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Willie Neal, a 20-year-old biathlete from Jackon, Wyoming was killed yesterday while roller skiing in Maine.  You can read what details are currently known about the accident here.

I had the pleasure of coaching Willie during the two years I spent with the Jackson Hole Ski Club from 1999-2001.  Willie was part of the younger kids group I led two days a week, and he was already passionate about skiing, constantly asking questions and absorbing every bit of information available.  He went on to be a stand-out high-school skier, winning multiple Wyoming State Championships and turning in impressive results at Junior Nationals.  In 2007 he was selected for the J1 Scandinavian Cup Team.  Willie spent a season training with the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation Olympic Development Team and, along with his brother Elliot, recently moved to Maine to join the Maine Winter Sports Center, switching focus to biathlon.  He had deferred his acceptance to Middlebury for a year as he pursued a spot on the team for the the World Junior Biathlon Championships.

Willie’s on-snow accomplishments were matched by his non-athletic achievements.  Last November he served as a Wyoming delegate to the Democratic National Convention and had spent time interning for Senator John Kerry in Washington.

He also started his own non-profit, Cookies 4 Climate Change, an organization dedicated to educating and mobilizing young people in the fight against global climate change.

I spoke to Willie several times over the past few years, running into him at various ski events, and we discussed the possibility of him doing some work for FasterSkier on an evironmental awareness section.  I was impressed by his maturity, his commitment to his causes and to his sport, and the genuine joy he took from both.

His death is a true tragedy, a loss to the ski community and the much larger global community.  Willie had already begun to make his mark – I have no doubt that everywhere he has been and the people he has touched, are now the better for it.  Our thoughts are with his family, friends and teammates, during this devastating time.

Please feel free to use the comment section for additional remembrances of Willie.

Finally, it is worth noting that this is a reminder of how dangerous sport can be, especially roller skiing.  Even when all reasonable safety precautions are taken, significant risk remains.  Please be careful, especially when training on roads.



27 Responses to “Remembering Willie Neal”

  1. Mikey and Bronwen Says:

    You will be missed. We will always remember your vivacity for life, your willingness to live whole-heartedly and your adventuresome spirit. Thank you for giving us all the courage to live fully and to take opportunities into our own hands. You were the person who decided what you wanted, and went after it. You never forgot to live and do what you wanted with your life. Here’s to a life well-lived and hundreds of lives touched.

  2. Zach Hudson Says:

    I had the great privledge of skiing against Willie for 3 years in Wyoming, He was a class act, a humble winner, and a true champion. He won nearly every High school race he attended in his 4 years racing for and raised the level of skiing in our state almost single handedly. Though Willie skied for intermountain he is responsible for the growing successes of the High Plains district as well as those of Intermountain. I did not know him well on a personal level though I spent many races watching him effortlessly ski away from me. I am greatly saddened that the world will not get to see the great things that Willie Neal was going to do

  3. T.J Thomas Says:

    You will be missed willie, RIP WILLIE NEAL God Bless your Family

  4. Corinne Says:

    Willie, You put so much energy into the things you did and cared about. Your enthusiasm inspired everyone around you. You truly made an effort to make this world a better place. Thanks for the gerat times, the hysterical laughs, and for being there with open arms. I’m glad you were a part of my life – i’ll miss you.
    To the Neals – God bless. <3

  5. Jenny Says:

    As a coach, your goal is to inspire your athletes, but at the age of 12, Willie was inspiring me. He was humble, genuine and kind to everyone. He made me want to be a better person and I know that he had that effect on almost everyone he encountered. You will be missed. Your enthusiasm and go-get’m attitude will never be forgotten…you are the best!

  6. April Richardson Says:

    Willie, You will be truly missed. I thank God for the life you led, and the legacy that you left behind. I am praying for the entire family. I love you Mary, and I am here if you need anything. My thoughts and prayers are with the entire family! Your church family is here if you need anything!!! Blessings and Love, April

  7. David Gieck Says:

    Willie , You and Elliot are the reason that I wanted to continue to coach. Since you where just little guys I knew that you were different. Your drive was amazing and your enthusiasm unreal. Thank you for being such a great guy. I am going to miss watching you grow into the skiier that I know you would have been. I look forward to the day that we will all join again in eternity. Neal family thank you for being the best. I love working with you all my thoughts and prayers are with you please know that what ever I can do to help I will. Willie will never leave our thoughts, but I am greatful for the little time I had with him. God bless the Neal Family….Dave

  8. Jackson Says:

    I met Willie last Saturday while training in Fort Kent with my friends. Willie was nice enough to work on technique with us and even lent me his $300 poles to use when mine broke. Although I only got to work with Willie one day both my friends and I were very grateful for him working with us. Willie, you will be greatly missed. My friends and I were looking forward to working with you next time we were going up to Fort Kent.

