- Courtesy Of Robby Kelley
- Robby Kelley
On Sunday, Robby Kelley competed in the first World Cup men's slalom of this year's series in Levi, Finland. While the Starksboro native didn't qualify for a second run, he was close — a mere 10th of a second away. But that's all it takes in slalom, the Alpine skiing event in which racers barrel down a tightly knit course at high speeds.
According to the International Ski Federation (FIS) ranking system, which employs a complex points-scoring system, the 27-year-old racer ranks third in slalom among men from the United States. He's ranked 38th among men in the world.
But for all that prowess, Kelley is racing as an independent. He's one of a number of American racers who qualified for this year's World Cup races and are currently unaffiliated with the U.S. Ski Team. Why? For Kelley, it's about economics and individualism.
The athlete is part of the famed Cochran family, which is no stranger to the U.S. Ski Team. Kelley's cousin, Ryan Cochran-Siegle, is currently on the team. Both of Kelley's siblings, Tim and Jessica, were on the team before they retired, as was his mother, Lindy Kelley, and her siblings. Lindy competed on the World Cup circuit in the 1970s and took sixth place in slalom in the 1976 Winter Olympics. Her three siblings carry multiple World Cup and Olympic titles among them. And they all grew up skiing at the tiny Cochran's Ski Area in Richmond.
Every year, the U.S. team selects new and returning members — not everyone who was on the team the previous year makes it back. According to the organization's website, selection is based on "results from specific events. Or, in other cases, it may be an athlete's ranking on a [United States Ski and Snowboard Association] or [FIS] points or ranking list." According to Lindy, the ski team also keeps a few "discretionary" slots open for people who might not qualify based on those criteria but for whom it has high hopes.
In 2011, Kelley was named to the U.S. Ski Team for the first time. He was named the following two years, as well, but, after the 2013-14 season, he wasn't asked back.
Never one to give up, Kelley joined his brother Tim, who at that time was racing independently. Together with Andrew McNealus and Tucker Marshall, they formed Redneck Racing, a team of independent Vermont racers. The name gave them a handy platform through which to raise money to offset the costs of training and competing.
"My first season on Redneck Racing ... was a bit of a transition year," Kelley says. "I had spent the last two seasons racing World Cup [giant slalom] with the U.S. Ski Team and decided to shift my focus over to slalom. I ended up winning six FIS races and cutting my slalom world rank in half, but, more importantly, did less traveling and racing and had a lot more training and really figured some stuff out technically."
Apparently that change impressed the U.S. team. The next year, 2015-16, he was asked back, on one condition: He would have to pay $30,000 to defray the costs associated with the honor. Tim was offered the same deal and took it. Kelley elected to continue on his own.
"It seemed like a lot to me," he reflects. "I wanted to do it on my own anyway, and when I heard [that number], I thought, No chance."
So far, the decision not to pay up has paid off. To get to the World Cup, athletes have to qualify based on previous points from lower-tier races the year before. Starting (racing in the first run) is an honor — being one of the 30 athletes who qualify for a second run is an even bigger one.
"Last year I qualified for two second runs on the World Cup slalom circuit," Kelley notes. He was also named to his second World Championship team, another prestigious series that happens in the winters before and after the Olympics.
Those achievements are a big deal, considering that Kelley is operating at a disadvantage compared to other athletes. U.S. Ski Team racers travel with an entourage of doctors, physical therapists, coaches and service technicians to tune their skis after each training day. Essentially, they have a full cadre of professionals pushing them to be their best.
Kelley says he doesn't miss that. "I like [Redneck Racing] a little better," he says. "We're doing it as cheap as we possibly can while not sacrificing the quality of our training. We're still aiming to be the best in the world, but we're trying to do it our own way."
The "we" refers to current fellow Rednecks Julia Ford and Marshall, who are still working toward World Cup spots. McNealus, like Tim, has since retired.
How does Kelley manage to pay for an event like the World Cup in Levi last week? He says FIS covers a portion of his travel if he has a low enough start number, which he does, and comps three nights in a hotel. He's there for nine. For the remaining nights, an independent Finnish racer offered to host the American independents at his apartment.
Kelley's sponsors help out with gear. He tunes his own skis — donations from Blizzard — each night after the training sessions leading up to the race. The rest of his equipment is gifted from Tecnica, Marker, Shred Optics and others. Kelley also lists one of his sponsors as Slopeside Syrup, which is made by his brother and three cousins in Richmond. The company makes maple energy packs, which they donate to Kelley for his travels. "It's nice to have maple on the road," he says.
But, as with any sport, skiing is about more than the race. Staying in shape and training takes work and access to resources. So, in the off-season and between events, Kelley finds creative ways to keep going. Primarily, he trains with the Mount Mansfield Ski Club and its boarding program, the Mount Mansfield Winter Academy in Stowe. He raced and studied at the academy as a junior athlete and often joins in when they travel to ski camps.
"He's a homegrown kid," says MMSC/MMWA executive athletic director Igor Vanovac. "He's a very, very, very talented young man and very unique in the way he wants to approach the sport. He's not glamorous; he doesn't need much to be a fast skier or happy."
Part of Kelley's success, Vanovac hypothesizes, is that he thrives in any environment. "He's a very motivated individual. The beautiful part of him is that it doesn't matter what environment you put him in — he's going to succeed, [whether] he's training with 7-year-olds, 15-year-olds or the best skiers in the world," Vanovac says. "Many people need everything to be perfect to have perfect training. Robby takes advantage of every situation."
He's certainly making good use of his resources. The next question, then, is whether Kelley's name will be on the roster for the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
"To get to the Olympics, I've just got to ski how I know I can," he says. "It's the same criteria as the World Championships, so being on [that] team for last year, I know I've got a great shot at it this year."
While his family and fans are certainly hoping for that result, Kelley seems excited just to be on the snow, competing, wherever that may be.
"Having the Olympics this year doesn't really change anything," he says. "I'm still going to be working hard to improve, like I always am, and try to be the best skier I can be. If that means going to the Olympics this year, then that's a nice little bonus."