Park city local Megan McJames retires from ski racing
Earning a spot in the Olympics is one of the highest athletic achievements, and is difficult under almost any circumstance. Doing so without the support of a national team is a whole other matter.
Park City local Megan McJames has been to three Olympic games as an alpine skier, two of them without the support of the U.S. Ski Team.
While McJames had to assume a higher level of responsibility to make her life as a competitive skier work, she said what she did have was support from her home town.
“I just wanted to thank them because, without them it would not have been possible,” McJames said.
She wanted to share that message with the community now because, at age 30, she is retiring. McJames said one day, this spring, she realized she no longer had dreams of ski racing, which meant it was time to move on.
Instead of hosting the annual fall fundraiser that helped pay for her World Cup season, she is making arrangements with Alta Ski Resort and ski gear manufacturer Volkl to continue her roles as a sponsored athlete, as well as planning to coach a single ski racer.
This will be the first season in 22 years that McJames will not compete in ski racing since getting her start on the Park City Ski Team at age eight.
“It just got more serious every year, and I don’t know if I can totally explain the inner fire I had to race, but I always knew right from the get-go that I wanted to be an Olympian,” she said. “And, luckily, my parents have supported it the whole way.”
She attended the Winter Sports School, graduating in 2005 and making the U.S. developmental team. A few months after graduation she took sixth in the combined event at the World Junior Alpine Skiing Championships in Quebec, Canada.
That year, she finished the season as the NorAm overall, super and giant slalom champion, then was the NorAm giant slalom champion again in 2008. In 2010 she was the U.S. and NorAm Super combined champion and went to her first Olympics in Vancouver, where she took 32nd in the giant slalom and did not finish the slalom race.
In 2011 she broke her heel bone in a giant slalom competition, and was cut from the U.S. Ski Team in 2012.
“I remember when I got the call from my coach, they were like, ‘So what are you going to do now?’ At the time I had a World Cup giant slalom spot for next year, so I said, ‘I’m racing world cup,’ even though I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into,” McJames said.
McJames said her first autumn away from the team was a crash course in fundraising and logistics. Without the support of the organization, she would have to work out her own schedule, book her own flights, create her own training regimen, along with selecting, purchasing and tuning her own gear.
“I felt like I still had some good ski results left in me, so I decided to keep going, which was kind of an unconventional route at the time,” she said. “Usually when you’re cut from the U.S. Ski Team, you’re expected to quit racing and be done.”
Fortunately, she was, and still is, a student of finance and accounting at Westminster College, an experience that helped her build a budget and gave her a much-needed distraction when competing got too stressful.
That season, and for the years to come, she started by hosting a fundraiser to bankroll her upcoming competitions. She said she was surprised by how supportive the people of Park City were of her goals.
“I reached out to the community, and they really believed in going after your dreams in the face of adversity,” she said.
A community’s support
Dar Hendrickson, a local competitive skiing guru, is one of those supporters.
The longtime Park City Ski and Snowboard development coach taught McJames when she was 11 years old, and said the bar McJames set for that age group stands even now.
“Everything she did, it was with an ease and a pleasure,” he said. “There’s a lot of kids out there and they grind at it. They have good days and bad days and I don’t know if Megan had any bad days.”
Hendrickson said he kept supporting McJames through her fundraisers because he admired her spirit.
“She has an inner strength that few people have,” he said. “Her perseverance is what separates her from so many other people. … I believe in her. I believe in her struggle. I believe in her challenge.”
With the help of friends, family and a select group of institutions, including the Park City Masters skiing club, she was able to put together enough money to compete on the World Cup circuit.
With her season planned out, she had to call the U.S. Ski Team, which is in charge of securing starting positions for American athletes in international events, to confirm her competitions.
Then, she pushed her career into uncharted territory and made it to Sochi in 2014 on her own.
“I didn’t necessarily know that it was possible to make the Olympics without being on the U.S. Ski Team,” she said.
She walked out into the opening ceremony among the people who would have been her teammates, but was tied to only by nationality and friendship.
McJames said the experience was made sweeter knowing all the hard work she had put into the process, and everyone who had supported her along the way.
She placed 30th in the giant slalom.
The community continued to support McJames each season through last year when she qualified for the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, where she took 31st in giant slalom and 36th in slalom.
Though she never won a medal on the World Cup circuit or at the Olympics, she said she wouldn’t have done anything differently.
“There were definitely times when it was very hard, but looking back I don’t have any regrets,” she said. “All the places I went to, the people I met, I will remember forever, and it was a great journey.”
She said it was the messages and support from people in Park City that kept her going during hard times, and to which she is grateful for helping her continue her ski career when others had lost faith.
Now that she is retired from World Cup racing, McJames is catching up on other parts of her life. This year she is set to marry her fiancé, Cody Marshall, a retired World Cup slalom skier who now works for a private equity company and coaches skiing in Park City.
She also plans to finish her degree at Westminster.
In regard to McJames’ retirement, Hendrickson said he was proud of everything she has accomplished, and happy she was leaving the sport on her own terms.
“What Americans expect as a standard – they think everyone should be an Olympian, but there’s only four (women’s alpine athletes) every four years, and when you think about what she’s accomplished as far as just getting to the Olympics, it’s amazing,” he said. “It’s amazing.”
McJames said she would continue to pursue skiing in other ways and that her retirement is not the result of a waning love of the sport.
“I was just dreaming about things other than racing at the end of the year,” she said. “I’m excited to move on to the next chapter.”