Former U.S. Ski Team racer and Big Sky native Keely Kelleher is the founder of Keely’s Camps, the first all-girls ski racing camps in the United States. Keely’s summer camps are week long, race-specific training and bonding experiences, held on Mount Hood, in Oregon. Winter camps are two-day workshops focusing on big mountain skiing (like working on mogul techniques, more challenging terrain and skiing powder). This winter, camps will be offered for the first time on Keely’s home turf of Big Sky Resort.
We recently had the opportunity to chat with Keely about growing up in the Gallatin Canyon, skiing in Yellowstone Country and balancing coaching, entrepreneurship and being a full-time student at Westminster College, in Utah (yes, all at the same time).
What was it like growing up in Yellowstone Country?
I grew up in the Gallatin Canyon and went to Ophir School. There were 28 students from K–8, so it was super small and a really tight-knit community. Through the school, we’d get free ski passes, so every Friday we’d get off early and head up to Big Sky.
Big Sky kind of became my daycare. We would get paired with ski instructors and our parents would just let us loose to terrorize the mountain. It was so much fun. When I was 8, I saw Picabo Street win silver in the Lillehammer Olympics and because of that, I named my pet bunny Picabo. And then, that Christmas, I got a pair of skis. They were neon pink and I slept with them that night. So, needless to say, I was a little bit obsessed with skiing.
Growing up in Montana, I was able to foster my love of skiing. I lived in the mountains, not in a suburb, so I was outside all the time. I always thank my Dad for raising me in the mountains and allowing me to ski. He grew up in Ohio and, when he was 18, he left there and came out west and created this incredible life for us in this corner of Montana.
Tell me about Keely’s Camps. Where did the idea come from and how did you turn it into a reality?
It’s so funny that you ask this because I just entered a business plan competition in school and I’m currently writing abut Keely’s Camps and the meaning behind it.
I started Keely’s Camps after retiring from racing in 2010, because I noticed an extreme imbalance in the ratio of female coaches to male coaches. I don’t know about you, but I had so many powerful female mentors growing up.
One summer, I was coaching at a ski camp and I spent the entire summer on Mt. Hood, in Oregon, coaching boys and girls. I noticed that I was one of the only female coaches out there. These girls were learning to race, but didn’t have any female skiers to look up to. I was recently running the numbers and I found out that less than 25 percent of the coaches are females. It was that summer on Mt. Hood that gave me the inspiration for Keely’s Camps.
What kinds of girls attend Keely’s Camps?
The girls are from all around the country. We even had a girl from Iowa! For the race camps, all the girls are racers, but for Big Mountain camps, we require that the girls can at least ski black diamond terrain.
The best part of our camps is that some of the girls don’t have to facilities at their home mountains (like in Iowa), so we try to provide a really supportive and professional ski environment in which they can excel. And all the girls really just want to get better at skiing, which is why it’s so fun.
What is a typical day at winter camp like?
Some of the girls from the summer camps come to winter camps and it’s really cool to see them outside the [racing] gates.
We break them into ability level and pair them with a coach. Then, they spend the whole day ripping around the mountain in these small groups. Really, this part of camp is just about the coaches skiing really hard with the girls. They’ll encourage the girls to hit a cliff or try a 360. If a girl is really afraid of moguls, they’ll take them into moguls. The goal for the winter camps is really just to teach the girls how to become great all-around skiers.
On the second day, we have a mini competition. In the morning, we inspect possible lines with the girls and then they get to practice them. In the afternoon, we have a competition and each girl gets to ski her line in front of coaches. We judge them on all kinds of stuff, like how well she pole planted, her creativity and how much fun they were to watch ski.
What’s the best part about running Keely’s Camps?
I’ve been doing this [coaching] for such a long time and it’s just so meaningful to me. I added up the cumulative years of skiing that all the coaches I’ve hired have and it came out to 261 years of ski racing experience and 80 years of coaching experience from 11 coaches. When you retire from ski racing, what do you do with that? The fact that I can run a camp like this and give all of that expertise to the next generation of bad-ass girls is why I love it. It’s so awesome to see a girl come down at the end of a run, skiing something that she was initially afraid of. Giving back to this sport that has given so much back to me.
How do you balance running your own business and being in school full-time?
It’s overwhelming for sure. I had no idea when I started our first camp, that we would grow 10 fold over the course of the first two years. We’ve gone from 22 racers in 2011, to 218 racers in 2013. That kind of growth and that much demand is so hard to keep up with, so we’ve been trying to implement strategies to ease the impact of the growth. It’s a huge process for sure. But I think that because I’m an athlete, I’m so driven to get the job done. Which explains how I can do both.
You were recently featured in Warren Miller’s Ticket To Ride. Tell us about repping Montana for the film?
Being able to come home and just getting to ski where I grew up, and also getting to be in Warren Miller’s film was just so much fun. It added so much to my ski career. I’ve always wanted to ski in Warren Miller’s films and being able to come back to Big Sky and share that dream with my community was so fun.
What’s your perfect winter day in Big Sky?
It always starts in Lone Mountain Sports, because my dad has a locker room up there. Ever since I was a kid, we’ve always stored our ski stuff there. I’ll start the day by running up there and saying, "Hi," to the guys in the shop and chat with them. When we get out on the hill, we head over to the Challenger lift because it’s usually the best in the morning (but don’t tell too many people about that, it’s a secret).
After a good morning, I like to have lunch at The Cabin, because it’s owned by another good family friend. Really, my perfect day is just being around all the people I grew up with. Everyone is always so excited about skiing. No matter how huge Big Sky has gotten, no matter how much of a resort destination it has become, it’s still the same people from when I was sitting on the ski tuning bench in diapers.
After lunch, we’ll head up to the Tram, ski over there and then finish the day with some good food and, of course, a few beers.
Keely’s Camps are coming to Big Sky this year. Dates will be announced in January, but in the meantime, check out their website, follow them on Facebook or sneak a peek at their Instagram page for the latest info.
photo: Steve Gayner // Frank Shine