Jesse Keefe competes in the Hunstman Cup. (Photo: Dave Obzansky)
Para alpine skier Jesse Keefe isn’t one to take himself or his disability too seriously.
The 17-year-old Sun Valley, Idaho, native was born without an ankle bone and had his right foot amputated at 11 months old. It’s not unusual for him to walk into a classroom and shock his teachers by wearing his prosthetic foot backwards, or hold it aloft like a trophy on the podium following a race.
“I find it as kind of a funny thing,” explained Keefe, who was selected to the 2021-22 U.S. Paralympics Alpine National Team this past September. “I don’t see it as something to keep secret. I think of it as an open thing. All my friends joke about it, I joke about it.”
There’s an important factor in Keefe’s perspective that goes beyond a sense of humor. It’s simply his way of fitting in with his able-bodied peers, something his parents wanted him to achieve following his amputation. Keefe’s mom, Krista Gehrke and her husband Matt had Jesse on skis as soon as he learned to walk. They entered him in the Kindercup, a local race for toddlers, and he’s been training and racing ever since.
“It’s just what we did as a family,” recalled Krista, who manages a local restaurant. “After he healed up from surgery, we (decided) we’re not going to treat this any differently. He’s a kid. He can try what he wants, do what he wants. We’re never going to tell him no.”
Krista has alopecia areata, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss. Through her example, Jesse learned there’s nothing wrong with being different.
“We all carry something, whether it’s physical or emotional,” Krista said. “Every person does. Sometimes you see it, sometimes you don’t.”
Keefe joined the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) team at age 7. It wasn’t until he got a bit older that he and his parents discovered adaptive sports. He attends school at the Sun Valley Ski Academy and races with the National Ability Center High Performance Team in Park City. It was there he became acquainted with Santiago Vega and other Para alpine skiers. That’s when he first began to consider the idea of being a Paralympian.
“I started doing a couple of races through them and it just felt like I belonged there,” Keefe recalled. “They were a super nice group of people, they were all friendly, and the races were awesome.”
Through NAC, Keefe qualified for the national team, a moment he’ll never forget.
“I was really happy to see that my efforts did matter, and that I actually got to the place I wanted to get to,” he said. “I was overjoyed by that fact and how the training paid off.”
Keefe made his debut in Para alpine racing last season and made quite a splash. At the Park NorAm Open in Colorado last January, he took gold in the slalom, silver in giant slalom and bronze in super-G. Later that month, he duplicated his performance at the Huntsman Cup in Park City. At the national championships in Winter Park in March, Keefe won gold in slalom and giant slalom, and bronze in super-G. At the end of the season, he was ranked 15th in slalom, 35th in giant slalom and 34th in super-G.
Keefe credits SVSEF for honing his skills and developing the discipline required of an athlete wishing to compete at the Paralympic level.
“Their training was a lot more strict, more difficult,” he said. “The course sets are more aggressive than when I trained with the NAC. It’s a whole other level of pushing yourself.”
Now that he has started his senior year of high school, Keefe is considering several colleges and hopes to study aviation. But Beijing is his most immediate objective. If he is intimidated at the thought of qualifying for his first Paralympic Games, his easygoing nature and quiet confidence belie those feelings. He prides himself on staying focused in the present and not looking too far ahead.
“Being thrown into these more meaningful and impactful world cup NorAm races is a lot (to take in),” Keefe admitted. “But I don’t think it will stray off too far from my normal routines. It’s like any other race. That’s how I see it.”
For Krista, the hard work she and her family have put into Jesse’s development as a skier has been worthwhile regardless of what the end result will be.
“I don’t really feel like I’ve had to sacrifice,” she said. “I think it’s more of a drive to help him be successful, which we’d do for anybody, especially our kids.”