This Alaskan edit of Flylow athlete Megan McJames is a sneak peek at a feature film on her story competing at two Olympics without the support of the U.S. Ski Team.
For most people, getting cut from the team means the likely end of your run at that sport. But Megan McJames is not like most people. When the decorated alpine ski racer from Utah got dropped from the U.S. Ski Team in 2012, after one Olympic performance and a few injuries that sidelined her from top results, she wasn’t ready to give up on the sport she loved. So, she decided to continue skiing at the top level without the support of the U.S. Ski Team, making her the first female American athlete to ski race on the World Cup and qualify for the Olympics as an independent.
“I still had this spark in me,” McJames says. “It was hard at first, because you’re expected to quit when you’re cut from the U.S. Ski Team. But ski racing had been my purpose for so long and I didn’t feel like I had reached all of my goals. I didn’t know how I was going to keep going, but I had a World Cup spot and I was determined to figure out how to use it.”
McJames’ six-year journey as an independent athlete will be featured in an upcoming film, called Trailblazer, produced by KGB Productions and due out next year. A short edit from the film, shot on the steeps of Alaska as McJames explores new terrain in her post-ski-racing life, was released this week.
She ended up competing at two Olympics as an independent—the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014, and in PyeongChang, South Korea, in 2018. “I’m not the athlete who won the most medals,” McJames says. “For me, the joy of the journey, the real reward, is that in the end I was able to pursue my own goals and end on my own terms. The hardest part of being an independent skier is learning to believe in yourself again when the highest levels of the sport are telling you you’re wrong.”
Ski racing was the easy part for McJames—that came naturally to her. But in addition to her racing, as an independent, she had to raise funds to support her travel and other costs, plan logistics, set up her own training courses, and tune her own skis. She would be out on the deck at World Cup races waxing and tuning her skis each night, while other athletes simply dropped their gear in the tuning room.
“It was definitely a hard path,” she says. “Nobody chooses this instead of being on the U.S. Team. But that internal fire kept me going. When I would get bummed about fundraising or some political drama, I would get back to the reason I was out there: because I’m happy when I’m in the mountains, when I’m competing.”
After the 2018 Olympics, McJames was finally ready to retire from ski racing. But she definitely wasn’t done skiing. “For the first time in my life, I was starting to think about other things,” she says. “I still loved skiing, but I was starting to learn more about backcountry and ski touring. My eyes were open to the broader world of skiing. I felt ready to leave the competition and pressure aspect behind and pursue other aspects of the sport.”
Last winter, she took the trip to Alaska featured in this latest video and she says learning about backcountry terrain opened her eyes to how much she still has to learn in the world of skiing. McJames now works as an accountant for an investment firm in Salt Lake City, but she is finding the balance of work, life, and skiing—just like the rest of us.
McJames hopes the new film, Trailblazer, helps inspire others to pave their own way forward. “The film isn’t just for skiers, but for anyone facing a challenge or struggle,” she says. “I had to persevere through a lot of things. That’s a theme that doesn’t just apply to ski racing. I hope the film can inspire people to get creative to find solutions to their goals, even if the path isn’t quite clear.”