Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Girl Power: Finding a path in Ketchum

Right time, right place?


Langely McNeal holds one of the top two U.S. spots in the sport of ski cross. But is a career as a professional athlete her destiny? Photo by Kirsten Shultz

Aspiring professional skier Langely McNeal tackles injury, disappointment and doubt in her pursuit of an uncommon career.

Some people are born athletes. They grow up playing football or soccer. But not many plan to take on the little-known but wildly entertaining sport of ski cross. Here's how it works: Skiers—four abreast—hurl themselves down a roller coaster-like course. They have to be very brave and a little bit daring to do this. Wood River Valley native Langely McNeal, 26, has both those qualities.

The sport came into its own at the 1998 Winter X Games and has since enjoyed a surge in popularity. In 2006, the International Olympic Committee announced ski cross would be in the 2010 Games.

The U.S. women's ski cross Olympic potentials trained hard to qualify, undergoing a grueling schedule on the World Cup tour. McNeal made it to the quarterfinals at the final World Cup event before the Olympics (a career high), putting her in one of the two U.S. top spots (with Caitlyn Ciccone). But ultimately, only the men's ski cross team went to Vancouver.

McNeal was devastated. She posted this on her Facebook fan page the day after that final race:

"I skied my heart out yesterday and made a sweet pass into the quarterfinals. It wasn't quite enough though :(. The 18th Olympic spot is going to an aerialist. The U.S. will not be sending a woman's ski cross team to the Olympics. I'm a little heart broken. I feel lucky to be in one piece though and send out my thoughts and prayers to all those that got injured."

Adding injury to insult, McNeal fractured her fibula head during training, and doesn't expect a full recovery until summer.

"In a sport as aggressive as skiercross, an athlete risks injury every time she runs a course," McNeal said. "Unfortunately for me, that course came early on in my training session at the trials."

McNeal was born in Sun Valley to Bev, a teacher at The Community School, and Thornton "Whiz" McNeal, a 32-year veteran of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol. Both McNeal and her younger brother, JP, grew up skiing Bald Mountain.

She began racing at 5 with the Hailey Ski Team and by sixth grade had joined the Sun Valley Ski Team.

"I credit the younger coaches for taking us on jump runs," McNeal said. "It was teaching us to love to ski."

She continued to race in Division 1 while at Whitman College, where she graduated in 2006 with a degree in psychology and Spanish. But she eventually "got burned out on gates." Then she saw a ski cross race.

"It combined jumping with racing," she said with a huge smile. "I love to jump."

Just beginning on this path was a leap of faith. McNeal was in Australia readying herself for a job in Portland, Ore., when she received a call telling her to head home; she was needed to fill a spot for the 2006 X Games in Aspen. She had two days before the race.

"It was my second skiercross race," she said. "I was standing next to former Olympians. I had to just swallow it and go. I came in 12th. The big thing is experience. Every course and every jump is different. I'm so much more comfortable now."

Much of that comfort she credits to her support and training.

"It does take a couple of years to get the skill set down—the starts out of the gate, and getting used to the idea of skiing side by side with three other people," she said. "It's like Nascar, horse racing and motocross on skis."

She said her mother is "a great athlete too."

"I have really supportive parents. I am so lucky to be raised here, in this community."

McNeal also credits her "grandmas from Virginia," for their support. Their proactive example led her to seek work (at Atkinson Park and on Baldy with the Sun Valley Ski Team) while still in school. And then there is her mentor, Rebecca Rusch, a fellow Ketchum resident and three-time world champion in 24-hour mountain bike racing.

"She really coached me on how to approach sponsors," McNeal said.

With that guidance, she has gained Hewlett Packard, Roxy, Rossignol/Lange, Icebreaker, Leki Poles, and Smith as sponsors, enabling her to pursue her dream of becoming a professional athlete.

Another break was having Rob Freeman take over her training last year.

"He's awesome. He taught me about plyometrics (hopping, jumping and bounding exercises to produce fast, powerful movements)," she said. "I mix it up now: strength training, plyometrics and mountain biking. I also ride dirt bikes on trails with my dad. And I play tennis.

"I feel I was born at the right time and in the right place. If I was a kid now, I'd probably be doing halfpipe. The kids that are growing up now are going to be amazing."

Now, working part-time at Ketchum-based Eye Safety Systems, and in the summer for Allen & Co., she also blogs for Hewlett Packard and Icebreaker.

But the big question is what to do next.

"I am young and I love my sport, so it is a strong possibility that I'll come back. However, I have been tempted to explore other career paths. I am feeling out what the future holds as far as a solid ski cross program and the direction the USA wants to take. I would also like to focus my energy into some other avenues, but I'm not ready to completely walk away from ski cross, as it is such a strong passion for me."

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