Friday, August 15, 2008

Hailey Ski Team is another challenge for Phil McNichol

From Connecticut’s hills to the pinnacle of skiing

Express Staff Writer

Much is made about people being born with a silver spoon in their mouth, but dogged determination always trumps pedigree, hands down.

Phil McNichol was not born to be a skier, but by sheer force of will he turned himself into one. Raised in the tiny hamlet of Washington, in northwestern Connecticut, McNichol was the only child of three New England boys to take up the sport.

"I didn't come from a skiing family," McNichol said. "I started skiing when I was 10 and always got myself to the hill through friends. My mother never saw me ski a day in my life. But I loved it."

His love of the sport has been both a touchstone and a beacon for McNichol, 44. He worked his way through the ranks as a racer, instructor, coach, program director and, finally, to what some would consider the pinnacle of U.S. racing, head men's coach of the U.S. Ski Team.

But the hours and days away from home and family took its toll. So did the grind of touring. This past spring, McNichol chose to leave the ski team: to do what, he was not completely sure. But he has been hired by the Hailey Ski Team to lend expertise and knowledge to the local alpine program.

McNichol said, "John Sweek (HST president) and Nina Fox (board member) talked to me about directing the program, and I said 'how about something different? Let's creatively figure this out.' They are very keen on improving their product and I commend them for that. Not a lot of people or programs do that."

After a national search, HST also hired Richard Smith of the Franconia Ski program as its head coach. McNichol said he will help the program fill other coaching positions, meet with the board in reestablishing the program's "missions, goals and values," and be a resource for the community.

He said, "If one of our goals of the program is to support alpine and sport development in valley, we have to make of these resources available to all. Everyone in the valley needs to look forward in terms of what is best interest in community. There are a number of programs in many different sports. Anyone working with kids has a responsibility to do a good job. Parents should look for it and expect that."

Joining the team

McNichol turned to coaching while a student at Northern Arizona University in the mid 1980s. He moved to Colorado and showed he was ready to jump right into the mix.

"My career jump-started when I started working for the Vail Ski Club," he said. "It's a prestigious program that threw me in the middle of Colorado ski racing."

From Colorado, McNichol moved on to Park City, home base of the U.S. Ski Team, where he became a national ski team coach in 1997.

McNichol rose through the ranks as head coach of the U.S. Development Team from 1997-2000, men's Europa Cup slalom and giant slalom coach in 2000-01, and men's Europa Cup coach from 2001-03.

At the conclusion of the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, he became U.S. men's head coach starting in the 2002-03 winter season. He retired as men's head coach March 19 after 11 seasons with the U.S. team but remained on staff until May 1.

McNichol said he was retiring to spend more time with his family. He said, "What is hardest for people to realize is it is not like any other sport. We traveled year-round, 212 to 250 days per year.

Alpine director Jesse Hunt said upon McNichol's retirement, "Phil has done an unbelievable job with the U.S. Ski Team. We're disappointed to see him leave, but I also understand his wish to spend more time with his family. As an American team that competes primarily in Europe, it's a tough task and Phil has shown great perseverance for many years. He's developed a program that can carry on the tradition of athletic success."

He was at the helm during the most successful run that the U.S. men's team has ever enjoyed, including nine World Cup titles. He coached two-time World Cup king Bode Miller, Daron Rahlves, Erik Schlopy, Steven Nyman, Ted Ligety, Marco Sullivan and Scott Macartney.

This spring, McNichol earned the USSA "Coach of the Year" award and shared the USSA Alpine International "Coach of the Year" award with outgoing women's head coach Patrick Riml.

McNichol said, "Through 12 years with the national team and six years as head coach, my only regret is that I could not do it forever. I have been part of the biggest events in alpine on the planet."

"Ski racing is rife with disappointment and injury and you spend a lot of time with people in challenging times in their life in both success and failure. My philosophy has always been to focus on process and not the outcome and recognize that everyone is an individual. The strength of someone lies in their individuality. All present different challenges and you have to marry that with the big-picture stuff."

McNichol is still based in Park City. He is married to former alpine ski competitor Beth Madsen, a national champion in 1986. She represented the U.S. in the 1988 Olympics, placing 15th in combined downhill. At the time, that finish was the second-best ever by a U.S. woman and it still ranks as the seventh-best ever.

The couple, married for 15 years, has a 12-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter.

"Retiring is as much to be with my children in a time when they need me," McNichol said. "I also believe everything in life is timing. It was my time to step away."

After leaving the ski team, McNichol said he wanted to position himself to start taking on work but not a job. He wanted to change direction. Right now, he has a few irons in the fire besides the Hailey development job. But he has been impressed with the Hailey community and the people running the Hailey Ski Team.

He said about the Hailey Ski Team, "Its objectives are honest and pure for a junior program trying to do the best they can for their membership. They should serve anyone. And everyone should be following their passion.

"I'll stay with Hailey as long as they need me and stay as committed as I can be. I'm trying hard to have a normal life. Things like friendships and coffee in the afternoon. I have been away from home so much, I have to ask my kids for directions around town, and ask my friends the good restaurants to do to."

Despite the newness of the changes, McNichol is relaxed and positive about his life's new direction.

He said, "I'm content with myself right now. That's because with something like this, it's the relationships you develop and helping someone go to places they never dreamed of. It's a privilege and responsibility to work with kids. It's the greatest honor anyone can have and the most responsibility to take on, so do it right."

McNichol and the Hailey Ski Team will conduct an open house Sept. 19 and a free lecture on parenting athletes Sept. 20. The public is welcome.

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