Leanne Smith: What makes a champ
Veteran U.S. Skier announces retirement
April 21, 2017
Witness Leanne Smith cruise along downhill inspection and you'll notice she does it with a focus and determination in her gaze and an aura of quiet confidence characteristic of most veterans on the Audi FIS World Cup circuit. However, throw a "hello" in Smith's direction and you'd be amazed what you receive in return. Because you see, Smith doesn't only have pairs on pairs of Rossignol skis in her quiver—she has an unmatched smile and a deep, genuine warmth to go along with those speed boards. She’ll stop, flash that signature Leanne Smith grin at you and ask you how your brother’s dog is doing. Or how your holiday break was. Because you’re more than a teammate or a competitor. You’re family.
Fiercely loyal, friendly and a fighter, east-coaster Smith has endured her fair share of joys and hardships in a 10-year career that features two World Cup podiums—second in Val D'Isere (2012) and third in Cortina (2013)—and, more importantly, one gigantic and tight-knit ski family. And that is what she'll miss most as she announces her retirement and moves on to the next adventure.
"I'll definitely miss my teammates," she reflected. "They’ve become family. Given the environment of life on the World Cup, we are around each other pretty much constantly. You are training, you are competing and you couldn’t be living any closer together. But these are the people you are making the memories with and the people that helped you get there."
On skis at six, Smith skied at New Hampshire’s Cranmore Mountain Resort, the heralded Mount Washington Valley ski area made famous when instructional legend Hannes Schneider arrived there from Austria in 1938. Smith skied for Cranmore's race team until she entered Kennett High School, where she continued racing and moved to the Mount Washington Valley Ski Team. Following high school, she spent the 2006-07 year at University of New Hampshire before taking leave for winter 2007 to join the U.S. Ski Team on the development team. She then erupted, having a breakout season as a double NorAm champion in both super G and the overall—catapulting her to the World Cup level.
In her rookie season with the team in 2008, she scored points in four World Cup races, including points in her very first World Cup start, which happened to be the first downhill of the 2008 season, finishing 23rd. From there, she kept the fire rolling.
In her career, she's been on the World Cup podium twice—an experience most World Cup athletes only dream of. She was on two World Championship teams and has three top-20 World Championship results, including a 12th in the downhill in Schladming in 2013. She's a two-time Olympian, with two top 20 Olympic results to her name. And, it's her Olympic experiences that she'll hold closest to her heart as she moves forward.
"I have great memories of every stage of my career, but if I had to choose I would say the Olympics," Smith said. "It is the pinnacle for every athlete. A medal would've been unbelievable, but just being there and representing the United States with thousands of other athletes, from all over the world, is something special. It's probably the first thing that comes to mind since most little ones dream of being Olympians."
Smith's also noted an extreme gratitude for the lifestyle she experienced while traveling on the circuit. She is thankful to have traveled to some of the most beautiful places in the world to do a job she loved and had such a strong passion for. She’ll miss the views, the different cultures and the chaos of traveling around the world to compete. She realizes more than most that it's a gift to experience the chaos, because along with the pandemonium came beautiful moments, faces and places.
Plagued with injuries at the end of her career, Smith sat out much of the 2015 and 2016 seasons, spending time in Park City working hard at the Center of Excellence. It was blood, sweat, and tears for Smith—literally—as she made a comeback to the World Cup circuit in 2017. Talk about a fighter. Not surprisingly, she admits injuries are the most challenging thing about the sport.
The journey to the podium is no easy feat. It takes hard work. Smith acknowledges that it takes something special to stand on the podium, especially when everyone is pushing hard to achieve their dreams. For her, it was not solely the work on snow, but also the hard work off snow that helped her get there. A large part of that work included the mental aspect of the sport.
"I was always trying to build confidence so my skiing could become automatic," reflected Smith. "That's the hardest thing to keep consistent as a ski racer. But, there is no doubt that when you find it, with a clear head, that is when you will most likely get to that top level."
Above all else, Smith realized the importance of loving what you do in life, and she hopes to carry that same enjoyment into her next endeavor.
"Ski racing was very stressful at times, but the great days made it all worthwhile," said Smith. "Hopefully whatever I choose next won’t have my blood pressure so high so many days of the year. But we will see."
What's next for Smith? She'll join the mastermind behind the American Downhiller concept Marco Sullivan and an all-star staff of current and former U.S. Ski Team athletes and coaches to pave the way for future generations of downhillers at a camp in May. Also involved will be Daron Rahlves, Steven Nyman (Sundance, UT), Alice McKennis (New Castle, CO), Bryce Bennett (Squaw Valley, CA), former U.S. Ski Team World Cup downhill coaches Chris Brigham and newly appointed men's head speed coach Johno McBride.
What sets this camp apart, in Smith's words? "I am excited to work with guys like Marco, that have so much knowledge and experience," said Smith. "These guys are all legends on the speed side. It will be great to hear their thoughts and understand concepts that they have been successful with. I don’t know if I have seen a camp that has more talented skiers and coaches in one place."
Smith ended her career with the U.S. Ski Team at the U.S. Alpine Championships in Sugarloaf, Maine quietly. We asked Smith our three questions on what she believes makes a champion, and her message is one to be shared.
U.S. SKI TEAM: In your words, what makes a champion?
Leanne Smith: A champion is someone who overcomes a challenge even when all odds are stacked against them, and someone who has persevered through the lowest of lows to triumph over an obstacle.
A champion is a humble winner, a gracious loser and a good teammate. It is hard to be all three.
U.S. SKI TEAM: Do you remember the first time you felt like a champion?
LS: It all began with NASTAR pins, Junior Meisters on Friday nights, black leggings, Chuck Roast fleece vests and glasses under the goggles.
U.S. SKI TEAM: What is the biggest piece of advice you have for young athletes who want to be sitting where you are today?
LS: Having fun with what you’re doing is the most important thing. Work hard and don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something.
After a 10-year career, Leanne would like to thank the following:
Her family and friends: “I would like to thank my family, and friends who believed in me from day one. You all made any success I had that much more enjoyable.” (Leanne would also like to give a shout-out and BIG thank you to her longtime serviceman Ales Sopotnik, whom she probably trusted more than anyone else out on the mountain, who she described as a sidekick, a trusted counselor, a “big brother” and a friend.)
Her sponsors: “I wouldn't have made it very far without my sponsors: Rossignol, Lange, POC, Swix, Reusch, Cranmore Mountain and Coleman's. You guys stuck with me through everything, including the injuries. Thanks for having my back and supporting me throughout my career.”
Her coaches: “Thank you to my coaches. You know who you are.”