At 17 Team USA's Youngest Athlete, Alpine Skier Jesse Keefe, Shines In Debut Winter Games
by Stuart Lieberman
Jesse Keefe competes in the men's standing para alpine super combined slalom during the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on March 7, 2022 in Yanqing, China.
YANQING, China – At 17 years old, with long dark brown locks spilling out of his helmet and blowing in the wind, U.S. Para alpine skier Jesse Keefe is hard to miss as he flies down the hill at the National Alpine Centre.
The high school senior is the youngest member of the Team USA delegation competing at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 and was one of three U.S. racers to finish among the top 15 in the men’s standing super combined on Monday. Two-time Paralympian Thomas Walsh took fourth — the same result he had at January’s world championships — and was followed by two-time Paralympian Spencer Wood in 14th and the rookie, Keefe, in 15th.
Keefe was 20th after the super-G portion of the race and moved up five spots with his slalom run to clock a total time of 2:01.74 in his second Paralympic event, following Saturday’s downhill.
“This hill is beyond my expectations. The snow is perfect and I’m having a great time skiing out here. Just being here is awesome. I’m still shocked. I can’t really believe I’m here,” said Keefe, whose competition schedule in Beijing is now complete. “For my progression it was a great day, especially from world championships to now I’ve gotten way more comfortable with my skiing.”
Keefe grew up in the ski town of Sun Valley, Idaho, with his parents and all his grandparents active skiers. Born without an ankle bone in his right leg, he hopped on skis for the first time when he was just 2 years old, about a year after having his foot amputated. He started racing when he was 6, and then began racing competitively at 16.
He made his presence felt on the Para alpine circuit in 2021 when he captured three medals, including golds in the slalom and giant slalom, at the national championships before going on to race four events at the world championships.
A lover of animals — he has two dogs, a cat and a leopard gecko — and the outdoors, Keefe said he is at peace when on the mountain or in the woods.
“I love the outdoors, having grown up right next to a wilderness area and the White Cloud mountain range,” he said. “I love camping. I love mountain biking. I love hiking. I’m just that kind of person.”
Keefe took a full load of classes last summer so that he would be able to take off school in the months surrounding the Beijing Paralympics. He plans to graduate later this year and then take a gap year to focus on his skiing before attending college.
Thomas Walsh competes in the men's standing para alpine super combined slalom during the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 on March 7, 2022 in Yanqing, China.
Keefe was joined by six U.S. teammates in the super combined event on Monday, including 27-year-old cancer survivor Walsh, who jumped from eighth place following the super-G portion to fourth after his slalom run with a total time of 1:54.88. He was in podium position up until the final skier, France’s Arthur Bauchet, knocked him off the podium. Bauchet ended up winning, with Finland’s Santeri Kiiveri taking silver and New Zealand’s Adam Hall the bronze.
“Today was definitely a bigger win than at the world championships in Lillehammer for me,” said still-jetlagged Walsh, who only arrived in China around 72 hours ago due to COVID protocols. “This is the most slalom gates I’ve skied in two and half weeks, so I was coming into this pretty questionable and not confident, but I was able to fight the course the whole way down.”
Walsh admitted he was gutted, yet he still took the time after finishing to sing praise for his teammates’ performances, including Keefe’s.
“We call him the new kid. He’s still the rookie and not 18 until after the Games, so we’re definitely giving him a lot of jokes, or camaraderie, you could say,” Walsh said. “We have a really unique culture and it’s really awesome to see us all support each other.”
Chicago’s Allie Johnson, Pennsylvania’s Tyler Carter and Oregon’s Ravi Durgan all completed the morning’s super-G portion of the race but failed to finish in the women’s standing, men’s standing and men’s sitting classifications, respectively. Connecticut’s Andrew Haraghey did not race the afternoon’s slalom after falling in his super-G run.
The U.S. Para alpine men’s skiers will have two days off before returning for the giant slalom on Thursday, while the women will return to the slopes for the giant slalom on Friday.
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Paralympic Games Beijing 2022? Visit TeamUSA.org/Beijing-2022-Paralympic-Games to view the competition schedule, medal table and results.
Stuart Lieberman has covered Paralympic sports for more than 10 years, including for the International Paralympic Committee at the London 2012, Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.