After 32 years, Tom Kelly to retire from U.S. Ski and Snowboard
May 2, 2018
Tom Kelly, vice president of communications at U.S. Ski and Snowboard, sat in the atrium of the Center of Excellence next to a gold-painted stump positioned as an end table. Kelly, who has worked with U.S. Ski and Snowboard since 1986, is readying to leave the organization.
Though he said he probably didn't have to be there that day, or any day now that the staff transition was essentially complete, he wanted to. For one thing, he wanted to take advantage of the last six weeks of his career with the organization. But also, after 32 years of telling athletes' stories through his public relations work and his Behind the Gold columns in The Park Record — with a dedication that recently earned him the U.S. Olympic Committee's Building Dreams Award, for helping athletes reach their potential — Kelly was ready to share his own story.
So, how does a kid growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, in the 1950s and '60s go on to stand in the finish area for upwards of 75 U.S. Olympic medal performances? A fascination with ski jumping helps, but that only started after Kelly, at 7 years old, saw alpine racing for the first time. Back in 1960, Kelly didn't know what skiing was.
"Never heard of it before," he said.
But his mom turned on the television one day, and the image of the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley lit the screen.
"I absolutely, distinctly remember watching the women's downhill," he said. "Penny Pitou won the silver medal for America. Something just registered with me as a kid that this was something I wanted to be involved with, but I didn't know how to go skiing or how to connect with it." When Kelly was a teenager, the Blackhawk Ski Jump in Middleton, Wisconsin, added plastic to its jump, making it the first year-round jump in North America, which he said drew the U.S. Ski Jumping Team. A budding photographer at the time, Kelly took advantage of his proximity to the team to photograph ski jumping, and got to know Ron Steele, a would-be Olympic ski jumper and president of Group Rossignol North America.
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"Getting to know the U.S. Ski Jumping Team and getting connected at that level was really pivotal," he said.
But to get to the U.S. Ski Association (now U.S. Ski and Snowboard), Kelly followed a winding path, working at a handful of newspapers around Wisconsin, then taking a job in public relations for Telemark Ski Area, where he met his wife, Carole Duh, on his first day. Telemark became a training spot of the U.S. Nordic team, and Kelly and its founder, Tony Wise, were instrumental in creating the World Lopped — an international circuit of large-scale Nordic races for amateur racers. Kelly took his experience with international Nordic skiing and created a Nordic ski travel company, which shepherded amateur American racers around the globe to ski races, including a race in Murmansk, Russia, near the northern border of Norway, in what was then the Soviet Union. Seeking something more stable, Kelly turned to the U.S. Ski Association and took his first job at the organization as the assistant national Nordic director in June 1986.
He and Carole then weathered the organization's merger with the U.S. Ski Team, and the resulting move from the association's headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to Park City. After that, Kelly transitioned to public relations director in 1988.
"That's essentially the job that I have today, and it's all I ever wanted to do," Kelly said.
Not surprisingly, Kelly has seen a lot of big moments for the team. Some of his favorite memories include playing a part in creating the Golden Boy cover story by Sports Illustrated by providing reporter William Oscar Johnson with a backseat interview with alpine racer Tommy Moe. Moe, an underdog, had just won the gold in downhill at the 1994 Olympics during a time when the ski team was under fire for underperforming.
He also looks back fondly on Picabo Street's 1995 World Cup winning spree, and Shaun White's gold this winter. But Kelly's voice got noticeably thicker when he talked about Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall's gold medal in the cross-country sprint relay in Pyeongchang in February. After spending so long developing and promoting cross-country as a sport, how could he not? He had even gone so far as to die his white beard hot pink in support of the team, mimicking Randall's own iconic locks. More importantly, the only medal the U.S. cross-country team had previously won was earned in 1976 by Bill Koch. Kelly, his colleagues at U.S. Ski and Snowboard, and cross-country fans around the country, had been waiting for Diggins and Randall's performance for 42 years, and Kelly was in the finish area when it happened.
He said it dawned on him during Diggins second lap, as she attacked the course, that she was not hedging her bets.
"We'd never thought about that, but she had," Kelly said. "All along we were like, 'We gotta get a medal, we gotta get a medal,' no one was saying, 'We've gotta win.' But the way she was attacking on that lap, we knew she was going for a win."
Randall held the lead during her last leg, then Diggins "blew it wide open," Kelly said.
It was a transcendent moment for the team.
"That, for sure, is absolutely the pinnacle event for me," Kelly said. "It will never be topped. … I've been to plenty of world championships where we've won medals; I've watched those same two win the world championship in 2013, but there was nothing like that moment in Pyeongchang."
His authority on the matter — his 32 years with the organization — played a large role in earning him the Building Dreams Award on April 19.
According to a press release, Kelly also earned the award for pioneering the USOC's Managing Victory tour, designed to promote Olympians after their success and take advantage of their moments in the sun — which is now a feature of the Summer Games as well.
Luke Bodensteiner, chief of sport with U.S. Ski and Snowboard, knows Kelly well — he has worked with him almost daily for more than a decade. Bodensteiner described Kelly as "one of the most enthusiastic people you'll ever come across," adding that he has a deep passion for his profession.
"He loves skiing, he loves the sport, but he also loves telling the story about the competitions; he loves giving people insight into the backstory of what we do," Bodensteiner said. "He's an incredibly focused individual, especially when it comes to difficult situations we find ourselves in, and he's a real rock when we are in times of crises; he's a steady and comforting presence."
In his acceptance speech for the Building Dreams Award, Kelly told his peers at the USOC to keep their heads up while going through hard times, referring to the Larry Nassar scandal and questions about the Olympic movement's financial viability. Sitting by the golden stump, Kelly said those topics are more than worthy of discussion, but the USOC is trying its best to address the problems.
"I know that my friends over at USOC, it's hard for them to go to work right now because they are under such scrutiny," he said. "They're just getting hammered. But I believe in what we do, I believe in what our organization does, and what the U.S. Olympic Committee does. And I wanted them to hear that their jobs are important. We had 220 athletes in the room that night. These athletes count on us to do these jobs."
On June 15, Kelly will leave his position at U.S. Ski and Snowboard.
"My wife has taught me this," Kelly said. "She says, 'You're not retiring, you're relaunching."
Kelly, not one for down time, will start Tom Kelly Communications LLC., a public relations consulting agency targeting smaller national sports (like biathlon) or large clubs.
"I can go into a national governing body, or a club, or an international sports federation and I can provide them with some good knowledge," he said.
He also plans on continuing public speaking and developing more opportunities for athletes to speak, creating what he calls an "Olympic athlete speakers' bureau," under the banner of Behind the Gold, the name of his weekly seasonal column.
His position at U.S. Ski and Snowboard is leaving with him — for the moment there will be no Vice President of Communications, but Tom Webb will fill Kelly's role under a different title.
Kelly laughed when asked if he had advice for those that would follow in his footsteps.
"I'm being careful not to dole it out so much anymore," he said, but he did offer a few words.
"You have to continue to have passion in supporting athletes," he said. "And I think if there is one simple word of advice I would give, it would be, 'When in doubt, ask the athletes.' That's who we serve. Once I figured that out it was really pretty easy."
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