  9. lolly Says:

    Missing Willie. Much Love to Elliot and Q E and all the Neal Family. All our Prayers…

  10. Sam Says:

    Willie, thank you for being a part of my life. I am grateful for every minute we spent together. You were always a constant for me and your smile never faded. I will miss you indefinitely.

  11. Andy Shepard Says:

    The Maine Winter Sports Center looks for a special kind of athlete to be a part of our programs. Being able to ski fast and shoot straight is not enough – we also look for young men and women who aspire to making a difference – to being positive role models for the youth of Maine. Reading the comments and knowing what I know about Willie, it is clear we made the right choice adding him to our team this year.

    He leaves a powerful and positive legacy in his 19 years. His loss is devastating to all of us at the Maine Winter Sports Center, not just for the remarkable life lost, but also for the hundreds of kids in communities all across Maine who will not have the chance to learn and grow from having known him.

    Andy Shepard
    Maine Winter Sports Center

  12. Peter Thorsness Says:

    Willie was a gentleman, a scholar, and an athlete. I watched him dominate Wyoming High School Skiing for four years and avidly followed his efforts on the national racing scene. He was gracious to skiers of lesser talent and skill — of which there were many on the Wyoming high school scene. Even before this tragic accident, stories circulated through the Wyoming skiing community about his graciousness and generosity. His efforts off the snow were equally impressive — it’s not easy being a Democrat and an environmentalist in Wyoming. But then, Willie was good at tackling tough jobs. Willie had both talent and opportunity and he took advantage of them. I will remind myself and my children — in honor of Willie’s memory — to similarly strive for success and to make a difference…

  13. Alex George Says:


    You were God’s gift to us. You were sent here on a mission to inspire us and challenge ourselves. You will be forever in our hearts and prayers. May you rest in peace. All my love goes out to your family.

  14. Jimmy Says:

    I spent this past year with Willie on the Sun Valley SEF team. The best story that comes to mind is on one winter night when he and his roommate decided to jack my car, an old and rusted volvo, up on cinder blocks (this was the recommendation that Rick Kapala gave them for supporting a car) and take off all of the wheels. Much to their disappointment, they found that one of the wheels had a larger lug nut and they settled for just taking off the front wheel and then buckling it into the driver’s seat.
    On this particular night I decided to go for a walk and when I came back I was shocked to see my car two feet off the ground with a missing front wheel. So I thought it over and for five seconds I really did consider that someone stole it. And then I saw my front tire sitting on the driver’s seat and my more intuitive half kicked in and thought that this could only be the doing of Willie and Miles – who else would take the time to pull off such a prank. I gave Willie a call that night and he tried to deny it, which was fairly believable, and then finally he admitted to the deed and together we decided to turn the tables. Willie and Miles had originally planned to arrive at the scene of the crime ten minutes before eight and hide behind a car to see my reaction before I left to go skiing that morning. So we had the brilliant plan that Miles and Willie would hide behind a nearby car while I pretended to call my dad and then the cops about this ‘supposed’ and somewhat incredulous theft. The next morning, I got through the sentence, “so you’re going to send a cop over” and then Miles appears from behind the car whispering, “Jimmy, jimmy it was just us, we did it, tell them it was just us”. And I got back on the phone – a monotonous ringtone turned silent – and said, “It was actually just my friends…what they need to fill out an incident report…Is it really necessary that they come into the station…I mean it was just a prank”. You should’ve of seen the look on Miles’s face.
    And that was Willie – quick on his feet, always up for a joke – albeit at the expense of either friend. He was always willing to share his power bars, had a natural talent for cutting hair, a knack for problem solving, and an excitement for being self-sufficient; after Willie changed the oil on his own car, he showed me how to do it (actually, he was so excited that he did while we watched). Although you probably weren’t so fortunate as to have Willie change the oil in your car, if you did know him, chances are high that you did experience this excitement, interest, and independence in some other aspect of his life.

  15. Regena Field Says:

    There are no words to express the sorrow and the loss of Willie. He had the most beautiful spirit and touched everyone he met. He will be missed but will still change this world as he has touched and inspired anyone who had the gift of meeting or knowing him.

