K.C. Oakley embraces challenge of making Olympics

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images file photoPiedmont’s K.C. Oakley is still battling leg injuries as she prepares to qualify for a spot on the U.S. Olympic women’s freestyle mogul ski team.

U.S. Olympic freestyle mogul ski team contender K.C. Oakley's upbringing in Piedmont and dedication to graduating from Cal in 3½ years, unlike some of her competitors in small ski towns, has put her in the underdog position — but she prefers it that way.

“I'd rather be the one chasing than be the one chased,” Oakley said. “It's somewhere I've always been. I was never the one that was training all the time like some of the people I've competed against my whole life.”

For much of her life, Oakley, 25, would step into her ski boots for the first time at a competition while other women had been training for months. Amid weekend trips to Lake Tahoe, her commitment to her studies allowed her to graduate from Cal in December 2009 with a psychology major and emphasis in business communications. That season, she made the U.S. ski team, which included only 10 women.

Now chasing one of only two to four spots for on the U.S. Olympic women's mogul team for the Sochi Games in February, Oakley faces an injury that recasts her as an underdog. Surgery for compartment syndrome in April did not solve all the problems and she still experiences pain in her legs that influences how much she can train.

In the first of five competitions determining the Olympic ski teams, Oakley didn't make the qualifiers, which she normally does. They hit the slopes again on Jan. 4 and the moment of truth she finds out is Jan. 20.

“Right now, I feel like an underdog, a situation I fell into mentally because my body can't keep up with me,” she said. “But nobody did that well except for one girl, so the door is completely open and everyone is charging toward competition in January.”

Besides her determination, Oakley has two angels on her shoulders.

She skis for her cousin Clay Beck, who was her coach when she started at age 10 and passed away in a small plane crash in 2008, and her best friend and Cal roommate Jill Costello, who died of lung cancer in 2010.

Though she's not naturally a jumper, Oakley chose mogul skiing because it is so difficult to learn.

“The way the format is set up, you know you have one run to give the judges your all, so you're standing on top of the world and you know you have to go all out,” she said.

Her coach of three seasons, Harald Marbler, said Oakley definitely has potential to bring home a medal for the U.S.

“She's a very fast and strong skier, she mostly skis faster than the other girls and isn't afraid to jump big,” he said.

To have reached this stage is a major accomplishment for Oakley, who spent her early years in the Hollywood Hills and prefers Hawaii to the blizzards she braves for the love of the sport, said her mother, Sherri Oakley, 60.

“It's a lot of work. You're beating yourself up. The weather sometimes sucks so it's not just a love of skiing,” her mother said. “It's her personality and the way that she excelled and stood out.”

Though making the Olympic team has been the only thing on K.C. Oakley's mind for the last several months, her aspirations beyond that are like anyone else's.

“I dream of having an office job and I really do dream of getting back to San Francisco at some point,” she said. “San Francisco will always be home — this is where my friends are. We travel so much and I love traveling and seeing different countries, but you almost appreciate home more.”

jkwong@sfexaminer.com

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