It took two days, but on Monday, Alice McKennis said the thrill of winning her first World Cup Skiing race had finally set in.
While the downhill win Saturday at St. Anton, Austria, was significant for the professional career of the 23-year-old from New Castle, it came as a surprise to her to find out that she is the first member in Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club's 76-year history to win a World Cup race.
"One of the best things about the AVSC, the Aspen area and Roaring Fork Valley is people love ski racing," she said. "To have people interested and supportive about it, and to have people behind you, is awesome."
McKennis joined AVSC when she was 15 years old in 2006, after skiing independently for a short time, and being a member of Team Summit Colorado and Ski and Snowboard Club Vail. What convinced her to make the long trip to from home to Aspen five days per week was the opportunity to be coached by four-time Olympic downhill skier, Casey Puckett.
"At that point there were a few other good racers my age at AVSC, and I wanted to be training with them," McKennis said. "I wanted to have Casey as a coach because he knew what it took to compete at the highest level."
Before McKennis joined AVSC, Puckett said nearly every ski club around Colorado wanted her to join as already a noted junior competitor. What set McKennis apart from her peers was her natural feel for skiing.
"She had a really good touch for the snow because she's been skiing since she was very young," Puckett said. "Her strengths so far have been in gliding. That's where that touch comes in."
McKennis spent two years at AVSC with Puckett until she moved on to the Rowmark Ski Academy in Salt Lake City while attending Westminster College. She made the US Development Ski Team in the spring of 2008 and then won both the downhill and Super-G North American Cup Titles in her final year as a junior.
Mark Cole, executive director of AVSC, said in McKennis' short time with the Aspen-based club, her work ethic set her apart.
"She showed even in her early years here that she was committed to what she was doing," Cole said. "She showed she was going to push herself and work hard. This win was a result of all the work that she put in to get her to this point."
Added McKennis, "I've always dreamed about competing [in the World Cup] since I was seven or eight years old. It took me till I was 19 to realize I was able to compete."
In her first year racing on World Cup stages, McKennis finished 10th in her third race, and she qualified for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic games in downhill skiing.
McKennis then suffered a setback during training in January 2011, when she crashed and broke her left tibia plateau. McKennis underwent surgery and had five screws and a plate inserted in her leg to stabilize the fracture.
"It was struggle to get through it," McKennis said. "There was doubt in my mind that I would continue, but I kept working."
Last season, she rebounded to tally three top-10 finishes in eight World Cup races.
This past weekend, her training and recovery paid off.
McKennis was the fourth competitor out of the gate down the Karl Schranz course, and said after the race that it was nerve wracking waiting for nearly the entire field to take their runs.
However, she was confident her game plan would pay off.
"I wanted to be super aggressive," McKennis said. "I probably had the best race of my life."
Her time of 1 minute, 14.62 lasted to beat second-place finisher, Italy's Daniela Merighetti, by 0.07.
"You always dream about winning and being on the podium," McKennis said. "To know I can ski with the best, especially on one of the hardest courses, it gives me a lot of confidence going forward."
Fellow American Lindsey Vonn finished sixth 0.34 behind.
"To win a World Cup race, there are so many factors involved," Puckett said. "Some of the best juniors of all-time don't win a World Cup race. She was identified as a great talent, and once she got to the national team level, it comes down to resilience and luck. I'm so proud of her."
It took much more than luck for McKennis to stand above the top downhill skiers in the world. For one who grew up skiing and horseback riding, the launch pad of her skiing career could be traced to being coached by Puckett at AVSC.
"We can develop athletes from their first turn on the slopes to the US team and from there, they can succeed at the highest levels," Cole said. "We are just so proud of her in the effort she's put in over the years that culminated to this win."
McKennis' next race in Saturday in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.