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Breaking the Mold on the Olympic Slopes with Heather McPhie

There are small ways to Break the Mold throughout your day, like raising your hand first in a big meeting at work. There are also huge ways to Break the Mold—like competing in the Olympics not once, but twice.

Heather McPhie Watanabe is an American freestyle moguls skier, and we sat down with her to learn more about how she found herself at the Olympic Games, plus all of those milestones she’s checked off in the last three years: getting married, buying a house, graduating college and starting her next career.

How did you first get into skiing?

I come from a skiing family. My maternal grandfather was a ski racer in college and coached the high school team while he was a teacher at Bozeman Senior High School. He was also involved in the early stages of Bridger Bowl Ski Resort.

My paternal grandfather had big dreams in skiing. He wanted skiing to be more accessible and affordable. That’s why he started “Little Mountain” up Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City, which he ran for 18 years—it was a small resort that operated on nights and weekends.

My parents and siblings also love to ski, and we have had four generations of our family out on the slopes together. Until I was 12, I only skied recreationally, spending most of my time focused on gymnastics. Whenever we went on the slopes though I always wanted to ski bumps, so when I quit gymnastics my parents signed me up for the freestyle team and the rest is history!

When did you know that skiing was something you wanted to devote yourself fully to?

Although I was terrible when I first started and went around the jumps entirely for over a year, I fell in love with competing in mogul skiing right away.

“What I lacked in talent, I made up for in fortitude.”

My career was a series of slow and steady progressions. Countless steps hiking jumps on snow and at the water ramps, training sessions in the gym and outdoors, crashes, bumps, wonderful coaches, etc. For me, it was rarely a question of if I was going to devote myself to it, but more of a question of how I was going to ensure that I could keep competing. I was incredibly driven, and although I didn’t know where it would take me, I knew I wanted to get as good at it as possible.

Tell me about how you got to your first Olympics and what that journey looked like for you.

In the spring of 2009 (13 years after I had started competing), my boyfriend at the time (now husband) said, “I wonder what you could achieve if you believed in yourself as much as everyone else does.” This was a huge turning point for me—I realized I didn’t fully believe in myself. I always said I would get to the Olympics “someday”, but never defined that timeline.

That summer, I started training with a mental strength coach, Craig Manning. At our first session, he asked me what it would take to get to the Olympics—which was seven months away. I told him, “the best skiing I’ve ever done, the most consistently I’ve ever done it.” From the start of the season to the end of the qualification period before the Games, I went from 27th to 2nd in the world. I earned my first three podiums on World Cup in the last three events before Vancouver, and competing in the Olympics was absolutely incredible.

My favorite Olympic moment was walking into Opening Ceremonies. My parents were in the audience, and that was very emotional for me. They had supported me for so long and watched since the time it took me over 2 minutes to get down a mogul course. Something that, by the end of my career, took less than 30 seconds.

You ended up competing in a second Olympic games in Sochi in 2014. How did you find the strength to continue competing?

After Vancouver, I promised myself that if I had the opportunity to compete in the Olympics again, I would do two more difficult tricks than I had competed in 2010.

“I was determined to push the sport, to prove that it is possible for women to do the same tricks as men, and in that way, to show young girls that the sky’s the limit. To learn these tricks, I had to #BreakTheMold.”

For years, I had looked at Red Bull as the epitome of success. They had a High Performance program that was unprecedented, and they are a company that stands for doing things that have never been done before—they also support their athletes to the fullest. I mentioned to my agent at the time that I would like to pursue sponsorship, and they said it would be a waste of our time, as Red Bull doesn’t sponsor mogul skiers. Respectfully, I ended my relationship with that agent and pursued Red Bull on my own. Earning my Red Bull sponsorship, and having the opportunity to work with them the last four years of my career is one of my proudest achievements.

“In the face of adversity, I put myself out there, represented myself honestly, and was rewarded for my efforts.”

Thanks to their help, and countless others, I was able to make my dream a reality. In Sochi 2014, I competed a backfull and a d-spin in the same run for the first time by a woman at that level. Having achieved almost all I set out to do, I was ready to move on.

Talk to me about life post-Olympics. What was that transition like for you?

I feel very fortunate regarding my transition out of a competitive sport, as it can be a very challenging time. I always trusted that I would know when it was the right time for me to retire, and after the Sochi 2014 Olympics, I knew I had given everything I possibly could to the sport.