    To the family, please reach out to us, as there is nothing we would not do to honor him.

  16. Kim Springer Says:

    I have had the pleasure of knowing Willie since he was in elementary school in Wilson, WY. As a former nordic coach and mother of a nordic skier, I’ve gotten to watch Willie race all over the West. He was always one of my favorite skiers to watch and cheer for. Although he must have had to learn to walk and ski like the rest of us, it seems he was born an accomplished skier. His determination was outstanding. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Willie fly by at Soldier Hollow and will miss hearing the announcer at SOHO say his name. Yes, Willie, you’ll be missed.

  17. Robin Says:

    Willie was such an inspiration to all of of in Jackson and beyond. He was only 19 and had already accomplished so many great things. His drive, passion, and positive attitude were beyond compare. I so enjoyed following his latest and greatest pursuits in Nordic skiing and life. It was impossible not to be a Willie fan. What a heartfelt loss for all of us who knew him and were inspired by him….

  18. jenny karns Says:

    We are so so sorry to hear of your loss. Willie will be missed by this Jackson family. As you know my dad Pete was an olympic biathlete and always supports the prodegies.” Bright stars seem to shoot far..” Please know you are in our prayers and can call on us anytime. Karns’ and Menolascino’s. Peace.

  19. Rebecca Thorsness Says:

    Like every other year, Willie dominated his senior year at the Wyoming state nordic skiing races. But it was his sportsmanship that the Laramie team talked about on the long bus ride home. Eric, one of our freshman skiers – a good runner, but a first-time skier – broke his binding on the course. He struggled on, one ski still attached to one foot, but his other foot just sitting on top of the other ski. Eric had started far ahead of Willie in the interval starts, but Willie caught and passed him part way though the race. But as soon as Willie finished he went back out on the course, found Eric, and lent him one of his own skis for Eric to finish the race on. Eric had no idea who Willie was, no idea that he was the fasted kid on the course. But, to Eric, that ski made all the difference between an utterly miserable race and a fun one. I’m sure that this is just one instance of Willie’s kindness – from reading above comments I know it is. He will be greatly missed.

  20. Scott Havlick Says:

    I met Willy a couple of years ago when our son Miles began to conspire with him about taking a year off to train in Sun Valley before skiing in college. Over the past year, as Miles shared an apartment and then traveled with him from Lake Placid, to West, to Silver Star BC, to Anchorage to Aspen, to Reno to Sun Valley and back to Reno again, we came to view Willy as part of our extended family.

    Willy was an optimist. Once, early in the year with Miles, the young bachelors tried liquid dish soap in the dishwasher. As the suds began to overflow the dishwasher and overtaken the kitchen, Willy pointed out how clean the floor would be if they could figure out how to stop the foaming and clean it up.

    Willy helped Miles become passionate about politics, to appreciate spontaneous haircuts, to not idle the car, and to call home just to say “hi” more often. Willy loved his family and called his Mom almost every day.

    My first enduring memory with Willy was last October. Kristin and I had gone out to dinner with the boys while visiting Sun Valley. It was cold and very dark out; but someone had the idea to drive out to Frenchman and soak in the hot springs. No one else was there, and as we sank into the water, looking up through the steam past the black silhouettes of the pines into that “bowl of stars,” we realized that we would share that moment of peace in our hearts forever. I think we even said so. Willy spotted the first shooting star – then lots of them. With my damn aging eyes, I snagged only one or two. Silent. Spectacular. We cooked ourselves way past “al dente” but of course not long enough.

    None of us knows how to understand why this has happened or how we will repair ourselves. But this week has reminded me to absorb everyone and their best qualities and to treat every interaction as though it might be our last. In that, I will try to assure that Willy’s memory will not just float off into time or space.

    I can only imagine the pain of Willy’s family and so many others, but please know that Kristin and I share the empty ache in your hearts as you have shared Willy with us. He has not been lost, and when I next spot a shooting star, it will be through a small tear.

  21. Erich Wilbrecht Says:

    It was just a short few weeks ago I shared a roller ski with Willie, his brother Elliot and Ellory Leeds on the new bike path in Grand Teton Park. He spoke of his plans for summer training, the set backs and successes of this past winter, and we traded stories of our race together in the Boulder Mountain Tour. Always an optimist throughout his too short life, Willie accomplished more than most of us, and his memory inspires us all to do more to change the world in the face of setbacks and the naysayers. I will always remember our last afternoon together, our last workout, and Willie’s smile, they way they all jumped in their old Suburban and roared off that day, laughing all the way home. Willie has been torn from us and there is a hole in our lives. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family.

