Kristie McPhie, Heather’s mother. “It’s really coming together.”

This road to the podium was long for McPhie however, and included a major setback after she broke her back in 2006 – the fracture took months for doctors to diagnose.

“It was a scary injury because it [went] on for so long,” she said. “It was painful and confusing.”

McPhie, who now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, stuck it out with the help of mental coach Craig Manning, and called it “one of the best learning experiences I have had.”

Her mother remains impressed by Heather’s resilience.

“It’s been quite a journey,” Kristie said. “We learn a lot from her all the time.”

Now a major threat in the mogul circuit, McPhie’s last two ski seasons have been a whirlwind. The 28-year-old topped the FIS Freestyle Skiing World Cup podium in Deer Valley in 2010, with a first-place finish that turned heads and earned her a spot on the U.S. Olympic ski team for the Vancouver Winter Games.

These latest victories in Finland and Austria, the first two FIS World Cup mogul competitions of the season, have McPhie picking up where she left off last year with four podium finishes. Her success has come with hard work and focus.

McPhie, an ambassador at Moonlight Basin Resort, spent the last off-season cramming for this season’s tests. After a century road-bike ride with friends last spring, she resumed her normal training routine in the gym six days a week. But a professional mogul skier’s training demands more than lunges and sit-ups.

She trained on the snow at Mount Hood, Chile and Switzerland from the end of summer to early fall, had water ramp-training sessions in Lake Placid, N.Y. and attended a high-performance camp with sponsor Red Bull at a Toronto trampoline facility.

McPhie, the first-ever mogul skier to pick up a Red Bull sponsorship, practices her D-spin and other in-air maneuvers with Red Bull’s air awareness coach, focusing on balance and the ability to know where she is after takeoff. She also points to Moment skis and Oakley, other sponsors which help boost her performance, as well as Outlaw Partners, the publisher of this paper.

In October, the former gymnast had a different sort of training, with Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, Nev., one she won’t soon forget.

“It was mind-blowing,” she said, after training and attending two Cirque shows that left her in awe. “It was all about finding your creativity and I was able to explore a side of me that I had never tapped into before.”

On Christmas Eve, McPhie returned to Montana, taking time for family and friends, and the rest of what she misses about Big Sky Country – “the wide opens spaces and how quiet it is in the mountains. The longer I’ve been gone, the more thankful I am for my roots,” she said.

She also anticipates giving back to her home mountain, Moonlight Basin. Her schedule on Dec. 27 included a ski with one lucky bidder who won the chance to make turns with the Olympic athlete. Afterward, McPhie met with Moonlight’s freeride team, to talk about her experiences skiing around the world, and locally.

“We are honored that Heather has joined on for a second year as a pro ambassador of Moonlight Basin,” said Karen Lum, director of sales and marketing at the resort. “She is an inspiring role model for our freeride team and all the youth in our specialty programs.”

McPhie and Moonlight Basin have collaborated on fundraisers for Eagle Mount – Bozeman, a nonprofit agency dedicated to improving lives of disabled persons and youths with cancer through recreation. McPhie and the resort also raise funds for Heart of the Valley Humane Society, a Bozeman-based animal shelter.

The next FIS Freestyle World Cup moguls comp. is Jan. 17 – 19 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

For Heather McPhie, the competition year is just getting started, but so far the field is chasing an ace, one who’s eying the overall championship just beyond the next bump.