Raised in Vermont by ski racing luminaries, Jessica Kelley was born to raceJessica Kelley’s hometown of Starksboro, Vermont, consists of just a few houses, an elementary school and a handful of shops. It lies in a narrow valley of cornfields surrounded by steep, wooded hillsides. The Kelley home is a bit north of town on a dirt road that turns off to the east, rolls into the woods for about one mile and then dead-ends at their small farmhouse. The house overlooks a hayfield with views to the north toward Camel’s Hump.
On a crisp fall day, the maples surrounding the Kelley’s lawn are just coming into color. Two dogs romp in the leaves that cover the tennis court, swimming pool, listing soccer kickboard and an array of sports apparatus scattered about the lawn. The doors to the farmhouse are open, despite a chilly breeze. “We moved in here in 1980, just before I was born, and it was pretty run-down,” says 21-year-old Jessica, leaning against the wood stove. “We only lived in the downstairs until I was three and a half, but it still can get pretty cold in here.”
The only sign of athletic achievement in the house is a collection of Red Sox memorabilia in the TV room. “It’s hard not to be a Red Sox fan in this house,” explains Jessica. “Dad’s a big baseball and football fan.” Her father, Steve, a manufacturer’s rep for building materials, traces his Vermont roots to the 1700s. “When I was little, Dad promised me a horse when the Red Sox win the World Series. Now Mom wants the horse, but we don’t seem any closer to getting it.”
Jessica’s mother, Lindy, also has Vermont roots that run to the days of Ethan Allen and, more recently, to the famous Cochran ski racing family. But in wandering through the slightly off-plumb rooms, there are few clues that Lindy Cochran Kelley accumulated two national titles and several World Cup podiums while skiing for the U.S. Ski Team in the 1970s. And you’d never know that Lindy’s family is comprised of equally accomplished skiers. (Sister Marilyn was the World Cup GS champion in 1969; sister Barbara Ann won gold in slalom at the 1972 Olympics; brother Bobby won national titles and World Cup medals in all three disciplines [there wasn’t any super G at that time]; and all were coached by father Mickey, who passed away in 1998.)
The few early pictures of Lindy that are around bear a remarkable resemblance to Jessica; the easy-going dimpled smile is unmistakable. Their temperaments are similar, too. Like her mother, Jessica gives off an aura of peace and tranquility that masks a burning competitive drive. Also like her mother, Jessica started skiing at the tiny, 400-vertical-foot slope grandfather Mickey carved out of a hillside adjacent to the family home in Richmond, Vermont. “I can’t remember learning how to ski,” says Jessica. “My earliest memories are trying to sneak off into the woods and having fun. It was a great place for little kids.”
Before Jessica was three, she and her grandmother skied the length of Jay Peak. With her mother as her first coach, Jessica showed her competitive promise with a win at the J IV state championships as a 12 year old. But rather than gravitate to one of the state’s many ski racing academies, as a second-year J III, Jessica moved up the road to the Mt. Mansfield Winter Academy, a winter-term tutorial program in Stowe, Vermont. Steady progress marked her ascent to the top of the regional levels of competition, and then in 2001, a stunning 13th place NorAm result against a World Cup-caliber field propelled her to a spot on the U.S. development team. With a pair of fifths in GS in Europa Cup competition last season (at Oberwolz-Lachtal, Austria, and La Molina, Spain) and an overall NorAm GS title to her credit, Jessica secured a World Cup berth and her status as one of the country’s up-and-coming technical ski racers.
Her success comes as no surprise to Scott Moriarty, head coach of the Mt. Mansfield Ski Club. “She’s a sweetheart, but there’s no one with more commitment. She’s got a great feel for the snow and always wanted to win,” says Moriarty. “Her quiet demeanor doesn’t reflect it, but her competitive nature comes out on race day.”
Jessica acknowledges Moriarty’s assertion with a shy grin. “Not many people realize it, but I hate to lose.”
One of those fully aware of Jessica’s closet tenacity is Lauren Ross, her friend, MMSC teammate — and now fellow USST member. According to Ross, when it comes to competition, Jessica’s a block of granite — strong, calm, confident and focused. “Jess becomes fearless at the start. It becomes apparent in her eyes that she’s confident in herself,” says Ross.
Maybe that’s why Jessica seems immune from the type of pressure that infects most athletes. “I really don’t feel any pressure when I race,” she says. “I can let a bad race go and think about doing better the next day.”
“Jess plays to win but is able to take coming out on the short end,” says Moriarty. “She’ll be smiling regardless of the result. I’ve never seen her even close to a tantrum — it’s a kind of quiet ticked off.”
True to Vermont tradition, Jessica sometimes displays a stubborn, independent nature, and Moriarty sees this as one of the reasons behind her success. “She evolved slowly. She didn’t go to a full-time academy, she opted out of some ski team camps when she was younger, and she went to high school where she could play soccer,” says Moriarty. This formula fits perfectly into Moriarty’s development philosophy. “Slower development keeps them hungry,” explains Moriarty. “We stress rest and recovery. It’s a crime to see talent wasted due to burnout.”
Jessica admits to missing out on some potential ski racing opportunities when she was younger, but has no regrets about her choices. “I just wanted a normal high-school life. Maybe I gave up some summer and pre-season skiing, but I’m better off in the long run,” says Jessica.
There was, however, a much stronger force in Jessica’s life keeping her home — family, another mainstay of rural life. “Mom’s a great coach. When I’m struggling, she still gets me out of it. She knows what it takes. This was another reason not to go to an academy,” says Jessica.
Moriarty credits the positive family dynamic for much of Jessica’s success. “Sure, there’s a strong gene pool — I wish they had more kids,” he says with a laugh. “But their strength comes with the tightness of the family. They’re really close and supportive.” And then there’s the element of just being a Cochran. “There’s a great deal of pride to succeed within themselves,” says Moriarty, “like a desire to carry on the torch.”
Also carrying the family flame are Jessica’s cousins, Roger Brown, NCAA slalom champion for Dartmouth in 2002; Jimmy Cochran, NCAA All-American for UVM and now a member of the USST; and a host of younger family members, including Jessica’s brothers Tim and Robbie.
Being a Cochran also seems to be synonymous with loving to ski. When Jessica would disappear after training sessions, Moriarty knew that she could be found on the mountain, ripping turns on Mount Mansfield’s steep, “Front Four” trails. Lori Furrer, director of the Mount Mansfield Winter Academy observes, “She’s motivated simply by a love of ski racing. The whole family is always out there, hiking the Chin to get into the woods, finding jumps; there’s always an adventure to be had.”
Even though Jessica has now moved out of the nest to ski with the team in winter and train in Park City during summer, she has not forgotten her roots. Both Moriarty and Furrer appreciate her frequent visits. “She was a quiet little mouse when she first came,” recalls Furrer. “Now she’s comfortable with speaking and gives back all the time. Whether it’s skiing with the J V’s or just stopping by to say hello, it’s one of the most endearing things about her. She’s a great role model.”
She may have flown the coop, but Mom’s not worried about her returning to roo
st. “Jessica takes a lot of pride in being a Vermonter; I guess we all do” says Lindy. “It’s a great place and a great place to grow up ski racing.”