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Countdown to the 2022 Olympic Winter Games

Leanne Smith: What Makes a Champ

By Megan Harrod
April, 20 2017

From local ski hills to the PyeongChang Olympics, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) encompasses all athletes that share a passion for skiing and snowboarding. We explore what makes each skier and rider a champion with stories from the U.S. Ski Team, U.S. Snowboarding and U.S. Freeskiing, next to kids winning a NASTAR medal, landing their first cork 7 or joining a club team. Alongside USSA’s mascot Champ, take a look at how all of these athletes strive to be Best in the World.

As we continue to explore what makes USSA athletes champions, we’re learning more than we ever expected. To be a champion is holistic – it goes beyond the medals and the titles. It’s someone with great character and an undying belief in themselves; it’s someone who loves their sport with an unmatched passion—whether they’re still actively pursuing it or not. We are honored to share these stories with you. In this installation, Alpine Press Officer Megan Harrod sits down with new U.S. Ski Team alumna, Leanne Smith, to discuss retirement and her thoughts on #WhatMakesAChamp.

Witness Leanne Smith (North Conway, NH) cruise along downhill inspection and you’ll notice she does it with a focus and determination in her gaze and an aura of quiet confidence characteristic of most veterans on the Audi FIS World Cup circuit. However, throw a “hello” in Smith’s direction and you’d be amazed what you receive in return. Because you see, Smith doesn’t only have pairs on pairs of Rossignol skis in her quiver—she has an unmatched smile and a deep, genuine warmth to go along with those speed boards. She'll stop, flash that signature Leanne Smith grin at you and ask you how your brother's dog is doing. Or how your holiday break was. Because you're more than a teammate or a competitor. You're family. 

Leanne Smith (bottom right) poses with the women's speed team before the 2016-17 season. (U.S. Ski Team)

Fiercely loyal, friendly and a fighter, east-coaster Smith has endured her fair share of joys and hardships in a 10-year career that features two World Cup podiums—second in Val D’Isere (2012) and third in Cortina (2013)—and, more importantly, one gigantic and tight-knit ski family. And that is what she’ll miss most as she announces her retirement and moves on to the next adventure. 

“I’ll definitely miss my teammates,” she reflected. “They've become family. Given the environment of life on the World Cup, we are around each other pretty much constantly. You are training, you are competing and you couldn't be living any closer together. But these are the people you are making the memories with and the people that helped you get there.”

Leanne Smith (bottom left) with her Junior Meister teammates at Cranmore. 

On skis at six, Smith skied at New Hampshire's Cranmore Mountain Resort, the heralded Mount Washington Valley ski area made famous when instructional legend Hannes Schneider arrived there from Austria in 1938. Smith skied for Cranmore’s race team until she entered Kennett High School, where she continued racing and moved to the Mount Washington Valley Ski Team. Following high school, she spent the 2006-07 year at University of New Hampshire before taking leave for winter 2007 to join the U.S. Ski Team on the development team. She then erupted, having a breakout season as a double NorAm champion in both super G and the overall—catapulting her to the World Cup level.

Leanne Smith, Chelsea Marshall and Keely Kelleher in the finish in St. Moritz in Smith's rookie season. (U.S. Ski Team)

In her rookie season with the team in 2008, she scored points in four World Cup races, including points in her very first World Cup start, which happened to be the first downhill of the 2008 season, finishing 23rd. From there, she kept the fire rolling.

In her career, she’s been on the World Cup podium twice—an experience most World Cup athletes only dream of. She was on two World Championship teams and has three top-20 World Championship results, including a 12th in the downhill in Schladming in 2013. She’s a two-time Olympian, with two top 20 Olympic results to her name. And, it’s her Olympic experiences that she’ll hold closest to her heart as she moves forward.

Leanne Smith skis in the Sochi Olympics. (Getty Images-Ezra Shaw)

“I have great memories of every stage of my career, but if I had to choose I would say the Olympics,” Smith said. “It is the pinnacle for every athlete. A medal would’ve been unbelievable, but just being there and representing the United States with thousands of other athletes, from all over the world, is something special. It’s probably the first thing that comes to mind since most little ones dream of being Olympians.”

