Now that the season is over I have had some time to reflect on the past couple months and fully appreciate what a couple months they were! From racing two events at the Olympics to posting two of my best Downhill results in years it has been hard to decipher all of the madness, intensity and emotion that went into these races. But I promised I would share some of my Olympic experience so that it is what I am going to do…here we go!
After a decent season leading into the Olympics I was still uncertain I would be named to the Olympic team. Sure, I had some good results but never wanting to count my chickens till they hatch I wasn’t counting on anything. For days leading up to the naming I was going pretty mental – one moment being certain I would receive a nomination, to the next moment certain I would not be going to Korea and looking up what FIS races in North America I would be going to instead…Lots of anxiety and sleepless nights!
When I finally received the call from my coach (after laying on the couch all morning unable to function at any level because I was so nervous) I almost dropped my phone when it rang – then somehow lost my ability to speak in full sentences while my coach asked if my flights home went ok and if I was “resting ok” – (yeah right buddy). I could have done without the small talk at that point and was waiting for him to drop the bomb that I wasn’t going…but his words told me something else – I was going to the Olympics! WAHOO! After eight years I was achieving a goal I had set out to do. Now to get the chance to race was another issue all together!
With the way the Olympic selection criteria was written only the two athletes with the most World Cup points in each discipline would be guaranteed a start right in each event. Those two athletes in both Downhill and Super-G were Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin. The other two spots would be chosen by coaches’ discretion creating a team of four which is the maximum number of competitors per nation per discipline. Depending on how you looked at it that could be either a good thing or bad thing…good meaning you might have a chance to prove yourself leading up to the games and that you were “peaking” at the right time, or bad meaning you didn’t have the best races leading in the games but had some results earlier in the season that might warrant you deserving a start right. Either way it was a pretty unnerving feeling.
There was still a weekend of racing left in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany before heading to Korea so the pressure was on…we were all racing to prove ourselves and that we were “peaking” at the right time. Needless to say, it was a mixed bag of weekend for our team in Garmisch. As a team we started off on a high knowing that our whole team(!) was going to the Olympics after youngster Alice Merryweather received a last-minute nomination! We were so PSYCHED! Lindsey followed that up with winning the first DH race and Breezy was 4th. But things turned sour after those two had locked in great results on that first day and unfortunately Jackie Wiles had a bad crash and injured her knee. It was devastating. Stacey and I were yet to race that day but knew things were not looking good. I typically never watch my teammates race, simply because I am unable to bear to the thought or mental image of them crashing and getting hurt. I can’t watch one of my closest friends get their world rocked and turned upside down with a bad crash. I’ve been there and know the emotions all too well.
So, as I watched the helicopter fly Jackie away to the hospital knowing that her season was most likely over I looked Stacey in the eye and told her we were going to ski smart, not do anything stupid and “ski solid”. I was scared, uncertain and I didn’t really want to race at that point. On that very same course where I have my own history, knowing I still had to tackle it after it destroyed my teammate and friend’s dream it did not give me a very happy feeling. But somehow, I willed myself out of the start gate and I actually raced really well. I found the strength to stay committed to what I was doing, to ski without hesitation and to attack the course fully. Except for one mistake it was a good run and I might have finished top 10 if not for the mistake.
In the finish area I had total meltdown when I learned the true nature of Jackie’s injury, it was bad and she would not be going to the Olympics. As a team we were devastated. To lose one of our own so close to a big event was incomprehensible. All of Jackie’s work and dedication seemed futile in her pursuit of her dream. Although I knew she would back and have her chance at redemption someday, in that moment it was overwhelming sadness that filled my heart. But as I wiped the tears away I couldn’t help be in awe of how I had just skied. I had been so uncertain in the start, unsure if I would make it down, assuming I would just ski in “survival mode” but I was stronger than I knew and had found a way to push the doubts aside, focus on what I could control in that moment and ski for myself yet again. (I share my Garmisch experience as it was very critical in helping me find out just how strong I am and how that strength would be critical in the weeks ahead leading into the Olympics.)
