I Did It Because It Was Fun
January 11, 2020
From the pages of Issue 5: Black + White
A look back on skiing from a trailblazing athlete in a time when extreme skiing was a fledgling sport dominated by men.
By Jennifer Gurecki | @yogurecki
We too easily forget the women who came before us. The ones who metaphorically and literally broke trail. Kim Reichhelm is one of those women, yet she has accomplished what few professional skiers have been able to: staying relevant and maintaining a career into her 50s. It’s been a thoughtful mix of professionalism, preparedness, and just the right amount of bravado.
As the defining force behind women’s big mountain skiing in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Reichhelm came onto the scene when skiing was simply fun. There was little pressure to be featured in movies or gain sponsors. Things have changed now, and pretty dramatically. “Now it’s big time; it’s serious,” she said. “If they’re not taking chances they aren’t going to win, and that makes it tough… if you want to be at the top of your game, you’re going to get hurt.”
Besides young women athletes of today pushing the limits on what it means to ski like a girl, there’s one thing that concerns her. “I’m always asking them where are you going to go from here, and I get, ‘I don’t know.’ That’s not really an answer. You need to start asking yourself this question and find out how to make your career viable in 10 years.” She blames this in part on the false sense of security that social media has created—the idea that if you have a lot of followers, you are successful. Reichhelm wants these young women to consider who they are, what they stand for, and the depth of their message.
Despite this, Reichhelm admits to being a tad bit jealous of the new generation of skiers for one reason: There’s more opportunity. “When I was a girl I was making it up, trying to be one of the boys. Now these girls have role models.”
Like you, Kim.
Beyond the injuries that athletes have always endured, she knew getting into the industry that the careers of professional skiers were short lived. In the height of her career—and arguably still to this day—very few people earned a real paycheck. Envisioning her ski career in a pre-Instafamous world, she studied marketing in college. She worked at a ski company and apparel company. She relentlessly walked the floor at the Snowsports Industry of America trade show. “I did everything I could to be prepared as an athlete and professional ski racer,” she said. That meant thinking beyond her few minutes of fame in License to Thrill and that time she sat on David Letterman’s couch. Instagram hadn’t even been invented yet, so the concept of being able to build your own platform was far more difficult than it is today.
This thoughtfulness she nurtured early on in her career, paired with the work ethic her Wall Street father instilled in her, allowed her to see beyond the notoriety of big mountain professional skiing and into her life’s passion—running women’s only ski clinics. It was during her time on the women’s pro tour that she began to notice that women learned how to ski differently than men. And when learning to ski with men, they often withered or opted to stay in the lodge.
It all started to click for her after a day on the hill when she decided to ski with the wives and girlfriends instead of with the boys, as she normally did. Reichhelm knew the sneak route that avoided the steep cornice and opened up into beautiful fields of powder. “I felt so good about myself that I made the tiniest sacrifice of not showing off and instead skiing in a safer, more controlled manner—the reward felt better than any race I had won,” she said. It also was incredibly empowering for her and it gave her a tremendous amount of pleasure.
Not everyone believed that she could be successful with women’s only ski clinics and camps. At the time, women represented about 30% of snowsports participants and the majority of the industry didn’t believe in her vision. There also weren’t a lot of women who either owned a business or held a role in upper management in the snowsports. Reichhelm noted that not much has changed and she attributes this to the lack of money and opportunity. “Women are smarter than that; they want more,” she said.
None of this deterred her, however. “I wanted women to love the sport as much as I do. I wanted to help them get through the barriers so that they do it forever,” she said. So she pushed and sacrificed and made things up along the way so that Women’s Ski Adventures would become a reality.
More than 20 years later, Women’s Ski Adventures is a world-renowned program offering women a chance to ski in a fun, safe, supportive, and relaxing environment while also taking their skiing abilities to the next level. Reichhelm has been very purposeful in choosing to not grow it exponentially or take it corporate. It’s her way of staying connected to the sport she loves. “It makes me feel so good every day I ski with those women. Every day I’m making a difference in their lives way beyond skiing. Taking chances, overcoming fear, loving a sport that makes them feel good. I started it for selfish reasons but I’m so lucky to be making a living doing this,” she said.
Reichhelm is fortunate to lead the life she does, and so are young women today who better understand their potential because they have seen what is possible. There also has to be a small amount of joy in knowing that she can say “I told you so” to all of the men who never believed that women’s skiing would be a viable market. And skiing is better for everyone because of that.
Life & Ski Hacks From Kim
- Get some instruction, even if it’s just a two-hour group lesson. You don’t need a private lesson, you just need something to focus on. It’s almost impossible to improve if you don’t, and a great way is to take a video of yourself and watch it to see where you can improve.
- Guys grow up learning that it’s OK to make mistakes but they don’t learn to think before they open up their mouths; women are constantly putting ourselves in check. Men are saying stupid things and acting inappropriately and they’re OK with that. Women need a little of that; we don’t need to be perfect.
- Make sure your boots are working properly. The plastic deteriorates in old boots and they no longer support your legs. It makes it much more difficult to ski fluidly and in control. That’s by far the most important piece of equipment and they should not be tight or painful.
- Loyalty, especially in an industry that is so small, will pay off. The guy you told to piss off last year is now the president of the company you want to be sponsored by this year.
- The most valuable thing I can teach someone is to look ahead—look three turns ahead and have a plan. If you’re not looking ahead, you are reacting and you can’t ski gracefully. Anticipate what you need to do.
- We need to keep fighting the fight. We need companies to address the needs of women and be supportive of those companies who are willing to listen and make change.