FeatureProfile January 18, 2023


The bliss and courage of a national Nordic champion

When Alison Owen was 8 years old, in 1961, she jumped rope on the patio of her family home in Wenatchee, Washington. Her 9-year-old brother was watching. She has a vivid memory of that day: “I am very good at jumping rope. I can do double jumps super-fast, flawless arms crossed over, and jump with the rope going backward. On that day, I’m trying for a new personal record of jumping without a miss. My brother makes fun of me and asks why I’m trying so hard. My response: ‘I’m going to the Olympics someday, and I’m getting ready.’

“I always knew I was meant to go to the Olympics. It took years to know which sport and for all the doors to open. Lift-served skiing beginning at age five contributed to my sense of moving on snow. My dad saw an article in the local newspaper about a new cross-country ski program, and we were all eager to try it. With five kids, alpine ski racing was not in the family budget. I took on the challenge of cross-country skiing with a dedication that amazes me even today. From the first time on cross-country skis, I have been in love with this sport.

“Herb Thomas (now a longtime Ketchum local) was the first coach of our small group of young racers. He had raced ‘four-way’ at Middlebury College and was a member of the U.S. Army Biathlon Unit in Alaska. In 1966, I qualified for the U.S. Junior National Championships in Winter Park, Colorado, the only female on a team of eight boys. No female had ever before been in a U.S. Cross-Country National Championships. I was allowed to race provided an ambulance was parked race-side in case my delicate female soul needed it. I finished last. Ouch!!! But I didn’t need the ambulance.”

Alison Owen Kiesel Bradley

Because of her, since 1967, there has been a women’s division at U.S. National Cross-Country Events, joining Scandinavia and Europe. Every American female Nordic skier follows Alison Owen’s track, including Jessie Diggins, Kikkan Randall, and Beckie Scott.

In 1968 she was named to the first female U.S. Nordic team, which existed because she had broken the gender barrier as a 13-year-old. Still, the male-dominated powers of the U.S. Ski Team decided the girls were not ‘ready’ for the Olympics. But Alison says, “We wished the men’s team well, and I kept to my training.”

In 1969, Alison competed in Scandinavia and said the experience “opened my eyes to what was possible with more training.”

She raced in the FIS World Championships in Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia). Then, in 1972, as she had told her brother 11 years earlier, Alison raced in the Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, as a member of the first U.S. Olympic Women’s Nordic Team. After the 1974 FIS World Championships, she dropped out of international skiing while attending the University of Alaska and competed at the college level.

In 1978 she came out of retirement and returned to the U.S. Ski Team, the same year that the assistant coach was Rob Kiesel, who was in the process of revolutionizing the art and craft of waxing Nordic skis.

Kiesel’s belief in and support of Alison, as well as his waxing magic, allowed Alison to achieve her potential. That same year she had several top-10 places in competitions that are now called World Cup races, including a win at the first FIS World Cup race in Telemark, Wisconsin, though it was later proclaimed only a ‘test’ World Cup race. However, she placed second, seventh and eighth at the Holmenkollen, the Norwegian National Championships.

Before retiring at the end of the 1978 season, Alison had garnered eight U.S. National titles.

Keisel, an enormous influence on American Nordic skiing, including founding the Boulder Mountain Tour in Ketchum, eventually married Alison. They had two children, both fine Nordic skiers, and the family settled in Ketchum.

Alison enjoyed the next 10 years raising her children, helping former head coach Rick Kapala coach Nordic skiing for the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, and getting ready for the next phase of life. She and Keisel divorced but remained good friends. She moved to Boise, bought farms near Boise and McCall, and married Phil Bradley, a business consultant specializing in start-up companies. They also own a home in Bozeman, Montana, where Alison’s daughter, a mother of three, now coaches Nordic skiing.

With the same focus she once brought to Nordic skiing, Alison now spends much of her time focused on the soil, water and plants of her farms. She says, “The natural world is amazing, beautiful, incredible, and fun to take the time to see it!”

This article appears in the Winter 2022 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.