METEOROLOGIST KATHY SABINE
AN HOUR-LONG CHAT with KUSA 9News’ longtime Chief Meteorologist Kathy Sabine had me snickering in genuine amusement, nodding in heartfelt recognition, and Googling out of sheer necessity.
“Sassenach,” she says, out of nowhere, and with matter-of-fact certainty when asked to describe herself in one word.
The Starz network show “Outlander” has made the term popular now, but Sassenach is a word first used by the Gaelic inhabitants of the British Isles in reference to English inhabitants. It means outsider. And although you might think a popular chief meteorologist, former model with a coveted, high-profile job, a beautiful family, a wall-full of awards and an enviable life among her beloved horses is hardly an outsider, that’s exactly how she describes herself.
“I never felt like I fit in or was part of the group, like I have ever truly belonged. I didn’t have the average childhood, upbringing or college career.”
Kathy’s success story began, of all places, in a log cabin. That’s where she lived with her family at the top of Donner Summit, near Truckee by Lake Tahoe in Northern California. High in elevation, the mountainous area is known for some of the world’s best skiing, and by age 2, Kathy was on the hill regularly. Her parents worked in the industry, operating a lodge and ski resort called Soda Springs in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range where kids from all over the country would travel to spend time enjoying the great outdoors. Weather had a huge impact on her family’s livelihood. And it happened that their lodge was located very near the Sierra Snow Lab.
“Looking back, growing up next to the snow lab may have had a bigger impact on me than I realized. Although I didn’t know it at the time, there was meteorology involved... I learned all about the science of snow with these guys and gals. We would trek out into the wilderness on snow shoes armed with long metal measuring tubes. I would watch and hike and learn how to measure snowpack and water content for the state of California,” she says.
Kathy took to the slopes at the age of two and liked to compete in downhill and slalom race events winning a few ribbons and pins as she put it, ever so often, but the root beer race– minus the stomach ache after- was her fav, for obvious reasons!
As much as she loved the outdoors and the elements... her heart was with the animals. Always with “her creatures” she says, they “understood” each other and she says she had more animal friends than people friends. Hiking with her dogs, sleeping out under the stars with her horses this is where she found her peace and where she felt most at home. Always giving homes to injured or rescued animals she found her calling. Or so she thought. “I hung out with animals more than people when I was young.”
A self-described “late-bloomer,” Kathy is the oldest of three girls. Skinny, tall, and tomboyish, she remembers being gangly and unattractive, though that’s hard to imagine looking at her now. She spent her days trying to be the son she thought her dad had longed for, always at his side as a youngster, camping, chopping wood and riding horses.
That began the next phase of her life: Kathy the Rodeo Queen. This country girl wanted her own horse.
“I had a beef jerky jar where I saved up all my babysitting money. I drew a map in our backyard where we could put a corral, and figured out how much it would cost,” she laughs.
Kathy’s parents helped her get a horse of her own only after they saw how serious she was, and she never looked back. As a teenager she rode horses, trained them, and eventually started competing in rodeo. It likely won’t surprise you that she soon started winning those competitions, cementing her identity as a cowgirl.
A career as a veterinarian was on the horizon. All Kathy wanted to be was a modern-day Doctor Dolittle, existing in relative solitude with her creatures in the woods. When it was time for college she chose Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, near the ocean and 12 hours away from home, and headed off with a bike and a horse to study veterinary science.
But as is typical when it comes to life plans, Kathy’s journey veered straight out of the woods and onto a path she never could have imagined. Turns out, it was running out of money while studying at Cal Poly that may have been the catapult into the bright lights of television meteorology stardom.
“I’m the first person in my family to aspire to college, to go to college, or to pay my way through college. I was waiting tables and cleaning houses, and still, I knew I didn’t have enough to get through veterinary school.”
So when the 5’11” “average girl next door” was approached by a New York modeling agent when he saw her in the Bicycling Magazine and the Women of Cal Poly calendar about leaving school for a modeling contract in the Big Apple. She didn’t think twice.
“No way!” she said. “I had worked too hard with wonderful mentors at Tahoe Truckee High School in my science classes to get the grades and scholarship and grant money to get to college. I was no way going to give that up on a chance dream that I could be one of the few to make it big as a model... seemed preposterous… but the money was enticing... I wanted to be known for being smart. I couldn’t believe anybody thought my appearance was special.”
Kathy credits her success by having wonderful male role models in her life as she grew up. Dick Barrett her high school principal and Nick SantaMaria her science teacher took her under their wing, coaching, encouraging, advising. “If you’re a female and don’t have a strong male role model at home or in your life, finding mentors who believe in you and can encourage you is essential.”
