Hometown Hopefuls

Three local athletes going for gold.

A hawk makes loops above the cottonwoods at the back of the pasture, surveying the unusual scene below: three figures on horseback, one with a pair of skis on his shoulder. Another horse with equipment strapped to its back follows behind. The riders are being photographed wearing US Ski Team gear, unseasonably warm attire for the 80-degree weather. Cross-country-skiing star Leif Zimmerman pauses his horse as someone hands him a black fleece jacket to throw over his cowboy shirt. “Thanks,” he jokes. “I was getting chilly.”

Leif is actually one of three Bozeman-area natives, all members of the US Ski Team, who are working toward competing in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Along with Leif, who is polite, soft-spoken, and has one trip to the Olympics already under his belt, there is laid-back Keely Kelleher, who becomes electric when talking about downhill racing, and mogul skier Heather McPhie, a poised former gymnast with a passion for aerials (one of her favorites is an off-axis 720).

The three have gathered at the McPhie family home for a barbeque and to take photographs, support one another, spend some much-needed time with family and friends, and brainstorm about fund-raising ideas. The life of an Olympic hopeful isn’t as glamorous as one might expect. Because the US Ski Team does not have enough money to fully fund its athletes, Keely held a huge yard sale to raise cash, Heather keeps the books for her family’s cabinetry business, and all three skiers are already working as coaches.

Although Keely, Heather, and Leif all grew up in the Gallatin Valley and have their sights set on the 2010 Olympics, their backgrounds and accomplishments are vastly different.

Without many daycare options in Big Sky, Keely’s parents put her in ski school. She skied practically every day of the winter until she was in elementary school and named her pet bunny after Picabo Street, whom she’d come to idolize after the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994. But it wasn’t until she attended Rowmark Ski Academy in Utah that she realized the sport would become her life’s focus. She cites Swedish coaching guru Olle Larson as the one who “really made her passionate about ski racing.” Keely endured a devastating leg injury in 2003, which set her back three painful years and required six surgeries. She says she’s tougher because of the tribulation.

Leif didn’t start skiing until he was 13 but says the learning curve was fast and sharp. “I was fortunate to have had a club like the BSF (Bridger Ski Foundation) in town, to show me what I needed to do in order to become competitive internationally.” He attended the 2006 Olympics in Torino as an alternate, and while he says that the experience was awesome for him, being unable to actually compete was frustrating. “I was there, but I couldn’t be a spectator and I couldn’t be a racer. I was kind of caught in between,” he says. “So something that’s driving me for the future is to be able to race, to experience it again.” Leif looks forward to skiing at the Olympic Park in Whistler. “There’s a unique atmosphere up there with the weather system,” he says. “It will be advantageous to experience beforehand because it is so unique.”

Like Keely, Heather also had an early start. She got out of her parents’ backpack and hit the slopes at just three. After she quit competitive gymnastics at 12, she joined the Bridger Ski Foundation. “It was kind of funny,” she says. “Gymnastics had been five times a week, three hours a day, so when I was done, I think my parents kind of didn’t know what to do with me. We didn’t know any better, so we signed up for every competition.” Heather’s roots as a tumbler shine through when she talks about coaching and training on the water ramps at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City, where she currently lives. She’s focused on perfecting her newest trick, the back full, on the freestyle course and loves to “push the sport in terms of the airs.” She laughs when asked about whether she travels with any lucky charms. A true Montana girl, Heather doesn’t leave home without her belt buckle. “That comes with me in my carry-on,” she says.

Leif, Keely, and Heather share a palpable connection to the Gallatin Valley. When asked what they’d say to someone thinking about clicking into a pair of skis for the first time, their thoughtful appreciation for the community and the opportunities it has afforded them is apparent. “I was lucky enough to have a friend ask me if I’d like to try it out,” says Leif about his first time cross-country skiing. “It’s great for kids to get out there and be active,” Heather adds. “Just go for it.”

Keely smiles broadly. Her advice? “Free-ski your heart out, all over the mountain.”

If you’d like to offer your support, tax-deductible donations made through the Bridger Ski Foundation are welcome. Please specify that you’d like your donation to go to the US Ski Team members, or to one specific athlete.


Over 1,000 athletes compete in the Montana Special Olympics every year, and more than a million Special Olympics athletes compete worldwide in events like snowboarding, alpine/cross-country skiing, gymnastics, cycling, soccer, and kayaking, just to name a few. Athletes from all over the state compete in Montana's Games, and gold-medal winners go on to compete in the World Winter or Summer Games respectively.

Kelly Nicholas, a Bozemanite who recently joined the Gallatin Valley Bears and last year competed in the Bozeman Public Schools program, represents Team USA this year in the World Winter Games to be held in Boise on February 7-13, 2009.

Get involved and participate in the World of Winners online auction November 17-21. You can help by donating new items for the 2008 auction now. Call the Special Olympics Montana office at 406-216-5327 or visit somt.org to learn how.

—Dillon Jenkins