(...this article was first published HERE)
Often we’re brushed off as being daredevils, somehow absent of the most basic human emotion — fear.
However, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
We just know how to harness it.
Although fear is a powerful emotion that is designed to instigate a fight or flight response, through practice, positive self-talk, and finely crafted denial, we face it, day in and day out.
For some, this comes easily and they seem to exist in a state of fearlessness. Like Lindsey Vonn, who told me, “I was never afraid, I never lacked confidence.” …although she does admit to worrying about her return from injury, and if she’d be fast again.
I was not like Lindsey. I was a total scaredy-cat who somehow found a way to hurdle down a mountain at speeds over 140km/h.
As a young teenager my coach, Peter Bassin, who knew how much fear I faced every time I clicked into my bindings, would say, “if you were just a little stupider, you’d be SO much faster.”
However, it was my intellect that helped me overcome fear as I developed skills to help me, not only get down the mountain, but attack it.
Aksel Lund Svindal (11-time Crystal Globe winner) used similar tactics. In Beaver Creek, Colo., when returning to race on the mountain where a crash took him a year and countless stitches to recover from, he was scared. He chose to break the track down mathematically, to help him face the 10 per cent where fear’s grip held him.
Since I was choosing to push out of the start gate, I took all the logical steps to ensure I was as safe as possible. Being strong, flexible, and athletic gave me confidence.
Secondly, I knew the safest position to be on a mountain is in the driver’s seat. The more aggressive, confident, and playful I was, the safer I was. This helped me embrace the challenges with full knowledge of what I faced.
“It’s definitely scary every time you push out of the start gate…it’s scary. But, if you go out and have fun, and forget about the fear, you generally move the front of the boot, ski a more aggressive line, and ski more naturally. It’s actually not that dangerous when you do that,” said Canadian skier Manny Osborne-Paradis, an 11-time World Cup medallist and three-time World Cup winner.
The exhilaration I felt from seeing “the other side of fear,” facing it and overcoming its intensity, is what kept me coming back for more.
THE ART OF DENIAL
Ski racers aren’t idiots, we know what we’re doing is dangerous. However, at the most primal level, we have to let go of any and all inhibitions (otherwise known as fear) to be fast. This takes an incredible amount of energy and emotional control.
We are masters at the art of denial.
Denial looks and feels a lot like acceptance. It doesn’t matter what you call it, we all do it.
The art of denial is a finely honed craft and it starts by having to forget/ignore the injuries or crashes around you. In any given race, 10 to 35 per cent of racers will not complete the course, and approximately five per cent of those will result in a crash. Although athletes almost always get back up and ski away, there are many who don’t.
We block out other’s injuries nearly as quickly as we hear about them. We brush them off, take note of the mistakes, so we can believe the track and hill are safe. Telling ourselves, “I can, and will, attack this — I got this.”
Sometimes, lying is the safest thing to do. Support staff at the top of the hill will often blatantly lie, saying the holds on course are for maintenance (side slipping, gate repair, etc). Every athlete knows when this is a lie, especially when you hear the sound of a helicopter cherry picking the athlete off the mountain. Still, we choose to believe the lie because we know it’ll make us safer.
If you’re choosing to push out of that start gate, you might as well do it in the safest manner possible. That is being aggressive, confident, and calm — if believing a lie helps you do it, then why not.
GETTING BACK ON THE HORSE...I MEAN COURSE
After my injury during a training run ahead of a World Cup event in Val d'Isère, France, the first phone call I made was to my parents. The first thing my mom said, after a long deep breath of shock as she knew my dream of competing in a home Olympics — the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games — was over, was “thank God it wasn’t your head.”
At the end of the day, it is just a knee, and everyone comes back from ACL injuries, right? Well, sadly, I had a more serious injury than I had expected. It was a full dislocation rupturing my ACL, MCL, PCL, fracturing my tibial plateau, with IT-Band coming off with bone, and losing all the articular cartilage under my knee cap.
It took three surgical procedures to put me back together.
Still, I got back and raced World Cup downhill again.
How did I feel the first time I got in the gate to race? Remarkably normal, this is what I did after all. I felt good, calm, and aggressive. Although I’d never faced such an intense injury of my own, mentally, I’d overcome the injuries of countless other athletes to push out of the gate, so I was well practised by the time I did it for myself.
Once I reached the finish line of my first race back, a World Cup in St. Moritz, Switzerland, I did what I always did. I looked up to the scoreboard to see how I fared. I wasn’t very fast, and just as I was about to sulk, I lifted my head…
My peers, friends, and the stands full of fans, were cheering and clapping as hard as if I’d won. They knew the work it had taken to get there, to be competing again. It was a beautiful moment, and one I’m thankful to have experienced.
During the peak of my career, I had an assortment of quotes in an art collection on my bathroom wall. One always grabbed my attention most. It summed up what I tried to do every day on the hill,
“Leap and the net will appear”
— Naturalist and nature essayist John Burroughs