Saturday, February 24, 2024
  Local News     Videos     Sports  
Jonna Mendes Went from Skiing’s Top Tier to Helping Kids Reach for the Top
Will O’Toole and Jonna Mendes attended the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation’s Wild Game dinner fundraiser Friday night, with Mendes wearing a Mongolian fox hat that she had traded her American beret for at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
Click to Listen
Thursday, December 7, 2023


Zooming downhill 94 miles per hour on skis three inches wide? Not a problem.

Climbing to the top of a cliff and back down? Ho hum.

Tiptoeing across a balance beam? Sheer fun.

While racing in Europe the 5-foot-9 Jonna Mendes became accustomed to being a superstar akin to Philadelphia Eagles Jalen Hurt. She even recalls stopping for gas one time and finding no attendants there to take her money because the station attendants were watching the World Cup. COURTESY PHOTO

It was only when Jonna Mendes climbed to the top of a high dive, staring at the pool below as if she were Greg Louganis that she came face to face with fear.

“The U.S. Ski Team coaches would take us rock climbing and cross-country skiing, partly to make us more athletic, partly to make us uncomfortable. The idea was to teach us that we were capable of more than we thought,” recalled Mendes. “For me, the high dive was terrifying—I’d never do that again.”

It’s precisely experiences like that that made Mendes a four-time national champion, two-time Olympian and an important part of Sun Valley Community School and Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation in her role as director of the Sun Valley Ski Academy.

All this led to her being feted tonight by the Sun Valley Winter Sports Hall of Fame. Mendes will be inducted alongside Olympic ice dancer Judy Blumberg, Sun Valley Suns hockey player and coach John “Cub” Burke, adaptive ski coach Marc Mast and former SVSEF racer Heather Flood Daves in a ceremony that can be viewed at

Jonna Mendes, who dressed as a bridesmaid for a Janss Pro-Am race featuring Head of School Ben Pettit as the bride, said racing downhill at 94 miles per hour didn’t feel that fast--it’s only when you make big turns, that it feels scary. Skiing Europe made her appreciate the snow in the West, she added.

Mendes was at the top of the alpine ski racing world for 20 years, earning a bronze medal in Super G at the 2003 World Championships in St. Moritz. She also won four U.S. titles in giant slalom and downhill and two Junior World Championship silvers. And she competed at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano and the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where she posted the top U.S. women’s time at the Snowbasin downhill.

Growing up in the beach town of Santa Cruz, Calif., Mendes could easily have become a competitive surfer. But she started skiing at age 4 in South Lake Tahoe where her father worked as a landscaper during summer and plowed snow during winter. She joined Heavenly’s junior program at age 5 and its race team at age 8.

“I went around the gates a couple times and I loved it. It’s what the big kids did and, when you’re little, you want to do what the big kids do,” she said.

At 13 Mendes was one of six American boys and girls invited to represent the United States at an international competition in Italy. The team spent two weeks traveling to resorts in Italy, Switzerland and Austria.

Former NBC associate sports producer Will O’Toole, whom Jonna Mendes met while racing in St. Anton, Austria, left behind his work covering the New York Jets to follow his wife and their then-18-month-old son Declan to Sun Valley.

Mendes got the travel bug and she realized for the first time how good she was as she skied with teammates Sarah Schleper and Caroline Lalive.

“I was so excited to go places I never would have gone, otherwise,” she said. “And I met friends from all over—Australia, Canada, Japan—people whom I’m still friends with to this day.”

One of those friends was Picabo Street, who grew up racing with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation.

“I loved competing with Picabo, though not everyone felt the same,” said Mendes. “If you know Picabo, you know she demands a lot of attention. But she was and still is one of the best skiers in the world. To train with her, watch her, listen to what she said was really valuable to me. Our age difference was enough that we became good friends. And I was fortunate enough to be there when she got her gold medal in the Nagano Olympics.”

Mendes and Street talked tactics—something not all their highly competitive teammates did. They also inspected race courses together, with Street pointing out things that Mendes had failed to see and vice versa. Street also radioed course conditions to her younger teammate.

“I trusted her. I knew she was helping me to be better,” Mendes said. “She also taught me how to be confident. Picabo had more confidence than anyone I know—she thought she was the best—and some of that rubbed off on me.”