Accepted to UC Davis and Fresno State, Kathy chose Cal Poly to experience living by the ocean and off she went to study Veterinary Science. Soon the realities of working two jobs, taking a full load, no car, only a horse and a bike, she realized eight years of college was going to be tough to afford. What to do? A college advisor found other strengths in writing and speech that would catapult her in a different direction... a career in Journalism. KSBY NBC-TV is where she got her start in television news. She secured an internship, got a job in production, learning all the jobs it takes to get a newscast on the air behind the scenes. The meteorologist there, who just so happened to be a woman, became her mentor.
“Sharon Graves was her name. She loved horses, so I taught her to ride, and she taught me weather.”
After work, late at night, Kathy would set up the camera and practice anchoring the weather and creating maps and forecasts. She started putting tapes on the News director’s Desk to show him what she could do.
“I think I just badgered him and he wanted me to go away,” she laughs again, remembering, an authentic chuckle that makes you want to chuckle along in echo. “He finally looked at it and said, “I can’t believe it but, you can really do this!” And I said “I told you I could.”
And that is how Kathy found herself on the air, doing weekend weather at a station in San Luis Obispo. She got married at 22 right out of college, gave birth to a baby girl at 23, then another baby, a boy, a two years later. Those years were filled with picking up and moving on; each time, she’d wiggle her way into another coveted – if not low-paying – job doing weather at a local station, and each time she’d be forced to quit when her then-husband wanted to move for his job.
That all changed when she got to KEYT-TV, a station in Santa Barbara.
“I commuted from LA to work there. I loved it there. Kenny Loggins lived up the hill. We worked off of typewriters and used weather maps off the network satellite feed. She met others who went on to great celebrity including fellow sportscaster at the FOX affiliate in Salinas, Craig Kilborn who went on to ESPN SportsCenter and The Daily Show fame oh and the Adam Sandler movies!
It wasn’t long before an agent spotted her and helped get her to the station where she works to this day, KUSA-TV in Denver. 1,000 hopefuls applied for that one job opening in 1993. Kathy landed it. The self-taught weather girl from the woods, a 3-year-old and a 6-month old in tow, was suddenly on the air in a top-20 television market! A market size jump of 100!
The roller coaster ride began.
“I won my first Emmy within my first year as the weekend weather anchor and weekday storm chaser. They called me Helen Hunt from Twister when Photographer Eric Kehe and I found ourselves in front of two tornadoes! The next day a meeting was called, the bosses said now it's time to get the second degree... in meteorology. “I have a Bachelor of Science in Ag Business and Animal Science with a minor in Journalism but that wasn’t going to cut it in a big market like Denver where the weather can be life threatening any time of the year” she reflects. “So I found myself working full time, with two young children working on my second four year college degree while trying to keep a young family intact. Hardest thing I have ever done. But I did it. I got my AMS (American Meteorological Society) seal, my NWA (National Weather Association) seal, and I was one of the few double-degreed, double sealed meteorologists in the region.”
Her hard work would pay off and she was soon promoted to weekday morning weather anchor at KUSA on the highest rated morning show in the country. The Today Show took notice and fill in opportunities came for Al Roker and Janice Huff. She counts Janice as an inspiration, good friend and mentor today. The demands of this new life in Denver and on the Network took its toll on her marriage and she found herself a working single mom.
“I became a regular fill in on the Today Show for years, every holiday they would ask and I would go.. eating my Thanksgiving turkey as a sandwich on a 747 lol and I loved it! I traveled there, maybe 35 times. It was awesome. Wonderful mother-daughter memories bonding with my child exploring Broadway and Central Park and the shopping in that amazing New York City.”
Naturally, with the talent and connections Kathy had to get that far, the whispers began that the network may try to hire her away from Denver and make her more than just a fill-in – a dream job for anyone in the field of broadcasting.
Flattering, she says. But it was wonderful just to know I was good enough for Network. I am not, by nature, a city girl and couldn’t imagine where I would ride my horse lol.” Being surrounded by animals and trees was where she needed to be. And as luck would have it, her station’s general manager thought the same.
“Mentor and friend to this day Roger Ogden called me into his office, mid-contract, and says, ‘we’re promoting you to Chief Meteorologist.’ One of only a handful of women in the same role across the western US at that time. No one was more surprised than she.
That was 2005, and it’s the position Kathy has held ever since. She appears on the 4, 5, 6, 9, and 10 o’clock newscasts and chases storms when she can. 7 Emmys, 10 Colorado Broadcasting Awards, and multiple Associated Press writing awards later, she’s still at the top of her game.
“It’s been a pretty amazing journey,” she admits, made even sweeter by the notion that she’s been an example for other women finding their voices in what used to be a male-dominated workplace. Kathy is part of a group who can remember being treated like a secretary, like an assistant, being asked to get coffee and dry cleaning for her older male colleagues and bosses, things other men in her department simply weren’t asked to do.
