I didn’t learn Diego Maradona had died by reading the news last Wednesday. I learned about it through a text from a teammate. Later that day the texts and emails lit up as we shared memories of our brief encounter with the legend, at a training camp in Las Lenas, Argentina.
It was the summer of 1988. We were ready to shed the last year of disappointment: of being the only US Ski Team in 34 years to not win a medal at the Olympics; of the devastating injuries to our top skiers; of the criticism in the press of our young team that just couldn’t hack it. Our tight family of coaches, athletes and techs had licked our collective wounds and were ready to start fresh.
Las Lenas was where we could do that. It felt like its own planet, like being on a space station with our people, on a mission to do what we were trained to do. That mission was to get up and ski, hard, for as long as we could all day. In the days before cell phones and Internet we had no emails calls or texts to distract us so it became a big mind-clearing vent to the season. We were blowing out the pipes by skiing powder and insane chutes when we weren’t training full length courses in every discipline. It helped that we had the area to ourselves all morning.
The vacationers—nearly all from Argentina—peeled themselves out of their beds mid-morning and settled into the lounge chairs that lined the sunny plateaus outside their slopeside apartments. After a leisurely café con leche they might get their skis on by noon. Until then the resort was all ours.
The people who vacationed in Las Lenas then were not middle class or even upper middle class. If you were in Las Lenas, you had enough money to be unfazed by the hyperinflation that was rendering the Austral worthless. These tourists were flush with solid currency— American dollars that they carried in fat rolls.
This was handy, because along with the season we were also eager to shed our “HoJo’s” uniforms, the orange and turquoise outfits that seemed to pay homage to a certain low budget roadside restaurant and hotel chain of the era. The uniforms underscored our inadequacy, affirmed our comparatively pedestrian attempts to be World Class. Getting rid of them would help ease the pain of the previous season. Getting top dollar for them would ease it even more, and Las Lenas was the place to do that. Ski racers going to Las Lenas knew to pack an extra bag of clothes to sell, and then to use some of that cash to buy a leather jacket in Buenos Aires on the way home.
Most of us knew little to nothing about the political and socioeconomic crisis brewing in Argentina, fixated as we were on the rolls of American dollars it necessitated, and the leather jackets in our futures. The scene added an element of interest and glamour to our space station. The vacationers gathered to watch polo matches on a snowy polo field at the bottom of our DH training; to dine at tables set with white linen, served by waiters in white jackets; to drink free-flowing cocktails while placing their bets at the casino and then to dance at the disco until dawn. Hence the late mornings.
This is when we met Diego Maradona, then two years removed from the “Hand of God” and “Goal of the Century” goals that would immortalize him in his native country and beyond. He was firmly entrenched as a national hero and global icon, and was in the prime of his career. Maradona was there with Argentina’s soon-to-be president Carlos Menem, and with an entourage of A-listers.
In our overlap of waking hours, fun-loving Maradona became fast friends with the coaches and athletes, laughing and posing for pictures, and, most importantly for us, buying uniforms. He was short and compact, like many ski racers, making him an ideal match for the inventory. One tech (I’ll refrain from using names, but feel free to call yourselves out), recalls brokering a uniform sale to Maradona during a game of blackjack, and Maradona peeling off $100 bills from a roll of them wrapped in a rubber band. Maradona then bought his wife a matching athlete’s uniform from my teammate, paying in similar fashion.
Even to those of us who knew little about the enormity of Maradona’s fame, he carried the magic of a superstar. This greatness, even a fraction of it, was what we were aiming for, or so we thought.
We would look back at pictures from that trip and chuckle, remembering our explicit instructions NOT to sell our uniforms, exhausting days on the mountain with friends, nights skiing down from riotous fondue dinners and the heady feeling of being close to a near religious hero. But we would move on, and Maradona would figure in to our stories of life on the road, as just another wacky stop on the magical tour of our brief careers.
The news of his passing was a sad reminder of what he could not escape in those intervening years. Maradona’s story is all too familiar now—a superstar athlete gripped by addiction and living a tortured existence ushered in and perpetuated by his own success. Through the prime of his career and in every moment afterwards, he battled addiction and obesity. The irony in professional sports is that the more success you have in them, the harder it seems to make that inevitable transition away from them, and to be able to enjoy the spoils of success.
In Argentina, Maradona’s death garnered an official three days of mourning. As an article on BBC.com put it, “Maradona wasn’t just a sportsman for Argentinians, he was an icon, a political player and of course, a loveable rogue.”
To me, here at home with old photo albums and a string of emails, Maradona’s death is another reminder of the line we walk in sports, the way we use it to build strength and character, but also need to take care to keep it in its place. Athletes, coaches and parents—all of us need to be clear on our purpose, our “why” for this journey. Our “why” has to put the whole person front and center, and results—while a totally legit and worthy goal—as a tangential consequence of doing things right and well. Otherwise, we’re missing the point, because eventually, from the top of the podium, there is nowhere to go but down.
I would not trade the journey of ski racing for anything. The memories of being in Las Lenas with my people, doing what we loved to do best and aligned in laser focus on our mission in that fantastical, desolate moonscape—that’s sacred stuff. That Maradona passed away the day before Thanksgiving, prompting these reminiscences with teammates seemed apt, because it reminded me of what, in the experience, I truly hold dear. I’m most grateful for all the things ski racing gave me that have nothing to do with all the things I thought I wanted so badly. Being able to connect with friends on a thread thirty years later, and not skipping a beat in the conversation, may not be the “goal of the century” but it is the score of a lifetime.