It came as a surprise to many ski racing fans when Vermont native Tim Kelley suddenly announced his retirement from the sport following a banner season of World Cup breakthroughs in which he also secured slalom starting rights for the 2016-17 season by virtue of his runner-up finish in the NorAm discipline standings.
“I’m retiring,” is all the caption reads on his Instagram account beneath an action shot from mid run at his first World Championships in 2015 at Beaver Creek. The 30-year-old member of the iconic Cochran legacy of ski racers’ brief statement left many wondering why such an up-and-coming talent would choose to bow out just as his career seemed to finally be taking off.
“It was actually kind of a shock to me too, unfortunately,” he explains at his home in Burlington, Vermont. “I had a good year and I felt like I was in a good position to sort of keep progressing on the World Cup. I’ve had a history with back problems and throughout the year my back started getting tighter and tighter. And at nationals it finally went out on me for the second year in a row, and I got surgery on it for the fourth time.”
Kelley skiing to his breakout 12th-place finish last season in Wengen, Switzerland.
Kelley is no stranger to the surgeon’s scalpel. A labrum tear sustained in 2008 that was left undiagnosed for a year and a half served as the catalyst for recurring disc issues in his back which led to five surgeries in the last six years. Now heavily scarred, the tall, proud Vermonter made the gut-wrenching decision that enough was enough.
“I was bummed to get surgery, obviously, and went into the surgery with hope of coming back and getting back to where I was,” he explains. “Then as I was recovering, you can’t do much other than just sort of lay in bed. I was thinking about it and thinking about it and finally, I just felt like I couldn’t go through that again, that recovery, with the chance that my back was just going to go out on me again like it had three times before. It was a really, really tough decision, obviously, and it’s really an emotional decision, but I think it’s the right thing to do for my body, unfortunately.”
Kelley’s absence will leave a large hole in an immensely talented and tight-knit group of American slalom skiers that includes his younger brother, Robby.
A photo posted by Tim Kelley (@timothypkelley) on
The Kelley boys are close on and off the hill.
“It’s definitely going to be a lot different,” Robby says. “I’ve been chasing him around since I first started skiing 23 years ago. He’s been the one person I’ve been skiing with my whole life. It’s going to be a lot different not having him around. He’s just a fun guy to be around, and he’s a fast skier so he’s definitely going to be missed.”
“I really respect the fight that he’s had and the love of the sport that he has shown over the years to just love what he’s doing and take each day as an opportunity to get better.”
– Sasha Rearick
Teammates aren’t the only ones who lament the fact that Kelley won’t be suiting up for the Stars and Stripes next season. U.S. Ski Team Head Men’s Coach Sasha Rearick has worked with Kelley since he first made the national team back in 2005, a time when Rearick was heading up the Europa Cup program.
“Tim has been one of my favorite athletes that I’ve ever coached,” says Rearick. “He was on the Europa Cup team when I was a Europa Cup coach. When I became the World Cup tech coach, he was on that team. He’s such a good person. He’s had to fight a number of injuries; he’s also had to fight coming back onto the team after being not nominated a while back. I really respect the fight that he’s had and the love of the sport that he has shown over the years to just love what he’s doing and take each day as an opportunity to get better.”
Following a swift and successful start to his career, Kelley’s first bout with injury resulted in being left off of the national team roster in 2010. Kelley then made the decision to return home and attend the University of Vermont, skiing under head coach Bill Reichelt. Looking back at his career of major ups and downs, one moment in particular on a dreary Vermont day in March of 2011 stands out more than the rest.
“I think the moment that jumps out at me is probably my freshman year at UVM, winning the NCAA slalom at Stowe on UVM’s home ski hill,” Kelly remembers. “After the rough year I had had before getting cut from the U.S. Team, it was a really special moment with all of my family and friends watching. That was one of the cooler feelings I’ve had as a ski racer I’d say.”
Kelley on his way to the 2011 NCAA slalom title.
During Kelley’s time at UVM, he also managed to secure first team All-American honors in both slalom and giant slalom, as well as play a pivotal role in helping the Catamounts secure their first NCAA team title since 1994 when the Cats took home the big trophy in 2012. Following the conclusion of his NCAA eligibility in 2013, Kelley became an independent racer before making his way back to the national team in 2015.
“Because I did make the team at a young age, I kind of wrote off college and I’m really, really glad that I did get that opportunity.”
When he looks back at his time as a NCAA student-athlete, Kelley expresses gratitude for the experience and credits many of his recent successes to his time spent in the classroom.
“There’s a lot of college skiers that never get the chance to race World Cup, and I feel really special to have had that opportunity,” he says. “Vice versa, there are a lot of World Cup skiers that never get to ski in college, and I think that I feel even more thankful for that. Because I did make the team at a young age, I kind of wrote off college and I’m really, really glad that I did get that opportunity.”
Looking toward the future, Kelley plans to return to UVM to complete the remaining year and a half of his coursework in Community Development and Applied Economics while also serving as Reichelt’s new assistant coach this coming winter. Jimmy Cochran, Reichelt’s former assistant and Kelley’s cousin, has decided to pursue other professional opportunities, leaving a vacancy on the staff.
“The thing with Tim is that he was such a natural leader when he was on the team here,” says Reichelt. “I think that will give the program instant credibility and respect and then also on the coaching side having someone with his knowledge will make for a really smooth transition.”
When pressed about any regrets he might have over his career, Kelley acknowledges that the one thing that will always sting is missing out on the opportunity to represent his country on the world’s biggest stage.
“That’s what makes it so hard I think,” he says. “I felt like I more or less had a plan when I left UVM, and I felt like I had set goals and had started to accomplish most of those goals and things were sort of starting to come together like I had envisioned it. I think every ski racer’s dream is to win World Cups and Olympic gold, you know? A lot of stuff has to come together for anyone to do that, and my goal for next season was to break in to the top-30 world rank and keep plugging away with the ultimate dream of South Korea in 2018. That’s the thing that hurts the most. It is just one race, but it’s what every kid dreams of as a young skier – going to the Olympics.”
After completing his degree, Kelley intends to continue in his role at Slopeside Syrup, where he serves as part-owner with his three cousins, and also work with his father, Steve, at his building supply company. So, what have his years as an elite ski racer taught him that he can now apply in the professional world?
“I think confidence is the biggest thing you can have,” he explains. “If you’re feeling confident in yourself and your skiing, just to know how powerful that is. … If you’re trying to sell maple syrup and you’re confident that you have the best maple syrup out there, you can work hard because you know it’s the best,” he continues as he lets out a big laugh. “That might be a stretch, but just be confident and have fun.”
Kelley has made a lasting impression on countless athletes and coaches over his career and will be sorely missed by teammates and friends near and far once the cold winter air returns to snow-covered slopes around the northern hemisphere.
“Most importantly, where he’s going to be missed the most is that he’s been a tremendous teammate to every single person he’s ever been on a team with,” concludes Rearick. “It doesn’t matter if it was Europa Cup or World Cup or at UVM, and that’s truly going to be missed.”