When you think of someone seizing her youth, it’s hard not to think of K.C. Oakley, a U.S. Ski Team athlete, co-founder of the foundation Jill’s Legacy, and an MBA student. K.C.’s ambition in her sport, her determination to raise awareness about lung cancer, and her dedication to earning her MBA make her an inspiring role model. When she’s not busy with business classes and spreading awareness about lung cancer and Jill’s legacy, you can find K.C. tearing up the slopes and dominating in her sport. With November being the official Lung Cancer Awareness Month and the World Cup coming up in December, K.C. may be busier than ever, but she tackles her goals with a smile on her face (just another reason why she rocks!) Read on to find out how K.C. overcomes self-doubt, how she plans on beating lung cancer big time, and how she works incredibly hard to make her Olympic dreams come true.
Name: K.C. Oakley
Education: University of California, Berkeley
Follow: Twitter | Jill’s Legacy | U.S. Ski Team
Carpe Juvenis: How do you define ‘Seizing Your Youth’?
K.C. Oakley: Experimenting and taking every experience that you can. You’re going to find yourself through the more you do, the more risks you take, and the more opportunities you take advantage of. It’s finding what you like and finding what your passion is.
CJ: When did you first get involved with skiing and how did you decide to do it professionally?
K.C.: I first started skiing when I was seven-years-old. My cousin was a ski coach so I joined the Alpine Meadows freestyle team and started competing in regional events. When I was going off to college, I decided that I needed to focus on a single freestyle event and realized that I liked moguls more, so I switched over to the Squaw Valley ski team and started focusing on moguls. I was never fully dedicated until I finished college and within a year’s time I made the U.S. Ski Team.
CJ: What does freestyle skiing mean?
K.C.: Freestyle skiing is five events under the Olympic criteria: moguls, aerials, half-pipe, slope style, and ski cross. I compete in freestyle moguls which is a set of moguls, a jump, another set of moguls, a jump, and another set of moguls. It usually takes around 30 seconds and judges allot scores with a formula of 50% turn technique and how well you’re skiing down; 25% air score, which is the degree of difficulty of the trick and how well you do it; and 25% speed, which is transformed numerically by an equation that takes into account the length of a course, the pace set for a skier, and how fast you actually ski the course.
CJ: What is going through your mind when you are mid-air?
K.C.: In half pipe and slope style, there is a flat landing, but in mogul skiing, the most terrifying part of the course is the landing because you land and the moguls are right there. If you’re not in the perfect landing position or don’t get onto your edge quickly, then you’re usually going to take a hard fall. More emphasis is put into the takeoff on the jump because that will define how good your trick looks in the air and how you will land. In mid-air, you’re preparing for your landing so that you can ski into the moguls successfully. It’s the most intensive thought time in the mogul run.
CJ: You’ve been on the World Cup series for 2 seasons. What was that experience like?
K.C.: It’s different because even though we’re an individual sport, we still travel with a team. The U.S. Ski Team is there to support you, but at the end of the day, they are still your competition. When I made the team, I didn’t know anyone, so I was terrified. I was the same age as some of them, but I felt like a rookie. When you are the underdog, you get this inner fire and think, Oh, there’s nothing to lose. I can beat all these people! I think this is why I had a successful first season on the World Cup. Once you realize you can start winning, it’s almost like you start thinking the opposite way—fear of getting beat. It’s all about finding the mindset that works.
The World Cup has been cool – we travel so many places – some good, some bad. It’s a different experience. I chose to take skiing seriously for the year after college and really put all my effort towards this. The experiences you get out of traveling on the World Cup are so different than anything anyone else our age is doing.
CJ: How do you mentally and physically prepare for the World Cup?
K.C.: We train all summer and fall and get on the snow early, but when it comes down to it, the most important time is when you’re about to push out of the gate in competition. I have this mindset to go all out, to not give up, and I’m known for my consistency. I don’t get as many podiums as some people, but I’ve never missed a finals. It’s an inner fight in me. Mentally, this is what we need to prepare for. I’m lucky I don’t get that nervous, but I think that I must have some unconscious nervous jitters. We have to overcome this, visualize our run, and be confident in what we are about to do.