(l-r) Megan McJames, Leanne Smith, Julia Mancuso, Laurenne Ross and Jessica Kelley at the 2010 U.S. Alpine Champs. (U.S. Ski Team)

Smith’s also noted an extreme gratitude for the lifestyle she experienced while traveling on the circuit. She is thankful to have traveled to some of the most beautiful places in the world to do a job she loved and had such a strong passion for. She'll miss the views, the different cultures and the chaos of traveling around the world to compete. She realizes more than most that it’s a gift to experience the chaos, because along with the pandemonium came beautiful moments, faces and places.

Plagued with injuries at the end of her career, Smith sat out much of the 2015 and 2016 seasons, spending time in Park City working hard at the Center of Excellence. It was blood, sweat, and tears for Smith—literally—as she made a comeback to the World Cup circuit in 2017. Talk about a fighter. Not surprisingly, she admits injuries are the most challenging thing about the sport.

The journey to the podium is no easy feat. It takes hard work. Smith acknowledges that it takes something special to stand on the podium, especially when everyone is pushing hard to achieve their dreams. For her, it was not solely the work on snow, but also the hard work off snow that helped her get there. A large part of that work included the mental aspect of the sport.

The women's U.S. Ski Team celebrates on the podium with Leanne Smith after her second place finish in the Val d'Isere downhill. (U.S. Ski Team)

“I was always trying to build confidence so my skiing could become automatic,” reflected Smith. “That’s the hardest thing to keep consistent as a ski racer. But, there is no doubt that when you find it, with a clear head, that is when you will most likely get to that top level.”

Above all else, Smith realized the importance of loving what you do in life, and she hopes to carry that same enjoyment into her next endeavor.

“Ski racing was very stressful at times, but the great days made it all worthwhile,” said Smith. “Hopefully whatever I choose next won't have my blood pressure so high so many days of the year. But we will see.”

(l-r) Leanne Smith, Julia Mancuso, Laurenne Ross stand atop the 2012 U.S. Alpine Champs podium. (U.S. Ski Team)

What’s next for Smith? She’ll join the mastermind behind the American Downhiller concept Marco Sullivan and an all-star staff of current and former U.S. Ski Team athletes and coaches to pave the way for future generations of downhillers at a camp in May. Also involved will be Daron Rahlves, Steven Nyman (Sundance, UT), Alice McKennis (New Castle, CO), Bryce Bennett (Squaw Valley, CA), former U.S. Ski Team World Cup downhill coaches Chris Brigham and newly appointed men’s head speed coach Johno McBride.

What sets this camp apart, in Smith’s words? “I am excited to work with guys like Marco, that have so much knowledge and experience,” said Smith. “These guys are all legends on the speed side. It will be great to hear their thoughts and understand concepts that they have been successful with. I don't know if I have seen a camp that has more talented skiers and coaches in one place.”

Lindsey Vonn and Leanne Smith after finishing first and third in the Audi FIS Alpine World Cup downhill in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. (U.S. Ski Team)

Smith ended her career with the U.S. Ski Team at the U.S. Alpine Championships in Sugarloaf, Maine quietly. We asked Smith our three questions on what she believes makes a champion, and her message is one to be shared.

U.S. SKI TEAM: In your words, what makes a champion?
Leanne Smith: A champion is someone who overcomes a challenge even when all odds are stacked against them, and someone who has persevered through the lowest of lows to triumph over an obstacle. 

A champion is a humble winner, a gracious loser and a good teammate. It is hard to be all three. 

U.S. SKI TEAM: Do you remember the first time you felt like a champion?
LS: It all began with NASTAR pins, Junior Meisters on Friday nights, black leggings, Chuck Roast fleece vests and glasses under the goggles. 

U.S. SKI TEAM: What is the biggest piece of advice you have for young athletes who want to be sitting where you are today?
LS: Having fun with what you're doing is the most important thing. Work hard and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. 