That quiet, unassuming little tomboy from the mountains of California would likely not even recognize the force she grew to become. Kathy is one of the most recognizable faces in local television. She is often asked to speak at schools or events and cherishes opportunities to inspire and motivate young women toward careers in math and science. Understanding her platform she uses these outlets to show others how they can help others and make a difference. How they can help animals, rescue, volunteer and adopt. She tries to lead by example. People trust that she is knowledgeable and experienced and can give important information in life threatening weather situations. They know they can count on her and she has developed a loyal following these 25 years in Denver with viewers who feel like they have watched her grow up.
“I love the weather. I have a healthy respect for the power of Mother Nature and Mother Earth. I love to observe and use all my senses to explore the rain, the wind, the snow, the lightning. I love nothing more than to be watching the weather and not have to be doing anything about it!” she laughs. “Really, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.”
Now, all these years later, Kathy is able to see how the life she lives gives her the opportunity to both look back and look ahead. Look back, because she’s the cowgirl TV person in residence, affiliated with the Colorado Horse Rescue, Harmony Equestrian Center, and the National Western Stock show. She is often asked to host animal shelter and other events, most notably a fundraiser for the Denver Dumb Friends League where there are over 800 people in attendance. She also hosts a Junior Livestock Auction each year, seemingly even more comfortable in riding gear than in those brightly-colored dresses for television.
“Anything cowboy or country, they call on me. Those are my people,” she says.
She proves that with the story of one of her most cherished memories: being invited a few years back to the Great American Horse Drive, the world’s largest horse drive in Craig, Colorado. That’s an event for which people from all over the world are willing to pay thousands of dollars to camp out under the stars and help wrangle 500 horses in from winter pasture over some 60 miles in two days, to a location where they will be transported to various dude ranches across the state. She jokes the people at Sombrero Ranches, the organizers of the drive, wanted to see if she was a real cowgirl.
She passed the test. Like there was any doubt she would not.
“I rode next to a guy named Rattlesnake Ron on a small Paso Fino. And I rode next to another handsome cowboy who looked like Sam Elliot who asked if Kathy Sabine would share some whiskey from his flask on the trail and no way was I going to say no to that!”
As for a look ahead? Well, that’s realizing, albeit a bit reluctantly, how much her path is clearing the way for women coming up behind her.
“I look around at all these amazing 30-year-old women whom I work alongside, they are 20-years younger than me, they could be my daughters…how did I get here? I now see my purpose as trying to help these women, with the future of television news, grow and learn from my mistakes and be the best version of themselves that they can be. It’s a tremendous compliment if they ask my advice or if I’ve paved the way a little bit.”
Leave it better than you found it, she offers. That is her mantra.
Although being on-screen is a second home for Kathy, she seems most content at her first. She’s been happily married to her second husband Scott for 13-years and they have a 10-year-old son together. Her older two children are now grown and live in Los Angeles. Scott, a homebuilder, helps run the barn and hay growing operation on their 40 acres. She has 3 horses – for pleasure, not for competition – Bernese Mountain dogs, barn cats, indoor cats and whatever other bunnies, squirrels, birds and snakes that may make their way over. The horses may well be another full-time job’s worth of work, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“People think I’m insane! My husband laughs at me all the time. I’m out there in my flannel pajamas, duck hunting cap with the flaps and mud boots with super bad hair making my way out to the barn to watch the sun rise every morning. Sometimes it's cold, windy, there is ice and snow but I go early before my son gets up for school. Working late nights then seeing the clock at 6am is sometimes tough but listening to my horses chew hay and snort, greet me with a whinny... the smell of the grass... this is my Sunny Space, my happy place. The place I feel closest to God.”
And it’s riding those horses when she finds the time to clear her mind, center herself, and truly think about what comes next.
“I want to do something that matters. I want to use my skills to be a voice for others to affect positive change. I haven’t figured out all the details but I know I want to change lives every single day, I want to make a difference, I want that quest to be my job. I am on the path but haven’t exactly figured out where it leads... yet... which is perfect... because I believe that something great is always right around the next corner. I can’t wait to pass the bend in the road and see what’s next!!”
It takes only one conversation with Kathy Sabine to know that this weather-loving, competitive Sassenach who’s not afraid to take a chance – and certainly not afraid to get dirty – will be able to not only succeed at whatever she chooses but set the bar staggeringly high doing it.
“People have always underestimated me... its fun to creep up quietly when no one expects it... from out of nowhere… and boom! Dazzle, Surprise and Conquer!” Laughs... “I love that.”
BY JULIE YELEN