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What my 16-year-old self would have given to have known Keely Kelleher. Really, even as a so-called adult it’s cool, but as a 16-year-old, life-changing. I know this because I can see it in the eyes of the girls we are with as we mill about the deck of the Arktika, a sailboat in Iceland that will take us skiing. We’re here for the third iteration of Keely’s Camp for Girls, backcountry edition, and these might be the luckiest teenagers I’ve ever met.
Kelleher, tall and athletic in stature, commands presence without knowing it. Her contagious warmth and easygoing nature make her the type of person everyone within earshot wants to connect with—the eight campers included. They fire questions at her incessantly until we’ve made it to our objective, partially looking for answers, partially looking for some reassurance to calm their nerves. Kelleher, with the patience of a first-grade teacher, encourages them to discover the answers themselves when appropriate. “We want them to figure some of it out on their own,” she says, “It’s empowering.”
Kelleher and I finish booting up and load into a small red zodiac that will take us to shore from the deck of the Arktika, where we’ll start our climb. I ride next to a girl named Heidi whose mind is fully blown already; she looks at me with eyes the size of saucers. Heidi carries Betty the Bug today, a warm-fuzzy of sorts the girls pass around to recognize each other’s positive feats— you nailed that kick turn, you shared your licorice with me, etc. It’s one of several activities Kelleher instills to foster positivity and create a safe space for learning.
As a teen herself, Kelleher was awkward. Shy and insecure (five years of braces, ouch), she found solace and escape in skiing. “The only time I could fully be myself was when I was skiing.” Eventually, on-mountain confidence trickled into off-mountain life, and today you’d never guess the former U.S. Ski Team member had ever been anything but confident.
After a slow trip uphill—it’s been a while since most of the girls have made a kick turn—we make it to the top of our first line. The light of the prolonged sunset this far north is golden, and it casts a dream-like glow. Selfies follow as only they can with teenagers, and the excitement between Kelleher and the girls is palpable. It’s part of what makes her so endearing to them, her ability to get on their level and bask in the pure joy of such a moment, but also part of what I think will keep these girls coming back to skiing. Bliss seeps from every pore of her being; this is Kelleher at her best.
In the beginning, there were big challenges involved with hosting a camp. Some logistical or business-related, others personal—like, how do you become the boss of your friends, especially when they are highly decorated skiers with hugely successful careers on their résumés? And transitioning from athlete to coach has been a learning experience in and of itself. “When you’re a professional athlete, you have to be selfish. But this is not about me, it’s a bigger picture.”
Standing in the light of sunset on top of a mountain in Iceland with her tribe, the big picture isn’t lost on me. My 16-year-old self is ready to sign up for the next camp right here and now, and the girls are already talking about the ski trips they’ll take together annually from here on out. With any luck—and Kelleher’s influence—they’ll walk away with a bit of extra confidence, too