There is a lot of physical preparation beforehand, including the water ramping and many hours in the gym. It’s like the 10,000 hour rule. It’s hours and hours of work. When I’m not working on it physically, I’m visualizing it. It’s about having a strong mindset and making sure you’re confident in your life inside and outside of skiing. If I didn’t have all this stuff going on with school and Jill’s Legacy, I probably wouldn’t be as confident in skiing. They’re a part of me, and if I didn’t feel strong in one area, I probably would feel like I need to overcompensate in another. It all really works for me. I know some people just need to focus on one thing, but I need to keep myself busy.
CJ: For youth wanting to be a professional athlete, what advice do you have?
K.C.: It’s all about hard work, but what has been most important for me is believing in myself and having a strong mindset. I think a lot of people I’ve beaten out to the U.S. Ski Team might have been more talented on skis than I was, but I had a mindset of courage, confidence, and competitiveness. 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.
CJ: What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned while professionally competing?
K.C.: I hate the word opportunist because it sometimes seems like people take advantage of stuff, but I’ve been given all these opportunities since I’ve reached a certain level in skiing. I’ve learned to take a good opportunity when I get the chance. We’re given the opportunity to travel, and though not always convenient, I try to immerse myself in the culture of different countries and visit important and interesting sites. We’re given the opportunity to go to school, and although it is difficult with our schedule, I am receiving an amazing education and learning how to manage my time. We’re given the opportunity to meet some wonderful and influential people, take risks, and use our athletics as a platform for more important causes. Therefore, the greatest lesson I’ve gotten out of professional skiing is to learn from the opportunities I’ve been given because of it.
CJ: In addition to the World Cup circuit, are you training for the Olympics?
K.C.: Yes. There are 6 skiers who travel on the World Cup circuit, and 3 of us will make the Olympics, maybe 4. We’re training for the World Cup, but ultimately we’re training for the Olympics. That’s the ultimate goal. It’s the goal you hold as a kid. We’re a really strong team and we’re all capable of doing it. The first World Cup is December 14 in Ruka, Finland, and then we have 5 more stops in January before the Olympic team is named.
CJ: You are currently working on getting your MBA at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, Utah. What inspired you to get your MBA and how do you balance that with your busy life?
K.C.: The U.S. Ski Team had a deal with Westminster College for undergraduates where they could go to school for free, but because I had already finished my undergraduate degree at Cal Berkeley, I approached them and asked about a graduate degree. Westminster College agreed to pay for 80% of the tuition and the U.S. Olympic Committee and U.S. Ski Team endowment fund covered the last 20%. It was just one of those things that totally worked out and opportunities that skiing has opened up for me.
I balance skiing and earning my MBA by studying in the summertime when we’re based out of Utah training at the Center of Excellence and the Utah Olympic Park for the water ramps. I typically finish my workout in the morning and then study in the afternoon. The semester lasts from May to the end of July, and I just push through. I’m 2 semesters through and have 3 semesters left.
CJ: You also run a foundation called Jill’s Legacy, which was launched by the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation and consists of young professional Advisory Board Members who are passionate about increasing the stagnant 15.5.% survival rate of the world’s number one cancer killer – Lung Cancer. What is the inspiration behind the foundation?
K.C.: Jill Costello was my best friend and roommate at Cal Berkeley, and we met the first day of classes and joined the same sorority. She was that inseparable friend and we were both super supportive for each other’s sports. She was a coxswain for the crew team at Cal Berkeley and she became my biggest fan for skiing. At the end of our junior year, she returned from NCAAs, where the team had placed second, with a stomach ache.
When she went to the doctor they found spots on her liver and lung and by 1pm the next day she was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. She told me and her boyfriend at that time to not look at any of the statistics, and from that day forward, I looked at the situation with a sense of normalcy, and always thought, “You’re going to beat this.” I never thought that one day she would die, but just over a year later she passed away and the last thing she had written in her notebook – she kept a blog and everything – was “Beat lung cancer BIG TIME!” It wasn’t just for her, it was for everyone.
I looked at the statistics later and learned that the other major cancer killers are all above 90% survival rate, but lung cancer is the #1 cancer killer with a 15% survival rate that has been stagnant for 40 years! I saw the opportunity and social need for change. It’s wrong. Before Jill passed away, she became attached to the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation, so we mutually approached each other to start a youth advocacy group for lung cancer.
CJ: What do you hope to achieve with Jill’s Legacy?
