Jun 19 2013
Eventually, every athlete leaves the field of play. Last year, watching Didier Cuche take his ceremonial final run at World Cup Finals on wooden skis, leather boots, and a wool suit, all borrowed from a nearby ski museum, was not only entertaining to watch and one hell of a way to retire, but also beautiful. Few athletes get to leave the sport when they want, and even fewer get to leave with their boots on. Didier got to do both, and although I was healthy at the time of his retirement, still five days before my next big knee injury, I knew the significance of what he was doing. A week later it was only more apparent, and writing this exactly a year since my last ACL surgery, it’s nothing short of inspiring.
I’m headed to business school in the fall. I was able to tell a story to the admissions committee at the Tuck School of Business about an independent skier who set his goal on being a part of the White Circus, even if it meant having to operate outside the development system of the US Ski Team. I spoke about holding fundraisers and landing sponsors, and how no two years were funded the same way. I explained that I was in charge of budgeting, coordinating, and executing my own international travel schedule to support a world class training and racing program, and that even with all the meticulous planning, that the ability to change plans on a moment’s notice had just as much value. I wrote about the team aspect of ski racing and how individual world ranks, while they are the measuring stick of success and the gatekeeper of career progression, are anything but individual. Those rankings are the hard work of coaches who have dedicated their lives towards making others faster, and of other athletes who genuinely have your best interests at heart.
Anecdotes and stories from the road spilled onto my application. Situations that didn’t seem like a big deal at the time turned into great vignettes for life as an independent skier. For one, the cost-efficiencies Adam Cole, Dane Spencer, and I employed in Alpe di Suisi, a valley notorious for steep hotel prices, by seeking out guesthouses on local farms. Greeting the farmer’s doorstep with bad German and big American smiles, we found comfort in large lofts above the barn that were a fraction of the cost of a hotel, had a full kitchen, wifi, and were immaculately clean (we were in Südtirol after all). During my interview, I argued that the cadence of ski racing and the inherent downtime creates a great environment for entrepreneurial thinking. I talked about rooming with Jimmy Cochran at the World Cup in Bansko, and the time we spent tweaking his delivery methods and operations for his growing maple syrup business, Slopeside Syrup, back home in VT. I could have just as easily talked about the countless chairlift and t-bar rides spent with Warner Nickerson and others comparing marketing strategies, sharing creative ways to land sponsorships, or my personal favorite: how to beat the airlines. There are a million stories like these in the ski world.
All of those experiences pale in comparison to the ones shared while working as a youth mentor with In The Arena. Any time I wanted to feel sorry for myself about the opportunities I might not have had given my independent status, I could point to the Hazen Union Track and Field team in Hardwick, VT that I coached one Spring after breaking my collarbone at NorAm Finals. With no track and no field of their own to train on, the team was ecstatic when I laid down a 200m oval around the school parking lot with sidewalk chalk (turns out high school geometry does come in handy). With training shirts that read “No Track, No Field, No Problem”, the Hazen team held their own at plenty of meets, including the Vermont state championships where they recorded 18 personal records to round out the season. Some of them now compete in track and field at college.
In short, it wasn’t hard to find things to talk about. Ski racing and everything that goes with it prepares you for a lot more than how to get down the hill quickly.
The choice to make this pivot in my life wasn’t an easy one. I don’t know that anything will compare to being a ski racer, but I am excited about the new challenges in front of me and I feel lucky as hell to have taken the ride this far. I’m still not able to completely hang them up, I did after all get my FIS license for this upcoming season. I’m just going to have to pick my races carefully, as my uncontested streak of victories over baby brother is unblemished and I’d like to keep it that way.
I’m looking forward to continue representing the athletes as the Alpine Athlete Rep to the USSA, that hasn’t slowed a bit. Just because I won’t be in the starting gate as often doesn’t mean that the problems affecting the sport go away, or even that they get put in the rear view mirror. We don’t all get to walk away from the sport on our own terms, but I’ve realized through this last year of rehabbing and trying to get back that you never truly leave the sport if you don’t want to, and that this cuts both ways. The same people who supported me when I was racing were the same people encouraging me to get back on snow, and they’re the same people offering their support now. Ski racing is the community I feel at home with, the one where conversations from the previous spring can pick up the next fall, or a year later, on a dime without pretense or formality. The sport is about skiing your best, but it requires working with others and giving honest feedback, as well as receiving it. No [Charles], you didn’t have a good run. Yes, I actually did ski out of my mind. Those are some of the best conversations I’ve ever had, with my friends and competitors (I’m looking at you Greg Hardy). What more could you ask for.