K.C. Oakley: What Makes A Champion

Caitlin Furin
2016-01-08 15:42

From local ski hills to the PyeongChang Olympics, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) encompasses all athletes that share a passion for skiing and snowboarding. We explore what makes each skier and rider a champion with stories from the U.S. Ski Team, U.S. Snowboarding and U.S. Freeskiing, next to kids winning a NASTAR medal, landing their first cork 7 or joining a club team. Alongside USSA’s mascot Champ, take a look at how all of these athletes strive to be Best in the World. #WhatMakesAChamp

Mixing business with pleasure has never been a problem for K.C. Oakley. In the past year, between moguls competitions and training camps, the 27-year-old has visited 11 different cities around the globe, coached the next generation of athletes in Whistler, British Columbia, made an appearance in a Warren Miller film, completed her Master’s in Business Administration at Westminster College and biked down the whole Oregon Coast.

“I’m really bad at giving myself down time,” says Oakley. “The moment I have it, I jump on a plane to travel or plan some adventure.”

Leaving home to do what she loves has been the norm since Oakley started commuting from Piedmont, CA to Squaw Valley every weekend to train with the Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows Freestyle Team. Oakley was a multi-discipline athlete, skiing halfpipe and slopestyle until, at age 17, she took the plunge and chose life in the bumps. After winning the NorAm circuit and placing second at U.S. Nationals in 2011, Oakley made the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team.

Since then, Oakley’s posted 18 top-10 finishes on the World Cup circuit, including her first World Cup win last season at Deer Valley Resort. But her successes have not come without setbacks, including a fair amount of injuries. Prior to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Oakley was sidelined for bilateral compartment syndrome and nerve entrapment in her lower legs. The following summer, she broke her calcaneus and fibula, dislocated her foot, and tore numerous ligaments in her ankle during a trip to Moab, UT. Just a few weeks ago, she over-rotated on a front flip in training before the World Cup opener and needed surgery on her thumb. She’s currently recovering from a back fracture that will take her out of competition for most of the 2016 season.

“Injuries have held me back and at times hampered my spirit, especially in some meaningful years,” stated Oakley. “I’ve had to learn to listen to my body. But, nothing has been too bad to keep me from coming back even stronger. I’ve already informed my strength and conditioning coach that [after my back injury] I expect to be like superwoman upon my return, cape and all.”

Oakley celebrates her World Cup win with her family at Deer Valley Resort.

While her passion for mogul skiing is undeniable, Oakley’s dedication to interests outside of the sport is one of her most admirable qualities. Throughout her athletic career, she has remained committed to her education, completing her undergraduate degree at the University of California Berkeley in 2009. In 2015, she became the only U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association athlete to complete a master’s degree.

“Balancing my education and skiing has never been easy, but I’ve always been passionate about learning and bettering myself in new ways” she said. “I have always dreamt of being a ‘badass business woman,’ so I’d like to pursue a career in finance or tech after skiing.”

Oakley is also a co-founder of Jill’s Legacy, a youth advisory board to the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation, that aims to mobilize young people to erase the stigma of lung cancer and raise funds for cancer research. The legacy was formed in honor of Jill Costello, Oakley’s best friend, roommate, and UC Berkeley classmate, who passed away from lung cancer in 2010. During her year-long battle with cancer, Costello remained an active member of UC Berkeley’s women’s crew team. The strength and courage Costello demonstrated throughout her battle with cancer is an inspiration to many.

“I’ve never encountered anyone as brave as her, fighting through cancer and still coxing your team to the NCAAs and winning the Pac-10 Championship,” said Oakley. “She was fighting through these struggles every day, but she woke up every morning at 5:30 a.m. for practice with a smile on her face. To her, enjoying life for the year she was given to survive was about enjoying her family and friends and opening up our minds to make a difference in this world and sharing her legacy. If it hadn’t been for her, I don’t think I’d be where I am today. I go through every day of skiing and think ‘things are easy for me.’ It really puts things in perspective.”

Any athlete could become overwhelmed trying to balance competition, school, work and play. But Oakley seems to thrive off of it. The success she’s achieved in her life outside of skiing has translated to confidence on the moguls course.

 “If I didn’t have all this stuff going on with school and Jill’s Legacy and have a strong support system, I probably wouldn’t be as confident in skiing,” she stated. “They’re a part of me and make me stronger as a whole.” 


We sat down with Oakley to explore what makes her a champion. Here’s what she had to say:

Q: In your words, what makes a champion?
KO: A innate drive to be your best through commitment and hard work, but also to accept imperfection and take personal responsibility for outcomes.

Q: Do you remember the first time you felt like a champion? Tell us about that moment.
KO: I’m sure I have felt like a champion on many occasions, but I can speak most vividly about when I qualified for the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team and, later, when I won the Deer Valley World Cup. It was a flood of emotion. Happiness. Uncontrollable jumping up and down. Some screams and gasps. But also, an overwhelming feeling of wanting to hug the people who have helped you reach your goal. The first person I saw after winning the World Cup was my doctor, David Goltz. Having gone through so much with him during my injuries, we hugged and took in the moment. When I finally reached my cheering friends and family, we hugged as a group and just started jumping up and down – ultimately falling over. But, it wasn’t until I saw my old coach, Harald Marbler, that I completely started balling. Because he had walked me through so many good and bad times in skiing, which had led to this outcome, he was the person I wanted to see the most in that moment.

Q: What is the biggest piece of advice you have for aspiring kids who want to be sitting where you are today?
KO: Seize your youth! Experiment and take advantage of every experience you can. You’re going to find yourself through doing more things, taking risks, and taking advantage of opportunities. Find what you like and follow your passions. You really have to work on yourself when you want to become a professional athlete. Set expectations for yourself, work towards short and long-term goals, and believe wholeheartedly that you are going to meet and reach them.

Share your story by telling us what makes YOU a champion on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram by using the hashtag #WhatMakesAChamp for a chance to be featured amongst your favorite U.S. Freestyle Ski Team athletes.



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