So anyway…we flew to Korea, received our Olympic uniforms (so much stuff), participated in various media obligations, went to opening ceremonies (awesome!) Then we had a week of training prior to the Olympic Super-G and Downhill at a nearby resort to the Olympic speed venue. We were pretty much in total isolation where we were training – it was a very strange feeling to be “at the Olympics” but not really “at the Olympics”. We watched some of the Olympic competitions on TV, primarily curling and speed skating which no offense to those sports got pretty boring after the umpteenth hour of watching them. Even with the boredom of watching those two sports over and over they provided a welcome distraction and way to kill time till it was our turn all the while trying to remain calm and not think about who might selected to race or not.
FINALLY, we had the team meeting where we would be told how the selection process would go down…I was so nervous walking into that room. I had a stomach ache all day and was so very sweaty and clammy…gross. “Blah, blah, blah” – I don’t really remember what the coaches said, something about skiing, analyzing results and performances, and finally they spit it out and gave Laurenne and I the final two spots in Super-G based off of our results with Breezy as first reserve. WOAH! YES! I was guaranteed a start in the Olympic Super-G! Never did I think in the past year would I be racing Super-G at the Olympics!!! So very excited and relieved.
The breakdown for the Downhill selection was thus: first training run was just “training”, the second training run would be our “race” for the two Downhill spots with the fastest in our group not named Lindsey or Mikaela would be guaranteed the third start right, while the fourth spot would be named by coaches’ discretion. The reason for the discretion choice being the coaches wanted to make sure everyone had a fair shot in case someone was flagged, had a bad weather or some other misfortune. The final and third training run would again be a “training” run giving us a day to bring the intensity back down for a day before the Downhill race. It was a fair way to do the selection giving everyone their chance. So, it would come down to me, Laurenne, Breezy, Stacey and Alice Merryweather racing for the last two spots. But first, we had the Super-G race to conquer!
The Super-G race day finally came about it and it was our chance to race and represent our country to our best ability! As I rode the gondola up prior to the race thinking about the course and what I planned to do and execute, tears came to my eyes. My heart was so full – so full of pride with the opportunity to represent my country, to give my best for my nation and for all the people that supported and believed in me for so long. I really felt the Olympic “spirit” within me and could feel what felt like whole nation behind me. It was truly a different feeling from a World Cup, the immensity of the event and the work that I had put in and the work of our coaches and staff made me feel more confident than ever. I knew all I had to do was execute my plan and leave the rest to chance.
I started 27th, just behind what would be the Super-G gold medalist Ester Ledecka. Moments before I kicked out of the gate I heard a raucous noise behind me – the cheering of Ester’s coaches and staff. I had a momentary thought of “wow, something weird must have just happened” but then it was my turn to race and put all the noise behind me. As I raced my way down the course I didn’t have to think, I just skied – a free feeling that is often so hard to find. I skied without hesitation and didn’t hold back in any manner. With all the uncertainties of ski racing finding that I could ski this way was an amazing feeling. I made a few mistakes but kept fighting ahead the whole time never dwelling on the mistakes but continually striving forward to the next turn. As I came through the finish I smiled big, my heart was ready to explode, I was so proud of the way I skied and the way I represented my country. No, I didn’t win a medal and could have certainly skied sections better but I had given that run everything and that is all I could have done in that moment. We can always think “coulda, shoulda, woulda” but the reality is all you can give is your best and have no regrets. I have no regrets from that run. I took confidence that I could fully trust my abilities and skiing and that anything would be possible in the coming days.
After some moments and hours of celebration on our team performance in the Super-G it was time to focus on the Downhill and feel the intensity build. There was still a lot of work and a lot to prove in the next days leading into the Downhill.
For the first Downhill training run I knew I wanted to make a statement – a statement that I was a contender and I didn’t want there to be any second guessing from the coaches on who their selection would be. Drawing back on the experience from the test event on the same track in the previous season I pushed hard in that first training run finishing third. One step closer to earning my selection but nothing for certain yet. The second training was next and everything was on the line. As I mentioned in my previous blog I had been held in the start for 45 minutes prior to my race at the test event in the previous season so it when I got held in the start again, just moments before kicking out of the gate for the second training I was prepared on how to maintain my focus and narrow it back to what was important. Staying focused on the skiing, skiing with trust and full confidence in my abilities.
Finally, the course was cleared and it was my shot, my shot to earn my start right. I skied with a fury, attacking every turn, every piece of terrain, never hesitating and came through the finish in 9th. The fasted of our team aside from Lindsey. I had earned my start and nothing was going to keep me from racing the Olympic Downhill. I was indeed stronger than I ever knew once again as I had learned in Garmisch. After all the struggle, the moments of the doubt and the near retirement I was going to have my shot in the one event I so wanted to represent my country in!
One more day of training to go, and I was gassed. Totally exhausted from the physical and mental intensity of the days prior. I knew I needed to step off the gas in the final training and that I couldn’t maintain the intensity for so many days in a row. Thankfully I had that final day of training to “take it easy” and to ski the line yet not have to push so fricken hard and to regain my energy.
Race day was upon us and I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to win a medal, how my life would change if I won a medal and how I would achieve a childhood dream. But that was just still a dream, I still had to narrow the focus back in and ski. It was extremely hard to bring the focus back in, to not feel uncertainty, to not feel any fear of failure. At moments I felt like there was no way I could achieve the skiing I so wanted to achieve, I felt certain I would somehow mess it up – that I would waste a chance to represent to my fullest ability. Even moments before I kicked out of the gate I had those feelings, but I drew into myself even deeper and found the focus I needed. The trust in myself.
Yet again, I was held in the start just seconds before kicking out of the gate. It seemed liked getting “iced” in the starting gate was becoming my normal routine in Korea. I felt my focus start to waver again as I waited for my turn. Again, I had to dig deeper - deeper than minutes before when I was “ready” and find the power again. I locked it in and kicked out of the gate knowing I had a nation of support behind me and that I could achieve the skiing I wanted.
But then I wavered again for just a moment on the third turn, feeling uncertain for just a moment that I couldn’t ski the way I wanted to, but then I willed myself to dig even deeper and put my full trust into my abilities. Never hesitating again, trusting the line I had memorized so deeply in my body, trusting my skis to react when I wanted them too, skiing the sections that I had slipped up on before without hesitation – sections that I normally would have hesitated on but didn’t this time around. As I came through the finish I smiled wide, I had skied for myself and for my country to the best of my abilities.
When I saw “4th” next to my name I couldn’t have been happier, to see such a good result after so many years of not even being close to sniffing the top five it filled me up with joy. For a second, I thought “oh shoot I just missed a medal” but that was only a moment, in the end I couldn’t have been any happier to put down a performance I knew was deep within but had taken so long to find. As I said before Ales (my technician) had been right all along when he told me I would have tears of joy at the Olympics, I shed a few tears of joy and took my performance as a personal win.
I ultimately ended up 5th as Norwegian Mowinckel came down into second and to be honest I think I’ll sleep a bit better the rest of my days knowing I was “top 5” at the Olympics and not the person who just missed out on a medal. 😉 Sure, I made mistakes and lost time here and there but I won’t look back and think I could have done it differently because you can’t change what is already done.
Looking back on both of my races at the Olympics I am still filled with pride with my performances. I knew I could contend with the best for a long time, but to actually do it and contend on one of the biggest races of my life was really something.
After the Olympics I felt confident that I could perform my best when it counted, not just in training but in the races. That confidence ultimately helped me to reach the World Cup podium again at the final Downhill race of the year in Are! I never hesitated and skied with full confidence building off of the mental strength I gained over the previous weeks and finished third capping off the season in the best way possible.
For now, it’s time to take a step back – to relax and reflect. Then take those reflections into the next season and build off of my strengths, find the weaknesses and continue to stay focused on what really matters.
Once again…I have abandoned my blog for ages. To be totally honest, I grew tired of sharing my story and continually having to not only build myself up in my own mind while struggling to stay positive but to pretend to the world that I felt like things were going to turn around for me in my journey as an athlete, ski racer and person. For a while it seemed like things were not going to turn around, and I didn’t feel like pretending to the world that I felt they were going to. BUT! I was wrong; things did turn around and reflecting over the past year and what a journey it has been leaves me with the feeling that anything is possible and that I am stronger than I ever knew. I typically am not a person that wants to share a lot, but in doing so I hope that maybe one person (or more) can relate and can potentially learn something from what I have done in the past year and it can help them in some way. That is my hope and goal by sharing. 😊
First, let’s rewind…to a year ago, as the previous season ended with the final World Cup in Korea. I came into those final races ranked outside the top 30 in downhill knowing I needed to finish fifth place or better in order to make World Cup Finals and qualify for the U.S. Ski Team. Needless to say, it seemed like a pretty dauting task, seeing as though I hadn’t finished in the top five since my win in St. Anton in 2013. In my heart, I knew it was a long shot and that it probably wouldn’t happen. My heart was right – it didn’t happen. Instead of getting fifth, I ended up 27th after being held in the start for 45 minutes due to a timing malfunction while the sun baked the course and created a sticky mess on the bottom of the track. As I came through the finish line my heart broke. I knew the run I had just finished would probably be my last World Cup downhill ever. I couldn’t conceive the U.S. Ski Team giving me another chance with a discretionary team nomination. As I felt everything slip through my fingers Ales, technician and close friend held me in a hug and told me "Next year in this same finish you will have tears of joy". I didn't believe him.
I finished the season forerunning at World Cup Finals in Aspen, taking my last runs of downhill, and taking note of every time that I kicked out of the gate that it was one less time I would ever kick out of the gate again. Racing my last race at U.S. Nationals in Sugarloaf it only seemed fitting to finish 4th. Wooden spoon.
It was sad, I was sad…feeling that I still had so much more, that somewhere in my heart I knew I hadn’t fulfilled nearly anything close to what I was capable of. But I let it go. I moved on. There wasn’t anything else to do in that moment, I didn’t tell anyone it was the end, I didn’t share any of it. It was easier to let it slip away then to confront what was happening or make any plans.
Then I got an email in early April saying that I needed to book an airplane ticket to Mammoth but nothing noting if I would be part of the U.S. Ski Team or not. Fittingly, it arrived moments before shutting off my phone and pushing off from the river bank to begin a five-day raft trip down the Green River through the Gates of Lodore. A bit of hope started to flicker in my heart that maybe it wasn’t over – maybe I would get another chance but not wanting to get my hopes up I didn’t let that hope build. As I got off the river after freezing my ass off for five days (it snowed), I received more news that I indeed would be given another chance and I had better get prepared for a training camp in Mammoth.
As I arrived in Mammoth I had such a weird mixture of emotions, “like what am I doing here”, “do I deserve to be here”, “is that guy/coach gonna continually judge me”, “am I even a good skier”, “do I even want to be here”, “is it worth it”. I skied terribly. Perfect, so I’d been given this chance and I look like a total buffoon out there getting my ass handed to me every day. Ok, it wasn’t that bad but the first week was pretty terrible! As the days went by, I started to feel my passion for the sport and belief in myself coming back. The new coaching staff believed in me, looked me in the eye, showed me respect and gave me the chance. It was only just the beginning of what would turn things around for me. Being surrounded by the right and good people cannot be overrated!
I knew I needed to change things, change my approach somehow but what to change I wasn’t sure. What to change became clearer to me as I worked with Steven, Bryce, Johno, Bryon, Marco, Daron and Virgil at the American Downhiller camp (this is not an ad I swear!). What it boiled down to is focusing on what is important and focusing on what I could control. That can seem obvious: don’t think or worry about dumb stuff. But honestly, how much time do we spend thinking about and even working on things that don’t matter? What were the critical things I needed to change about my skiing? My equipment? My fitness? My mental preparation? Well, it was about damn time to step up and own it. I did that, I owned every aspect of my preparation this year, unlike any year before. I have always been a hard worker, that has never been my issue, but was I focusing on the things that were important to me or just what I was told were important? I made the conscious decision to be accountable for my career. I hadn’t ever really made that choice before but had simply always done what I had been told I should do without putting a deeper thought into what I really needed.
