After guiding hundreds of high school skiers during downhill races, Mary Parcheta decided she wanted to compete, too. The coach of the Stillwater Area High School alpine team for 25 years, Parcheta had always wanted to race but couldn't quite muster up the courage. Her fear was understandable — she had once broken her leg while skiing.
Once she made up her mind to conquer her anxieties, Parcheta started racing on both snow and water skis. "I was determined that I was going to do it," says Parcheta of Stillwater, who retired from coaching in March. "It looked like a lot of fun, and it was just something I wanted to do." That determination propelled her not just to race, but to compete fiercely. Though she really didn't start racing until she was in her 60s, Parcheta keeps getting faster and better. So far, she has clinched eight national alpine titles and nine national water ski championships.
Parcheta's first attempt at skiing came in her 20s, when she worked in California as an aerospace engineer on the Apollo spacecraft. Her first time out she tried to ski Mammoth Mountain near Yosemite National Park, and that did not work out so well. That's when she broke her leg.
Then Parcheta and her husband, Jack, moved to Minnesota for work, and she stayed home with their three children. Looking for something to do, she often took them to Afton Alps so she could practice skiing and teach them the sport.
Her kids eventually joined Stillwater High's alpine ski team, and Parcheta continued as a ski instructor. When the Stillwater coach asked her to be assistant coach she agreed reluctantly, having had no coaching experience. One year later he retired — and she became head coach.
Using what she learned from coaching others, Parcheta started competing about 10 years ago with The Ski Challenge, a metro racing program. Those first giant slalom competitions stoked Parcheta's desire to keep improving.
When Parcheta started enjoying success on the slopes, her kids suggested that she start water skiing competitively, too. She was game. It certainly helped that the family lives on a lake outside of Stillwater, where she had water skied for years.
"They told me I'd never get any better unless I competed, and once I entered a tournament, I was addicted to it," she says. "The kids say they created a monster, because I always had to practice, practice, practice. I was not a natural and I have to work hard at it."
Today, Parcheta competes year-round between the two sports. She often travels to Florida to train post-alpine season and before it's warm enough to water ski here. No matter the season, she starts her day with exercise either at the gym or walking outdoors before skiing.
She recently traveled to visit her daughter in Colorado and was heading up to Snowmass for a race. "I like it because it's a challenge, and I'm trying to get faster and do better all the time," says Parcheta, who is in her 70s. "I feel like each year I get a little better, and I keep wondering when I'll peak out. At some point I will at my age, but there is always more to learn and do."
Parcheta loves to stay active, and she gets a special thrill from skiing with her two granddaughters. She thrives when pushing herself out of her own comfort zones — something she aims to keep doing in retirement because, she says, "I just really like a challenge."
Suzy Frisch is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities.