This following piece appeared in Racer Next, in Ski Racing’s Issue 8, 2014. Here is the amateur version.
When people ask me about favorite memories from my ski racing career, the first thing that usually pops into my mind is the Opening Ceremonies at the Calgary Olympics. It was my first time on such a grand stage. I was wide-eyed and overwhelmed and despite the itchy wool skirt and sub-zero temperatures, thrilled beyond words. There is no doubt it was powerful, in every way.
But I get a twinge saying it, as if it’s just the easy answer, the one so obvious it requires no further explanation. And it feels like a bit of a cheap shot to the incredible athletes who, for whatever reason, did not make the Olympic team. I am talking about the athletes who are every bit as talented and hardworking as athletes who made the team, but had bad luck, bad breaks or just bad timing.
I am talking about the ones whose stories you don’t hear until much later, if ever: certainly the tragic 2nd half of the 1984 team famously left home in Sarajevo, most of whom quit the sport abruptly in frustration and disappointment; the unheralded athletes who, like Lindsey Vonn, gave up their rightful spots to make room for healthier up and comers and who, unlike Vonn, got no public recognition for their nobility; the Shiffrinesque Wunderkinds who drove or got driven so hard so young that they were all burned out before their primes; the vibrantly independent Warner Nickerson who undertook a Herculean, solo quest (why the US Ski Team actively shunned him remains a maddening mystery. Nickerson graciously explains his perspective in More Cowbell) and came agonizingly close achieving his dream. Somehow, referring back to the Olympics as a marquis memory discounts their experiences, which feels like an injustice to their talent and efforts.
The prominence of that one memory is also, I now realize, a misrepresentation. Only recently, in the run-up to these Olympics, it occurred to me that perhaps the only reason the Calgary memory is so clear is that it is the most asked about, and the most replayed. It is built up, reinforced and overblown by the grandly booming Olympic theme music and every misty commercial about the Olympic dream. I relive the memory daily for a few weeks every four years—every time a youngster wants to know what it felt like to be there, every time an adult wants to know what it took to get there, and every time the typically plodding path of an Olympian is captured, compressed and glorified into an epic onscreen journey. To be sure, the stories are impressive, but some of the very best never get told. If you don’t make the Olympics, never get that five-circle stamp of recognition by the masses, you never get that every-four-year payback to relive your journey, however epic.
In reality my second most vivid memory would be a massive multiple way tie between a frozen gray day in Kaprun running 120th in my first Europa Cup, a sub-zero night in an unheated cabin in Maine, a finish line team reprimand after a resounding failure and countless similarly inglorious yet indelible moments. The recurring themes of such memories are cold, commiseration, abysmal performances and the humor that bound us like a lifeline.
But nobody records that. My physical archives consist of a few awesome action shots and a stack of pictures that make it look like all we did was smile atop a sunny course, eat fondue on Alpine sundecks and dress up to march in a big parade. My mental archives, however, are way more realistic. They include my first Junior Olympics, where the eastern kids relived their shared torture of racing a DH in -20 degree temps in ____ (somewhere in Maine), and me secretly wondering if I could have hacked it. They include me proving my mettle many times over, and each time reinforcing a bond. I revisit those memories every time the kids I now coach refer to their State Championship GS race four years (nearly a third of their lives) ago, when they endured a day of wind-whipped, goggle-adhering precipitation that was too cold to be rain, yet too wet to be snow. Now, no matter how bad the situation, they find shared strength in a simple statement. “We’ll always have _____!” (a certain place in NH).
Watching the fabric of these kids’ memories get woven, and the starring role that unheralded moments play in the big picture, reminds me of Phil Mahre’s reflections while atop the medals podium in 1984. He thought about everyone who had a part in his victory, from fans and family, to coaches, teammates and ski tuners, and realized a profound truth about all the things it takes to get to the top. “It wasn’t my moment anymore. It was America’s moment.” And it was made possible by the people who lived with him through all the vivid, unrecorded memories along the way.
A former teammate, who is a key player in my mental archives, once floored me with an off-handed comment indicating that as a non-Olympian her experience was something less than mine. When we former teammates—from Olympics, Jr.Olympics, State Championships or home ski clubs—get together, we rarely reflect on victories, ceremonies and post card moments. More often we recall the times that we got lost, killed downtime, messed up badly or somehow conquered the miserable, wretched, trying conditions together. They may not be the Opening Ceremonies but these are the moments that remind us we are indeed up for any challenge around the corner. These are the memories that make our journeys real.