How I was prepared physically was good…good enough for a person with all the injuries I had sustained but never great by any means. It was never a lack of effort…maybe a lack of maturity in my body and “healthy time” where I could make gains instead of just trying to break even again physically. So finally, being healthy and having the time I pushed my dryland coach and physical therapist to understand that we can’t just be “good enough” in comparison to what I was the year before or in comparison to when I was injured. That’s not enough and we could always improve. Identify the issue, create a plan, follow the plan, and hold myself (any everyone involved) accountable.
Same for my skiing, what were the main “issues”? Check this out; I used to be terrible at starts, like REALLY slow. I told my physio (Micum, who is always in the start) I wanted to become one of the best at starting. I didn’t care if I had elbow surgery again this past spring – that my arm was weak – but that between him and I we were going to analyze starts together and we would figure out what technique suited me best and find a way to make my arm strong again. We stalked the Norwegians during training in the summer, and Micum videoed them on his iPhone during training, we analyzed and I PUSHED. Pushed hard as I could. Every. Single. Time. I never didn’t work on my start during the prep period. Guess who won the start split at the Olympics in the downhill….ME. How bout them apples?!!
I treated other aspects of my skiing in same regard – the small things were the most critical. I began to reflect on everything. Why did I break my hand last winter on the base of gate? Because I continually dropped my hands while clearing the gate causing me to not only put my body at risk but to move inside and lose power at the gate, costing me time. When I was turning on the flat were my skis parallel? No, my inside foot would often creep forward causing my inside ski to drag imperceptibly, again costing me time. Was I keeping connection in the transition? No, I was sitting back, not moving forward onto the new ski to gain power at the beginning of the turn, losing time again. These are the “small things” that can add up to be the difference between a fast run and slow run.
I began to win in training, and I won a lot. Sometimes winning every run of the day which was very gratifying and felt awesome but I didn’t sit back at the end of the day and think I was “making it” or allow my coaches or myself to be satisfied with my skiing as “good enough” or to be fooled by my times, we needed to keep striving, keep analyzing, and keep PUSHING. It can be easy to coast when you are doing well in training; to feel like you “got it” but I made a conscious effort to never let myself coast or lose focus.
I have learned that when you focus on the right things – the things that actually matter and make a difference – you create so much more room in life to actually put time into the things that matter and that you can control. Bottom line: focus on the things you can control, because the things you can’t control take up too much of your time and energy.
As I trained and skied with this mindset, having a focus for only three things in each session, I felt myself starting to ski with passion again…skiing for the fun of it, gaining the confidence to play, to push the line, to trust again. To ski for myself again. Not for any result, not for any criteria, not for any team.
I also came to the realization that how I ski is good enough on any race day, I don’t have to push harder, do something different in the race, just “ski myself”. For me that is owning it.
The ultimate test of trust? Super-G. How is it possible to take one inspection run, then completely trust what you just inspected and ski with total confidence to execute your plan? It’s pretty frickin difficult to find that trust, but I have started to find trust. I still screw up a lot in Super-G, and make huge mistakes or miscalculations, but I scored in five of seven of the World Cup Super-G races this season. That alone equals all the other times I have scored in my career in the Super-G discipline.
Even though I haven’t had huge results on the World Cup this season and I am no means ranked among the “best,” the way I have progressed has been my own journey. And that’s how I measure success for me. From where I was a year ago, to where I am now is remarkable. I know I still have more potential, more to give, more to put together on race day, and more consistency to find. That is exciting to me, and motivates me still to keep pushing, to stay focused on the right things: the things that matter and what I can control.
Without the support from my coaches, technicians, conditioning coach, physio, teammates, friends and family I wouldn’t have made this progress, so I owe a lot to them. They may not all know that they were actively involved in my process but nonetheless, them being there has been a type of support that has not gone unnoticed on my part. I am forever grateful for everyone who has been part of this journey the past year.
All of the support and newfound focus culminated at the Olympics, where I placed fifth in the Olympic Downhill! It was such a meaningful result and testament to what I have done…but more on that experience later!
I will say though, Ales was right all along. I did have tears of joy at the finish in Korea… 😊