  22. Tara Sheahan Says:

    Willy Neal, why on earth did the Creator want you back? All it takes is reading the above blogs from the many who loved you so very much! Your light, your love, your humor, friendship, and especially your grace are perhaps why you’ve left us and become, truly, the angel that you are. May your passing to the light be that catalyst to bring us all together to connect in love and gratitude for you, the bright star who allowed us to bask in your brilliance! May all of our arms and hearts reach out and surround Elliot, Betsey, Peter, Mary and Bill. We will all be in Jackson Hole to offer ourselves in unconditional love and support. We love you Willy!!!!!!!!!!

    Tara, Casey, Caelin and Aidan Sheahan

  23. Shirley Storz Smith Says:

    The extended family have Willie in their prayers. Our thoughts are with his parents and siblings.

  24. Sandy Shuptrine Says:

    I often think, with regret, about how many young people do not recognize the potential value and influence of their actions. But Willie was not like that. He knew how important it was to gather facts and put forth his best effort at things he cared about. Without hesitation. I was privileged to communicate with him in regard to a shared interest-idle reduction. I think he cared about the subject because he knew it promoted good health, alleviated detrimental emissions into the atmosphere, and needed to be done to secure a better future for all, but especially younger generations. He made excellent strides forward in his hometown on the effort. While my hopes of being able to continue to collaborate with such an enthusiastic, determined and cheerful champion have been dashed, I hope I may be able to carry his legacy forward with the help of others.

    May his family’s pain be eased over time by all those who are sharing the burden of loss of a life that so positively touched them. Willie was a son and brother to cherish and honor and who’s spirit to keep alive. He will be sorely missed.

  25. Tamsen Pruzan Says:

    As a middleschool ski coach, I have had the privilege of working with the Neal children, first with Willie and Eliot and later with Peter (only to have missed Betsy because I was having my own children). Willie was a terrific athlete and accountable for his own behavior, even at young age. He set the bar for how remarkable a human can be-how often do you come across a person that is so successful within his own circle; skiing, running, kayaking, and school, and still make time to care for the future generations? I want to share a Willie story with the nordic community, as they are wonderful snapshots of daily life in an amazing human being.
    Last summer, Ali Deines asked me to help with a couple of training sessions while she attended a coaching conference. That afternoon it poured and I anticipated a small turnout and Willie was the only one to show for a rollerskiing session. Unbeknownst to many, I was recently pregnant and hardly fit for a difficult workout, let alone skiing with such a elite athlete. But Willie, in his immense kindness, found it in his heart to go slow and double pole the workout. Through the heavy rain, we talked about his recent senior project of cutting emissions and improving air quality in parking lots in Jackson, his decision to focus on training in Sun Valley for the year, and his family. Folks, I kept looking to my right to see if there was a old man skiing next to me because he was so wise and serene and balanced, but no, it was Willie Neal, the little boy I coached in the days of yore grown into a young man, ready to take the world head on. We finally returned to the car, me exausted and ready for a nap, and Willie warmed up for his intervals. This was Willie in a nutshell, the busiest teenager in town, but willing to find the time to talk to an old coach. Thank you Willie, you made a superb effort to show up for training, family, and friends. You worked to make the planet a better place, so that my sons and daughter have cleaner air to breathe and snow to ski on. You were our Superman- humble (but accomplished) ski racer by day and saving the enviroment by night. The hole that you left is gaping and painful.

  26. Susan Says:

    I have been a friend of Willie’s mom since middle school. I share in the disbelief and sadness on the loss of such an amazing and loved person. The Neals asked that in lieu of flowers, people please consider a donation to the Willie Neal Environmental Awareness Fund. Its mission is promoting environmentally responsible choices through education and legislation.
    Current Projects:Educating communities to the mutual benefits of making environmentally responsible choices and finding common ground among diverse groups.
    Identification of products and processes for small businesses that are both environmentally responsible and financially feasible.
    Working with businesses to create and place “No Idling” signs in their parking space
    Promoting no-idling initiatives

    Donations can be sent to:
    The Willie Neal Environmental Awareness Fund
    Community Foundation of Jackson Hole
    P.O. Box 574
    Jackson, WY 83001

    For more information, visits these web sites; process)

  27. Jose R. Says:

    I never ever post but this time I will,Thanks alot for the great blog.