In every athletic career, success and achievement are met with adversity and hardship. The time spent rehabbing through injury, fighting to come back stronger, and ultimately achieving broader goals are defining moments for Alice McKennis Duran and her time on the U.S. Ski Team. Bidding farewell to the physical rigors of the World Cup, McKennis Duran will cherish her accomplishments, experiences, and health, as she skis off into the next chapter.
In her 11-year career on the World Cup, McKennis Duran claimed two World Cup podiums, one being a victory, two Olympic showings, and three national titles all while spending a third of those years off snow. For the 31-year-old veteran, it was undeniably challenging to retire from the sport that defined the last 25 years of her life. As she reflects on her career, what she accomplished and what she didn’t, McKennis Duran feels ready to say goodbye to skiing 80 MPH down a downhill course — practically naked, she would add — while welcoming a long life filled with a healthy body and new beginnings.
It started with family
McKennis Duran grew up in the Roaring Fork Valley on her family’s ranch. Both her parents were avid skiers and began taking her and her older sister, Kendra, to the local Sunlight Mountain in Glenwood Springs. After her mother passed away, the girls with their father, Greg, continued the ski tradition. When love and passion for the sport began to take hold, their father would have the girls skiing weekdays on the two days a week they got out of school early.
Not long after, the McKennis family was traveling throughout the winter from program to program in search of the best training, coaching, and people they wanted to work with. Their ranch allowed them to pick up and temporarily move from hotel rooms to single bedroom condo rentals for five months at a time. Growing up, McKennis Duran spent time skiing for Vail, Steamboat, and Summit County before landing in Aspen.
The Aspen Valley Ski Club was a strong choice for McKennis Duran who was looking to make the next step in her career when entering the FIS level, she recalls. She was looking for the coaches who would support her as she pursued NorAm titles and moving up to the U.S. Ski Team. After four years of skiing out of Aspen (and then later at Rowmark Ski Academy), McKennis Duran made the U.S. team just before she turned 19.
“He worked so hard for me and my sister to ski race,” said McKennis Duran while reflecting on her father’s commitment to making her dreams come true. “I mean he is the biggest driving force for all my success in ski racing. From all the sacrifices he made and all the sacrifices my sister made, it was all so I could have the opportunity to ski race and then to push it and see how far I could get.”
To go on and compete at two olympics, win a World Cup, and be a contender for the podium many times was beyond what the McKennis family ever thought she would accomplish as a junior racer.
“Your family ultimately knows more than anyone what you are going through,” she said. “My husband has invested a lot in my career as well. We are the dreamers, dreaming I can come back and win the gold medal. For him to let go of that dream has been a hard part of this process. Families feel that joy and see when you overcome those hurdles and are there to celebrate it too.”
A dream for another day
McKennis Duran always viewed herself as a dreamer. She would often think how her next comeback could be like a Disney movie with an inspirational happy ending. Part of that dream was always knowing the end of her career would come. Through her years skiing and rehabbing with the U.S. Ski Team, McKennis Duran’s mindset was to give everything she had, work as hard as she could, and take advantage of every opportunity in her path so when the end came she knew she gave it her best. And she did.
After another season-ending crash earlier this year, McKennis Duran started reflecting on her decision to continue ski racing. She recalls side-slipping to the finish line after crashing in Val D’Isere last December having emotions that made her question what she was doing. When she returned to the U.S., she was greeted with four months of doctor appointments, surgeries, and rehabbing once again. Her realization during that time was simple, yet the decision was difficult: the amount of time she has left in life and what is most important to her has changed, and the injuries from ski racing were not worth it anymore.
There were many times after previous injuries that continuing felt uncertain. Her husband Pat Duran, who has been by her side the last ten years of her career, reflects how there were many times they didn’t know what the future was going to hold. McKennis Duran always pushed 100% forward, doing what she could, taking care of the things that were within her control, somewhat as an obsession, Duran recalls.
“Your life really isn’t in balance when you are running like that, you’re just full on,” said Duran while reflecting on his wife’s commitment to the sport. “The way she was able to work and get back into the start gate, I don’t know how to say it. She made it back to normal, if not better, because she could keep working through the pain. I think a lot of others would give up.”
