True Grit: How Squat Genes Went The Distance

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I used to think that any genetic traits that contributed to me being an Olympian came from my Dad. Physically, my father’s side of the family topped 6’ and took to things like rugby and football and rowing. Long before chairlifts, they hiked up Sierra hillsides and sped down on hickory skis. Even before that, they were a daring lot, the type that set across our wild country in a covered wagon, ready for adventure. My father was also driven by speed: he was the skier, the risk taker, the scorekeeper. He fanned the flames of any competitive ember he sniffed, be it on the ski hill or on the mini golf course. To him, everything got more fun once it became a competition.

My mother’s side was in general more domesticated. When the Gold Rush beckoned, they stayed put in New England and hunkered into the business of making things that people needed. They were practical, sensible, generally risk-averse. Athletically, my mom’s side weren’t particularly outdoorsy, especially in winter. They showed their competitive chops judiciously and seasonally, in tennis and some fierce croquet. Other than on the tennis court, where she could morph into an assassin as needed, mom seemed to tolerate rather than celebrate the urge to smash the competition. When her own kids did well, she looked out for the kid who was slinking away in defeat and offered comfort or a kind word. She was the anti Tiger mom, holding behavior, gratitude and humility above performance.

Physically too, my mom did not seem to have conferred us much advantage. As my brother put it none too gently, “She gave us our squat genes.”

Those are not the genes that help you squat impressive numbers and explode off the ground. They are the genes that keep you close to the earth, and harbor very few fast-twitch muscle fibers to counter gravity with any sense of urgency. Nevertheless, my brother and I both managed to be World Cup downhillers, along the way surmounting significant obstacles rooted in both perception and reality. Among those obstacles, was physical testing.

It all comes back to me this time of year, when dryland training gets going full steam, and kids across the country of all ages and levels take to fields and gyms for the pre-season ritual of physical testing. The intent is to encourage fitness that will enhance performance, prevent injury and track individual improvement. It’s also for gathering data on groups, which contributes to the evolution of sports science. There are all kinds of benefits to physical testing, to individuals, groups and the sport as a whole.

That said, the mention of it still makes me a little queasy. From the Presidential Fitness test in elementary school to the battery of “medals tests” with an army of hopeful development peers to the increasingly complex lab tests with my national team teammates, fall physical testing was the bane of my existence; not for the short-lived torture of it, but for the chronic, predictable humiliation of it.

For the vast majority of my years climbing the ranks, I likely had the worst vertical jump and the slowest 440 of the entire test group. While the Thoroughbreds were bounding along going for records in the 12-minute run, I was the Clydesdale plodding around the track to get it done. My numbers only topped the list in the body fat test, which I had locked up, and not in a good way. As if that wasn’t esteem-crushing enough, there was the knowledge that those results—names included—were then shared with the US Ski Team Trustees (thanks to HIPAA and basic humanity this no longer happens). Good times.

Even though we were always assured the test results were used mainly for setting personal goals, the low scores inevitably carried embarrassment and shame. This was tolerable because winter was coming, and soon everyone’s attention would shift to the results that actually mattered. Snow Time.

Nevertheless, throughout my career I spent much anguished time wishing I had a little more of Dad’s height genes and less of Mom’s squat genes, more of Dad’s confidence and less of mom’s humility.

What I didn’t fully respect were the attributes my mom passed along that were less visible, but easily as valuable as any high test score. Dad’s gutsiness and go-for-broke approach may have gotten me in the game; but it was Mom’s gifts, that didn’t feed on glory or reward—the humility to endure the constant insult of being last, the humor to see my pathetic struggle as rich material, and the quiet will to keep trying—that kept me in the game.

Only later did I appreciate those subtler gifts for their role in all the things I didn’t do. Even as the red-faced kid at the back of the pack, desperately trying to keep up, and never getting a full rest interval, I never gave up. I never went home early, or found excuses to miss the camps, or shopped for an injury to get out of the most torturous tests—all things that happened regularly and I trust still do. More importantly, I never gave up on myself.

Instead, I worked on my significant weaknesses, eventually finding small relative strengths. Sure, they were mostly in things like bench jumps, core strength, endurance and flexibility, that carried zero cachet. But the really bad things got a little less bad until I was solidly in the middle of the pack in most things, and no longer dead last at anything.

Perspective comes at odd times, and usually well after you need it. For me, the revelation about my mom’s true grit, and its impact, came many, many years after my athletic career ended.

It happened when she was deep into her battle with Alzheimer’s Disease. By then she had lost her ability to effectively communicate, and along with that any real sense of agency or purpose. When an injury forced her into a rehab hospital, the unexpected bonus was daily, one-on-one sessions with a physical therapist. The focus of these sessions was on achieving specific, tangible goals rather than on mere survival.

One exercise required her to reach for a balloon and bat it away. As she got comfortable with the movement and with herself in space, the therapist moved the balloon further and faster. She came alive with a focus I had not seen in her in years, and honed in on her target with the intensity of a boxer. She tapped into the spirit that had allowed her to learn skiing as an adult; and windsurfing in her Fifties; and to return to the slopes after major injuries (broken femur, pelvis, ribs, etc) that would have driven most women her age right back to croquet. This was Nina, telling us all that she hadn’t given up on herself.

It occurred to me then that if I’d run a few seconds faster or jumped a few inches higher I might have scored a few more World Cup points. But without the ability to put my ego aside and keep trying, even when I was the worst at something, I never would have made it to the starting gate.  

So, this goes out to anyone who gets more queasy than excited about physical testing. You will emerge with something to be proud about, even if that thing is simply believing in yourself enough to show up, put your nose in it and see it through.

And to anyone cheering from the sidelines, don’t count the Clydesdales out. They’re fueled by something pretty powerful inside, and they may well may go the distance.

30 thoughts on “True Grit: How Squat Genes Went The Distance”

  1. Well, this latest article was to me, your best of all time. It made me miss Buck and Nina more than I have in a long time.

    It also made me thankful for my “squat genes.” Which, and you’ve seen me ski, are the only useful athletic genes I possess.

    • Squat genes unite! They may not be flashy but they get it done. Thanks for reading and for your kind thoughts. You know Buck and Nina would be smiling!

  2. Another great piece! Nina was so amazing with her cheering on and caring for everyone. Both your parents were so special people.

  3. I felt great love with both Nina and Buck… they were as close to parents as you could get! I have great parents… but they were so supportive

  4. Where can I order your next book? Your inspired word-weaving, and the questions and truths they illuminate and activate, are a gift to this (ski-racing) world, Edie. 🙂

  5. Best ever. I tell my daughter, who hates physical testing, to focus on her strengths. For instance, she beat all her teammates in the Oktoberfest keg toss last weekend at Lost Valley, Scoreboard!

  6. Edie, as a very young skier you had grit, but you also had a softness and a feel somewhat uncommon in most skiers. You treated the snow as a soft pillowy cloud and I believe the snow responded in kind, hence, your success in speed events! Now, as a writer, I see you treat words and feelings with the same care and softness, hence, our love in reading what you so lovingly gift to us! Hugs.

    • Ruben! I need to be better at checking comments. This is the nicest ever! Of course I got the touch from watching the best coaches on the planet and listening to their advice: “Foot to foot to foot…” Thank you for reading and for commenting and for the kind words! xoxo

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