During seven surgeries in three years to mend a fractured right tibia and fibula when she was 19, determination to fulfill a childhood dream helped Keely Kelleher persevere through her pain, anguish and disappointment.
“I’m an Irish girl,” she said. “I’m pretty stubborn.”
That stubbornness and her eventual recovery earned her a spot on the U.S. Ski Team for eight years, where she raced the speedy sports of downhill and super G. After retiring from racing at 25, she fulfilled another dream by starring in two Warren Miller ski movies released in 2012 and 2013.
Now, 10 years after the leg fractures that nearly ended her chance to ski race, the Big Sky native is putting that same rehabilitation resolve into developing and expanding her Keely’s Ski Camp for Girls. When she launched the program in the summer of 2011 at Oregon’s Mount Hood, it was the only female-coached ski camp for girls offered.
“It’s a good way for me to keep doing what I love,” she said, which, if you haven’t figured it out by now, is skiing.
The impetus for the girls camps is that Kelleher had few female ski coaches during her career, and she began skiing at age 5. She’s looking to change that by not only teaching girls, but also developing more female coaches for the sport.
“I want to send a healthy ‘let’s explore the mountains’ message,” Kelleher said.
Her enthusiasm appears to be contagious.
“Keely inspires me to be a better coach, person and live life every day,” wrote Katie Hitchcock in an email.
Hitchcock is a former super G racer and assistant ski coach at the University of New Hampshire. She met Kelleher when the two 13-year-olds were attending a ski camp at Mount Hood, where Kelleher’s camps are now held.
“At the beginning of every camp, Keely tells the story about how we met and that they could potentially be meeting the best friend they will have for the rest of their life,” Hitchcock said.
There seems to be a market for the service Kelleher is offering. Since it was first offered, it has grown 11-fold.
“Keely’s goal is to inspire these girls,” Hitchcock said. “She is energetic, positive and has such a positive outlook on life it is amazing for these girls to be around. Throughout the week you can see these girls become more confident in themselves.”
Kelleher has now expanded her business to include a winter course at Utah’s Snowbird ski area that focuses on big mountain skiing. She’s in discussion with Big Sky Resort to bring the camp back to her home hill and foresees an overseas expansion in the future to Italy, Chile and New Zealand.
While visiting her family at Big Sky over the Christmas holiday, Kelleher even volunteered to help coach the Big Sky Ski Education Foundation’s skiers.
“She really knows how to motivate and talk to the girls, and they really look up to her,” said Sheila Chapman, Big Sky public relations manager. “I’m excited she wants to bring her camp here. She’s a role model for young girls, for sure.”
Kelleher said her all-girls camp was born out of her own imagination.
“In 22 years of racing, I accrued so much knowledge. I thought, ‘If I stop, all of this knowledge is going to go to waste,’” she said.
Although she was trained as a racer, she sees the skills developed by competitors as useful for free skiers, as well.
“Both of them complement the other,” she said. “I just want to have both of these emphases in camp because you can’t race forever. It’s really important to emphasize the fun of the sport. One of the most rewarding things is to teach them how to ski powder or cross block a ski gate.”
As a business management student at Westminster College in Utah, Kelleher performed her due diligence before launching the business by conducting some market research and creating a business plan for her camp. She graduated just last year.
“I was shooting from the hip, but I thought it was a great idea,” she said.
She has incorporated her sister, Brenna, and mother, Jennifer, into the camp as well. Brenna is one of the coaches and Jennifer is camp cook.
“It’s so fun to be working with my sister because for so long we were always racing against each other,” said Brenna, who competed as a ski racer for Montana State University.
She described her sister as intelligent and vivacious.
“I don’t know what she puts in her cereal in the morning, but she is extremely energetic,” Brenna said.
Kelleher grew up in the Gallatin Canyon, just six miles north of the turnoff to Big Sky Resort in a house that hugged the banks of the Gallatin River.
“I love rivers because of that place,” she said. “Our whole family is big into whitewater kayaking.”
Big Sky was a close-knit, small community when she was a child attending Ophir School. Her eighth-grade graduating class totaled only eight students, and only 28 attended the school.
“We didn’t have anyone else to hang out with, so we’d ride horses up the canyon and play outside a lot instead of watching TV,” she said.
She left her cozy, pine-clad canyon confines to attend ninth grade at Bozeman Senior High School, which boasted a class of 500 students.
“After I finished eighth grade, the first thing I wanted to do was get out of Big Sky and explore the world,” she said. “That’s the neat thing about skiing. It takes you to some really cool places, and you meet nice people who like to be outside.”
True to her dreams, by the age of 15 she was attending a ski academy in Utah to improve her racing skills in a more competitive environment. After her three-year setback beginning with her leg injury at 19, Kelleher went on to tour the world as a ski racer, a thrill she’ll never forget.
“Sometimes I really do miss it, because I was a downhiller,” she said. “It’s pretty exciting when someone prepares a hill for you to go as fast as you can.”
For Kelleher, that meant streaking downhill on icy courses at speeds up to 80 mph while clad in a skin-tight Spandex suit.
“I haven’t skied downhill since 2010,” she said. “I saw my old downhill skis in my dad’s barn. I thought, ‘I miss going really fast on a pair of 212s,’” the longer skis she competed on.
But she doesn’t miss the bad falls, the injuries and the pressure that came with performing well in order to advance her career. And she’s happy that she still loves skiing. She has seen racers get burned out on the sport who don’t even want to free ski.
That’s not Kelleher’s style. She’s a live wire who has dedicated her life to skiing — even when a surgeon had to rebreak her leg to fix it and even though the old injury still pains her.
“Oh well, worse things could have happened,” she said. “At least I still have a leg.”