“Everything is possible” wasn’t simply mindset; it was a guiding principle. McKennis Duran always thought she could get through recovery, come back stronger, and achieve even more. Her goals grew from top-15 and top-10 finishes to podiums and World Cup wins. Knowing what it takes to make the podium — she says the risk is no longer worth it.
“There is definitely still sadness to let go of that dream, and to say that dream, that chapter, is done,” said McKennis Duran. “But I have pushed it to the limit for what I could do and what I could work towards. I’ve reached that point where I know I’m good, I don’t need to achieve anymore.”
There is no doubt she will continue to ski. Looking back on the last three seasons, she recalls more time being off the slope than on her skis. She is excited to bring back outdoor activities of mountain biking and hiking back into daily routine after removing her final metal plate in her fibula next month.
“We have these crossroads in life and we have to make a decision, and we are always really worried about making the right decision,” she said. “But there is no right decision. What defines the right decision? We make these choices with what we are feeling at the time. You just have to be honest with yourself and know you might feel slightly differently over time, but you have to make the best decision you can knowing it may not be 100% right, but it’s not 100% wrong either.”
A final lap
In a classic spring day in Aspen, McKennis Duran shared her final lap with teammate Laurenne Ross, who captured her career-final downhill before also retiring. For McKennis Duran, the opportunity was a positive celebration with her family, teammates, and coaches compared to her “actual” last run of downhill, the “actual last run” being her crash in Val D’Isere in December.
“Sure, we always wish we could have done it differently and better,” said Mckennis Duran. “But who doesn’t walk away from the sport and wish it was different and better? That’s just inevitable, you always want more.”
In her final push out of the start gate last Saturday, McKennis Duran was flooded with emotion as every girl signed her bib and shared remarks of how she had influenced and inspired them in their careers, just like Lindsey Vonn had done for her.
Thank you, Lindsey
It’s somewhat humorous for Mckennis Duran to think of herself as a role model. As a youngster, she looked up to American skiing icons, such as Daron Rahlves and Bode Miller. But the one role model that stood out for her was Lindsey Vonn.
McKennis Duran can think back to the first time she met Vonn. The two girls were five years apart when Vonn was skiing in the same group as her older sister. She remembers watching her ski and knowing she was far better than anyone else. As Vonn grew so did McKennis Duran.
“I remember the very first day training with her at Copper, I was invited by the region and was not on the ski team at this point,” recalled McKennis Duran. “I remember seeing her walking into the locker room and totally losing myself. Being so shy I would never have talked to her.”
Fast forward to 2019 during Vonn’s final World Cup victory in Are, Sweden, and McKennis Duran was by her side on the podium in third.
“I always thought about it and knew I had that potential,” she said. “The rest was just up to timing and fate, but to share it with her was something special and certainly a memory I won’t forget.”
The end of an era
As a first-year member of the U.S. D Team, McKennis Duran won the NorAm downhill and super G titles, earning her two World Cup starts in the following season. That season happened to be the year of the Vancouver Olympic Winter Games, and her first year as a member of the World Cup speed team. McKennis Duran reflects on her first World Cup camps, where teammates Julia Mancuso and Vonn were in attendance. Suddenly she was surrounded by women who had podiumed at World Cup races and she was, in her own words, getting absolutely destroyed. Feeling overwhelmed and under-qualified for the World Cup circuit, McKennis Duran knew that getting beat was what it took to recognize how hard it would be on the World Cup and how much she would have to push herself. She quickly rose to the occasion.
“I think my third world cup race I was 10th, which is a really incredible result and I will always remember that,” said McKennis Duran. “I started like 50 something and came down in 10th at Lake Louise. I had no thought I would go to the Olympics in Vancouver. I thought my teammates would go and I would go to some NorAm. But to make that in my first year was far beyond my expectations.”
In a few short years, McKennis Duran was a part of one the best speed teams in history, composed of Vonn, Mancuso, Stacey Cook, Leanne Smith, and Ross. When McKennis Duran joined the team she had fast teammates to push her quickly and elevate her game. In the 2012-2013 season every one of her teammates stepped foot on the podium. When Stacey Cooke got her first podium in Lake Louise, McKennis Duran’s light bulb went off. Seeing another teammate outside of Vonn and Mancuso on the podium made the feat seem more attainable. Then, it was Smith on the Val D’Isere podium. Just weeks later McKennis Duran won her first downhill in St. Anton. And weeks later again, Ross stepped on the podium, too.
