Women's Ski Pioneer Makes First Tracks on the Hill and in the Sports World

Extreme skier Kim Reichhelm returns to Vail this January for her on-mountain ski clinics. We chatted with her about shattering the ice-cold ceiling of a male-dominated sport, and coaching women to make their own first tracks.

By Kirsten Dobroth Photography by Ryan Dearth February 10, 2017 Published in the Midwinter/Spring 2017 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

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Image: Ryan Dearth

"Timing in my life was really fortunate; I was the first to run a women’s ski camp, I was the first to be in big ski movies with Greg Stump, I was one of the only girls who went to the World Extreme Ski Championships in the early ‘90s—I was one of the only ones invited. There weren’t other women doing what I was doing, so I ended up skiing around with the boys, which ended up being a natural progression for the women’s camps. The guys would introduce me to their girlfriends, and I would encourage them, partly because I didn’t want them to think I was chasing their boyfriends. We’d all be jumping off some cornice and the guys would be eating it, and the girls were uncomfortable with the terrain. My ego wanted to jump the cornice and spray them all with snow, but instead I said, 'You know what, girls, follow me and we’ll take the easy line in, and if we ski under the cornice we’re going to get all of that good snow where the dudes fell and that’s the best snow on the mountain.'

When I took the time to help them, they were so appreciative, and the reward I got back was incredible. You’re so much stronger when you work as a group and give to one another. It’s the same thing in business or in other aspects of life: if we empower other people, the overall level of the group is elevated. I learned that with team skiing in college, but I hadn’t really applied it to my life, and then I started doing it with the girls when I’d be skiing with the guys, and suddenly everyone was high-fiving and having a good time. The process of how men and women learn something new and approach things is entirely different. When I eliminated the guys, the girls starting asking questions, they laughed, they enjoyed themselves, and they weren’t afraid of looking bad. In 1988, I decided that I wanted to turn this realization into women’s camps, a friend helped me get the business part of things together, and I had studied commercial recreation in college, which ended up being really helpful.

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Image: Ryan Dearth

Nowadays, I'm booked every single day from November until April. December is the one month I have some me-time to ski for fun, and then starting in January it's camps with Vail. But it's awesome — I'm around people who are on vacation, I'm on the mountain, and I'm with people who chose to ski with me. Probably a third of my clients don't even care about getting better, they're happy with where they are, they just come for the girlfriends, and a lot of them go on trips without me. They'll tell me, 'We're all going back to Vail,' and I'm like, 'Without me?!' But it's great; I love that they've been able to make friends, and I think that anything we can do to bring more skiers to the sport is good.

As an athlete in the ‘70s, no one really got me.

I grew up in Stratton, Vermont, and I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder sight unseen; it was the only college I applied to. The University of Colorado ski team was led by Bill Marolt and had already won five national championships. They wore all black and were badass. I first saw them when I was a kid competing at Copper Mountain. I said to my coach, 'After I race in the Olympics, I’m going to race professionally,' and he said, 'There’s no pro racing for women,' and I looked at him and I said, 'There will be.' There was no doubt in my mind. 

I went to the gym, and I worked out, and I was always sort of pushing the concept. Muscles were just starting to become sexy, but it was a slow process. Now you look at Lindsey Vonn, and she’s wearing mascara in the starting gate of a World Cup downhill—if I ever wore mascara when I was on the US Ski Team, my coaches would have yelled at me for not taking things seriously! The appearance part of things can be pushed a little too hard, but the part that I really love is that you can be sexy, you can be feminine, and you can be a world-class athlete at the same time. And I really wanted that when I was younger.

I got paid a quarter of what guys were getting paid for what I was doing—and I wasn’t just skiing really well, I was running my business, and doing media, and television. I had about 20 hats on my head. And when women first really started making progress, I thought 'Finally, there’s an opportunity for women.' And then there was a phase that I was also a little bit jealous because I thought that I had missed it. When I was skiing, Powder Magazine had never even published a photo of a woman on their cover—ever. I’m happy to see it change, and I’m happy to see the process, and I’m stoked that there are more athletic women role models, and that there are companies and different action sports industries that are embracing women, and the women are really starting to throw down. Sometimes I think I would have liked to grow up in this era because I think I still would have been quite competitive, but I’m honored and flattered that I’ve had an influence on so many people. Skiing Magazine just voted me as one of the most influential people of skiing and I was shocked; it was totally overwhelming.

I have a great life, but there was a lot of work that went into it. Things just keep coming my way, and I have always been lucky enough to always follow my heart, and to follow what I really think is going to make me happy. Timing is everything, and I’ve been super fortunate, but you make your luck."

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