Although I didn’t know what my next career path would be, I knew my next step was to finish my degree at Westminster College. I dove into my last three semesters and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology.

During that time, after being an Elite Ambassador for lululemon athletica for over ten years, they hired me at my local lululemon to explore the company in another capacity. I had a great time working there. I also took an internship at Morgan Stanley (and ultimately a full-time gig), and am now a licensed Financial Advisor in Wealth Management at Morgan Stanley. We specialize in working with individuals with inconsistent income streams. This includes athletes, entertainers, entrepreneurs, and many more.

What’s your method for work-life balance?

Finding work-life balance is hard and is always evolving. I have a few things I do that help keep me balanced: 

  1. Exercise 30 minutes/day every day that I work, and be active both days of the weekend.
  2. Restore yoga—I make it my goal to go once a week. This has helped me overcome my tension headaches and gives me time to slow down, unwind, disconnect and check back in with my body.
  3. Graham (my husband) and I play games or do crosswords together most nights. It seems like a little thing, but it gives us time to connect with each other—and disconnect from everything else.
  4. Recently, I started journaling. It’s been very useful to stay on track with my ultimate goal of being a light in other people’s lives through assisting them with their finances.
  5. Any day that I do not have a lunch meeting, I pack my lunch. I have done this ever since my internship, and I don’t let myself eat treats at work.

I’ll be honest; I do not always have work-life balance. I think it is inevitable to get out of balance, and part of the skill is how quickly you can notice, and get back to a sustainable place. My greatest weakness in this area has to do with sleep. I am a very passionate person and find myself always wanting to do everything! This can make it where I often do not get as much sleep as I would like and feel is most healthy for my body. This is my greatest area of opportunity for improvement at the moment.

How do you #BreakTheMold and stray away from the conventional in your daily life?

I strive to do something each day that pushes me. That could be in my professional career, my personal life, or physically. For example, once a week at 5:30 AM I meet a group of inspiring and very driven men to workout. I’m pushed each time by them and love that I get to continue to dig deep and exhaust myself physically with such encouragement. When the alarm goes off at 4:45, I have to drag myself out of bed, but as soon as we start exercising it’s all worth it!

I also think it’s important to blaze your own trail. When I am at my best, I am guided by others wisdom and knowledge, but am following my own instincts and doing what I believe is right. Charting my own course instead of blindly following what society “says”, is another way I #BreakTheMold.

What’s one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?

Most people assume I am a daredevil based on the tricks I did, and what I stood for in the sport of mogul skiing. That is absolutely not the case—I am a calculated risk taker, slightly timid if anything. I am constantly up against personal barriers to keep pushing, but I’m always glad that I do.

What piece of advice do you have for women just starting out in their career?

I strongly believe that people have the most potential to be successful at things they are passionate about. For this reason, once I retired, I promised myself I would follow what energized me to find my next passion path. In that process, I ended up in a career I hadn’t imagined, and I’m so glad I listened to that inner voice.

My advice to women just starting in their careers would be to follow your energy. Don’t be afraid to be open, vulnerable, and to ask for you want or need. Also, never compromise your morals… I can’t imagine it ever being worth it.

What quotation or saying inspires and motivates you to be yourself and #BreakTheMold?

The quote that consistently guides me is one by Henry David Thoreau that I discovered in high school: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost, that is where it should be. Now, put the foundation under it.”

What draws me to this quote is the feeling that it is okay to have BIG dreams, even if you don’t know how you will reach them. By working hard, one step at a time, you can build a foundation under those dreams, and it is amazing what we are all capable of!

Extra Credit

What is the most-used app on your phone — and why?

Mindbody. Gives me my 21st yoga schedule at the click of a button.

What’s the first thing you do every morning?

Start my coffee and write the morning segment of my daily journal.

What book could you re-read over and over?

Pride & Prejudice and Shantaram.

What is your go-to bra style?

A couple weeks ago I got my first ThirdLove 24/7 Classic T-shirt Bra, which is amazing! I might as well throw all my others out. I have yet to find an outfit it doesn’t work with. It is nude, fits me perfectly, and is incredibly comfortable.

Finish the sentence: I #BreakTheMold by _____.

I #BreakTheMold by doing one thing every day that pushes my comfort zone.

This post is part of our #BreakTheMold series, where we celebrate the lives and work of trailblazing women. Check out the rest of the series here.