Leanne's tech Ales Sopotnik works on her skis. (U.S. Ski Team)

After a 10-year career, Leanne would like to thank the following:

Her family and friends: "I would like to thank my family, and friends who believed in me from day one. You all made any success I had that much more enjoyable." (Leanne would also like to give a shout-out and BIG thank you to her longtime serviceman Ales Sopotnik, whom she described as a sidekick, a trusted counselor, a "big brother" and a friend, and whom she probably trusted more than anyone else out on the mountain.)

Her sponsors: "I wouldn’t have made it very far without my sponsors: Rossignol, Lange, POC, Swix, Reusch, Cranmore Mountain and Coleman’s. You guys stuck with me through everything, including the injuries. Thanks for having my back and supporting me throughout my career."

Her coaches: "Thank you to my coaches. You know who you are." 

The "Reusch Speed Unicorns" (l-r: Alice McKennis, Jackie Wiles, Leanne Smith, Laurenne Ross and Stacey Cook) goof off after a bike ride. 

Some Parting Love from the Reusch Speed Unicorns:

Stacey Cook
Leanne is one of the most talented athletes I have ever met. She would blow us away with her ability in training and I credit her with pushing me so much to keep up. She's fiery, fun and real—and will be a great friend for life, which is a true gift from this sport to me. 

Jackie Wiles
Leanne is a tough badass that can make anybody laugh. I was lucky enough that Leanne's last four years on the U.S. Ski Team were my first. Striving to one day make it to the team, she is someone I watched intently on the World Cup circuit because I absolutely loved watching her ski. She is such an amazing skier with a tenacious attitude. I learned a lot from Leanne about being true to myself. Cherishing the wonderful, lifelong friendship that has come from these past years, I will really miss her fun-loving, jokester energy on tour. I'm sure whatever endeavors she pursues next, she will be successful. Cheers to a very triumphant career that she should be most proud of! P.S. Lots of love. Go Seahawks.

Alice McKennis
Leanne has always been a skier I have admired from the time I was a young athlete. I remember meeting her at a camp in Mammoth a million years ago and instantly knowing she was an athlete to be reckoned with. Her drive on the mountain was always so fearless and I admired that from the beginning. I remember so many times inspecting with her in training and she always chose the line with the most risk; she was never afraid to push the limit and take that chance. Times when I was uncertain, she always had the confidence to take that risk. So many times it paid off. Many times it didn't, but it was her willingness to push hard that made her one of the best super-G skiers on the circuit for several years. 

As a person, Leanne has always been one of the first to crack a joke, have some fun and truly enjoy every aspect of the sport. She has never been one to miss out on an adventure or opportunity to experience something new on tour. It was an admirable asset to an athlete in a sport where we all can easily become so trapped in only focusing on the results and performances.

Seeing how hard she fought to come back from a really horrific injury, the times she tried to fight through the pain, fight through it all, and how close she came to getting back is an inspiration to me. People may not know her full story or what she went through, but I saw so much of it, I can't even describe the will it must have taken to continue when odds were stacked against her. She gave everything to come back and left no stone unturned. She can walk away knowing she succeeded in that regard. Thinking back to all the times I have shared with Leanne on tour and as friends, it truly brings tears to my eyes. She is such a big personality that I will miss every day in training, grinding and working away. I will miss her devilish smile, always ready to line one of us up for a joke or tease. I wish Leanne all the best and have no doubt she will take her tenacity into something else and find success and happiness. 

Laurenne Ross
Since the moment I met Leanne, I knew I wanted to be her friend. She has always made me laugh, made me think and she has definitely made me a better skier. Her talent and touch for the snow is a wonderful combination to witness -- at her best, Leanne is the most graceful and fun-to-watch skier on the World Cup. She will be missed by our team and by all on the circuit.

Make sure to register for the American Downhiller camp from May 16-21 for ages U14-U21. If those dates don't work for you, three-time Olympian and current U.S. Ski Team athlete Stacey Cook also hosts her “Chix on Stix” camp at Mammoth from April 29-30.