“To look back on the team photos from that year and see six of us at World Cup Finals on downhill day, to me, that was pretty incredible,” said McKennis Duran. “To be a part of that team was so cool. Laurenne, Leanne and I were all around the same age, so young and hungry. I’m really grateful to be a part of that group and to be inspired by all of them.”
Slowly, year after year, one after another, McKennis Duran watched her teammates retire as she would rise to the podium and fall back from an injury. It was soon McKennis Duran, the veteran, reflecting on how the teammates who were a critical component to her development were now gone.
“It was pretty hard for me to be honest,” said McKennis Duran. “I think there is something to be said for the group you come up with and the group you start succeeding on the World Cup with. You really build a bond with them. It felt different for me to not have those women next to me.”
Even during what felt like the “cut-throat” times when her teammates would inevitably fight or nag one another, they were all close enough to give and take the criticism. It was a relationship that resembled a sisterhood more than a team, and that environment helped McKennis Duran rise to become a great speed skiers alongside the role models she grew up idolizing.
“When someone says you’re my role model or you inspire me I think ‘Wow, I did that? I inspire people?’ We always try to be good people and set a good example but you never know, maybe people think you’re a bad example,” McKennis Duran said in laughter.
McKennis Duran views herself lucky in her junior years of racing, staying injury free through her early years on the U.S. team and through her first Olympics.
It wasn’t until her second year skiing the World Cup in 2011 where the injuries began and would return every two or three years. In doing the math she recognized a third of her World Cup career was spent off her skis. Four years rehabbing — a significant yet not the defining part of her career, she says.
Achievement is traditionally viewed as results. Achievement in the lens of McKennis Duran is reflecting back on her career and knowing that the comebacks after repetitive adversity and challenges were the greatest achievement of all. It was a huge accomplishment to come back from a broken leg and five surgeries to crack the top 10. Those comebacks were the achievements, she said.
Her 2018 season was one in which she felt most accomplished. After two years of sub-par results, named as a discretionary member of the team, and a lot of doubt, McKennis Duran felt like the underdog of the group. That year she worked her way back to good results on the World Cup and a fifth-place finish in the Olympic downhill. Overcoming adversity and self doubt, she finished just off the podium at the biggest event of the year with her family by her side.
A shift in identity
When McKennis Duran would look in the mirror she would always tell herself that ski racing did not define her, or at least, it was not the only thing that defined her. As she lets go of the sport that was the fundamental part of her life for 25 years, she would like to think of herself as a multifaceted person but knows that ski racing was the defining factor of her identity. As far as what defines her future? That’s an answer she is still searching for.
Without a doubt, ski racing will be a part of her, and she a part of it. She ponders the idea of coaching if the right opportunity presents itself. There is finishing school, home projects, and business ideas in the mix. In a few years she hopes to have a family and recognizes once she starts having kids, coaching and home projects will not be an easy feat to accomplish. But for now, McKennis Duran plans to let herself relax, recover, and do whatever feels right.
“I’ve been on this really incredible journey over a decade with the ski team, and it’s been amazing, but it’s been really exhausting and I’m just going to let myself be for a while,” said McKennis Duran. “I have been so driven over the last 10 years and so intense that I think now is a good time to take a step back and recognize that I don’t have to go to the gym five days a week, which will be hard for me to figure out how to not do that.”
Her intensity may not be gone just yet. Just five days after announcing her formal retirement, McKennis Duran was so excited after going to the gym for an hour, she had to share the news with her husband.
“She told me she only went to the gym for an hour and was really excited about it, it was only one hour,” laughed Duran. “The big joke used to be the ‘Alice hour.’ She would say she would be done in an hour but I would set the clock for two or two-and-a-half hours, then she would be back.”
To formally kick off retirement, McKennis Duran will join her husband, teammates Laurenne Ross and Leanne Smith, and their partners for a raft trip for the first time in their 15 years of friendship. The biggest positive, her husband adds, this will be the first trip McKennis Duran won’t be doing workouts on her vacation.
“Life is short, and it’s also long at the same time,” she said. “There are opportunities at every stage of life, you just have to find them and take advantage of them when you can.”