K.C.: Beat lung cancer big time. We see the youth as the next doctors, professors, and business men and women. They are the people who have power to influence others and change the stigma that lung cancer is just a smoker’s disease, and bring this into their lives and educate people and spread awareness. We see college campuses as the perfect place to do this because it’s filled with people who are educated and curious in learning. We want to be the next social trend for the youth market. Hopefully, they’ll be the change for lung cancer.
CJ: Besides skiing, were there any other activities that you were involved in during high school and college?
K.C.: I kind of laugh at myself now because I feel like I was lazy. I was never lazy, but I just kind of coasted my way through high school. I got A’s, and luckily that got me into a good college, but I never thought I’d be so philanthropically involved. I got an excuse to get out of 200 hours of philanthropy in high school, mainly because I was so busy with skiing. I was involved in every sport possible in high school. Athletics have always been my thing.
I went to college thinking, I want this to be the best four years of my life. That’s what my parents had always told me, so that’s why college for me was primary over skiing. Most people in skiing dedicate themselves to the sport before college. I went the opposite route because I wanted to physically be there, meet the best friends of my life, and be the cliché college girl that joins a sorority and goes to football games. I loved college. Other than that, I love to travel so I love that part of the skiing when we get the opportunity to do so. Any other break I can get, I try to get home so I can see my family and friends.
CJ: How do you overcome self-doubt?
K.C.: It all relates back to confidence in yourself, but we are also really lucky to have an awesome team out there. I have a really strong relationship with my coach, friends, and family. They are there to support you through the good and the bad. They are there to celebrate with you, but they are going to be there for you when you do have self-doubt. All you have to keep on telling yourself is that you’re there for a reason, you’re there in that moment, and you need to make the most out of that moment.
CJ: Who is your role model?
K.C.: Jill Costello. There’s nothing I’ve ever seen as brave as her story to fight through cancer and still cox your team to the NCAAs and win Pac-10s. But the thing that was craziest to me as her roommate was that I saw her everyday fight through these struggles and every morning wake up at 5:30am for her practice with a smile on her face. It wasn’t like she was fighting cancer, it was just like another day and she was enjoying life as much as she could. To her, enjoying life for the year she was given to survive was about enjoying her family and friends, and to open up our minds to making a difference in this world and sharing her legacy. If it hadn’t been for her, I don’t think I’d be anywhere where I am. I go through every day of skiing and think, things are easy for me. It really puts things in perspective.
CJ: What does an average day look like for you?
K.C.: It depends on the time of year. My month of April is my only month off. May is all gym work. I call the Center of Excellence, where we train, the Black Hole because I go in every day at 8am and all of a sudden it’s the afternoon and there is no time left in the day. We spend many hours in the gym in the summers. Our summer training also includes the water ramping. Water ramps are made of synthetic plastic and you ski off of a ramp to learn new tricks. We’re there early every morning warming up, water ramping, and then heading down to do video and train in the gym. Depending on the day, gym training can be anywhere from 3-5 hours. Luckily, lunch is supplied at the gym so we can eat there and then head out.
Mid-August, we go to Chile to train for a month. In Chile, we live up in the mountains, so it’s very focused on just skiing and working out. Then we go to Zermatt, Switzerland, in September for a month. Now, we’re transitioning into our power endurance circuits, which is our big gym block. It is just brutal. The World Cups will start in the beginning of December to continue through the end of March. We always finish out with U.S. Nationals. There are typically 14 events across the world. Each World Cup typically consists of 2 days of training before competition day, and then we move onto the next place.
CJ: What advice would you give your 20-year old self?
K.C.: As a sophomore in college, I wanted to quit skiing, I hated it. I was having so much fun in college, but now that I look back, I’m so happy with the way I balanced school and skiing. I can’t put enough emphasis on how amazing it’s been to stand out as an individual because I’m doing something so different than most people. Many people will experience college, and I think everybody should go to college if it’s right for them. I loved college, but as a skier, I am now competing at the highest level of competition in sport, and there is so much to learn from that. I am also traveling the world and meeting amazing people. I didn’t see the payoff in that at 20-years old.
I’ve already reached my goals in skiing and everything else is like the icing on the cake. If I’m on the podium at the Olympics, if I’m able to use my platform for Jill’s Legacy, everything is just icing on the cake. It’s something I couldn’t really conceptualize when I was 20. Everything was more about, “I love my friends and I love school,” but there are so many bigger things out there.