Mendes likes to think she played a part in Street’s gold medal at the Nagano Olympics, where Mendes competed at age 18.

“I rode the chair up with her prior to the race and she had been doing well but not incredibly well. I said, ‘Picabo, I really think you can do it today. I really feel this could be yours.’ To be there to see her win an Olympic medal, much as I had wished it for myself, was unbelievable. To see it all come together on one day, for one run--”

Mendes moved to Sun Valley in 2012 to become the director of the then-new Sun Valley Ski Academy. She had raced in Sun Valley as a teen and loved it.

“Sun Valley is one of the best ski areas in the world if you like to challenge yourself. The hill’s challenging—it’s a beautiful place. And the town is contained—everything you want to do in a small area is so accessible,” she said. “Everybody knows this is an amazing place. If you can make it work, there’s no place better.”

In her capacity as academy director, she assists ski coaches by accompanying skiers to meets and coaching younger skiers in hopes of offering another perspective for those who aren’t quite getting the drills. And she writes recruiting letters to aspiring skiers and snowboarders, encouraging youth to leave their families in countries like Finland, Italy, Spain, Japan Australia, Norway, Germany, Canada and China to further their racing skills in Sun Valley.

The Ski Academy has between 75 and 80 student athletes in a given year—many of whom live in a residential dorm across from Bigwood Bakery and Cafe.

“There’s a lot to love about what I do,” she said. “Students come from around the world, which is really cool. Skiing and ski culture is a huge part of Sun Valley’s legacy, and families and students from around the world recognize that.

“I was one student in a 1,200-student public school and they just tried to shuffle me through. Here, these kids are a big part of the fabric of the Sun Valley Community School and the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation.”

Mendes has seen her own horizons expand as she’s worked with and traveled with Big Mountain athletes, mogul skiers and cross-country skiers.

“I had never really cross-country skied until I got to Sun Valley. Now, I probably Nordic ski more than I alpine ski. For me it’s totally new and we have some of the best trails in the whole world. I try to go out several times a week, and I’ve gained such an appreciation for the sport. I’m in awe of our cross-country athletes and how hard they work at what they do.”

Mendes’ racing experience has proven beneficial for the student-athletes she works with.

“They’re very driven, and they know that I understand the challenges they’re facing trying to pursue academics and athletics at the highest level. They’re trying to do a lot and I’ve been there.”

Though she no longer competes, Mendes is a big fan of the kids who do, running along the sidelines hooting and hollering, hoping her enthusiasm will give them an extra push across the finish line.

Skiing taught her valuable life skills, she says, and it can do the same for others.

“Ski racing is all about time management. You’ve got to be on the hill and on time at the starting gate. Everything you do is about planning ahead and being prepared,” she said. “And ski racing opens up opportunities for kids to attend better colleges. When college admission officers see they’ve skied at a high level while making the grade at a school like Sun Valley Community School, they sit up and take notice.”

Mendes’ own son Declan, who was just 18 months old when she and her husband Will O’Toole moved here, is now 13 and on the SVSEF U14 travel team.

“He loves to ski more than almost anyone I’ve met in my life,” she said. “When the weather’s miserable, he’ll come off the mountain and call it the best day ever.”

While it was Sun Valley’s outdoor offerings that attracted her, Mendes has become endeared to the friends she’s made in Sun Valley’s ski community. She realized just how important they were when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“It was my ski community who came through for me,” she said. “It was such a good reminder of those exceptional relationships you build in the mountains sharing the outdoors. That’s why I love this community and why I’m so grateful to be here. Just taking advantage of the outdoors, pushing yourself to the limit and being really grateful. This is a place I want to stay as long as possible.”


~  Today's Topics ~

Stanley Winterfest Prompts a Yabadabadoo
Disgraced Asks Deep Questions About Cultural Identities
Ellsworth Inn’s Contents Repurposed as Million Dollar Matching Grant Offered

The only online daily news media service in the Wood River Valley. We are the community leader, publishing 7 days a week. Our publication features current news articles, local sports and engaging video content in Sun Valley, Idaho.

Karen Bossick / Michael Hobbs

Leisa Hollister
Chief Marketing Officer

P.O. Box 1453, Ketchum, ID 83340

© Copyright 2022 Eye on Sun Valley