It’s the middle of the week, so maybe the high schoolers are tired. Maybe they’re thinking about a looming test. Maybe they’re thinking about a boyfriend or girlfriend. Or maybe their silence just comes from being in the presence of a legend.
At any rate, John “Johno” McBride tells these freshmen and sophomores they can’t be thinking about anything other than skiing if they want to be great. Presumably they do, explaining why they’re at the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club.
After two decades coaching the United States’ fastest downhill men, McBride is here peppering the kids with questions. They’re not quick to respond.
“A question for you guys,” he says. “Are you doing everything you can to be the best skiers you can possibly be? And are you willing to make sacrifices to be able to do that? I think that’s a really important question to ask yourself.”
Less than a year removed from the helm of the national team, McBride, 55, is reflecting on those sacrifices.
He’s back home. Back to his post as alpine director at the ski club that’s near and dear to his heart. Back to the family ranch where he’s building a barn and tending to the familiar duties of his childhood — maintaining irrigation, baling hay, heading out on horseback or motorcycle to check on cattle.
He’s back with his kids, Ruby, 16, Lucy, 14, and Jasper, 12.
“That’s the most important thing,” says Johno’s father, John McBride Sr. “They’re very attached to him, and I think they suffered a little bit when he was gone for such long stretches.”
The World Cup circuit demanded that: months away from home, mostly in Europe. This isn’t the first time McBride stepped away from the sport’s biggest stage. In 2017, he’d been home for three years before the Olympics came calling again, what would be his fifth Winter Games.
Someone always came calling. There was Bode Miller, whom McBride coached to a record two overall World Cup titles in 2005 and 2008. Before then, in 2003, McBride was named International Coach of the Year after steering the U.S. to its most decorated season in recent history.
After Miller’s escapades, would McBride go back to the ski club, back to being a father and husband? No, Canada wanted him for two more Olympics, Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014.
Then McBride settled back at the ranch and ski club. Then, ahead of the 2018 games in PyeongChang, he was back on the circuit.
“We’re proud of him,” his father says, “but then we felt he went too far, because we didn’t see much of him.”
This time is different, the old man is sure.
“Never say never,” McBride says. “But I wanna be here to see my kids.”
This time is indeed different. This time he’s navigating a divorce with his wife of 17 years.
“I didn’t foresee this was gonna happen,” McBride says. “Maybe I had my blinders on to a certain degree. I feel I’m lucky I was able to follow my passion, and I am passionate about coaching, but maybe my passion clouded my vision. I don’t know.”
This is a solemn McBride talking, a rare Johno. He’s better known as this Johno, this one making rounds at the ski club.
“’Sup, doggies?” he says to some passing kids.
“Yeeaahh bud,” he says to the tech guy in the workshop. “All good to go, amigo?”
“You guys gonna go pound some bumps?” he says to a group of teenagers boarding the chairlift for practice runs. “Right on. Have a good training sesh.”
The New Yorker last year described McBride as “a bantam of a man, with sharp features, bright-green eyes, and burly sideburns” that contrast him with polished predecessors like Bob Beattie. McBride, the magazine said, “embodies a certain maverick Rocky Mountain strain.”
And today the scruffy exuberance is complete with a shag of hair tumbling from a bright-green beanie proclaiming “MARCO ROCKS.” That’s for Olympian Marco Sullivan.
“I think Johno’s greatest strength is just making things fun and bringing that positive energy,” Sullivan says. “As a group on the World Cup, we were six to 10 guys traveling together all the time, and that can wear on you. But when Johno was there, it was a lighter mood.”
Johno would want to dine where the dancing was. He’d want the guys bringing their ice skates everywhere, in case pick-up hockey games presented themselves. He’s famous for these team-building exercises. They include hard-earned backpacking trips. There’d be Johno, Sullivan recalls, “scampering along with a bottle of wine, loaf of bread and cheese and a 10-pound salami in his pack.”
The athletes would struggle to keep up on mountain bikes, too. And Johno would dominate at dodgeball or gymnastics or karate or whatever else he hosted at the family ranch back in Aspen.
That’s where his antics became known a couple of years ago ahead of the Olympics. He led teammates to the deadly Knife Edge of Capitol Peak.
“It’s important that we enjoy the process and each other’s company,” he told The New Yorker in explaining that venture. “We don’t get to go home to our families during the season. … I tell the guys, ‘This is it. This is your support network.’”
And the Knife Edge would reinforce his point about laser-focus being requisite in racing. There can be no distractions when life is on the line, just as there can be none when a tenth of a second is the difference between shame and glory.
“He was a guy who wouldn’t let any personal matters get in the way of his job,” says Daron Rahlves, along with Miller the country’s other most accomplished downhiller under McBride. “It was hard getting a girlfriend to hang out with or getting a wife around the team.”
McBride matched his fun ways with fierce intensity. Rahlves remembers winning the 2006 Lauberhorn in Switzerland, becoming just the third American to do so, and returning to a mob of “high-fives and hugs and hell-yeahs.”
And then there was McBride.
“He talked to me about a section I could’ve been faster in,” Rahlves says. “I was like, ‘Man, I respect that, but we won.’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, but what’s next weekend?’”
It’s one key to coaching, McBride says: “You have to be a step ahead of an athlete.” Just as he had to be ahead on logistics — the next flight, the next hotel, the next training ground, the best terrain suited for each skier, the next motivational sit-down — he had to be ahead on races.
For Rahlves, the next race was Austria’s notorious Hahnenkamm. In ’03, he was the first American in 44 years to win, but not this time in ’06.
At last year’s Hahnenkamm, The New Yorker found McBride at the hotel unsatisfied — “shirt off, dripping sweat, riding a stationary bike in a stairwell; it looked like punishment.”
Making rounds at the ski club this day, McBride is well aware of the Hahnenkamm being underway. He’s been checking results as if the stakes were still personal.
When he announced he’d be stepping away from the World Cup tour again last spring, he said it was again about family. “I figure time is short,” he says now.
Time goes fast, he’s reminded in his office at the ski club. On the wall hangs a picture of his toddler self. There he is getting big air on skis. But more than jumps, McBride craved speed.
He credits DNA for his competitive streak. John McBride Sr. played on the national hockey team and went on to make a name for himself in the Roaring Fork Valley, helping to build Aspen Snowmass and the Aspen Business Center. Johno, adopting the ‘o’ himself, resolved to carve his own legacy in his own sport.
He continued racing at the University of Vermont, where he graduated in 1988. He majored in wildlife biology, inspired by a childhood of castrating bulls, milking goats and riding horses.
“I always thought it’d be cool to be a vet,” he says. “I still do. But I think it’s maybe a little late.”
His passion for skiing won out. His passion for coaching became all-consuming, beginning at the ski club and making its way to a clinic, where his style caught pro eyes. He was tapped by the U.S. squad in 1995.
Just as his career was taking off, around when he reached International Coach of the Year acclaim, he married and had his first child. So began a dual life of sorts.
With the team, he was “gone gone,” he says.
“And when you’re gone gone, for me it was about focusing totally on the athletes. Then when you have an opportunity to come home, it was figuring out how to shut the light switch off and figuring out how to really commit yourself to the family.”
If only it were as easy as a light switch.
“It’s not,” he says. “And probably a lot of families get broken because of it unfortunately.”
He’s waking up early as he always has. But now, away from the championship tour, he’s plowing the ranch roads and heading out to feed the animals. It’s been a quieter, lonelier winter than the ones he has known.
Amid the divorce he’s trying to be a good dad, he says. Dinners with the kids. Lots of hockey, their preferred sport, with the kids.
And then his sport in between.
“I want to talk about the mental side of things,” he starts, before the quiet bunch of freshmen and sophomores at the ski club.
He talks about focus. About practicing and racing “in the here and now, the very present” and how difficult that is. “That’s a problem for everybody.”
The best, he says, hone in on the details. The course layouts and turn-by-turn tactics. The way snow packs and ice forms. The best inspect their gear for any slight defects. The best are serious about progress.
“This is something I’m gonna have you guys start doing,” McBride says, holding up goal sheets he made some of the best in the world fill out.
And to be sure, McBride wants these kids to be the best.
He has one last question for them.
“Are you guys enjoying the process?”
The response is silent, but the head nods plenty.
“Yeah?” McBride asks, growing quiet. “Good. Good.”
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