Reclaiming Ski Like a Girl

In my process of healing, which I am coming to learn is as much about healing my physical body as it is my entire heart and mind, this TEDx video from skier pro Lynsey Dyer aired on February 27th, three days after my crash, gave me a message that I desperately needed to hear.

And since I stumbled upon this video in all of my time lying supine, I have hit repeat several times. What Dyer addresses to hits so close to the bone, so close to the spikes of pain I feeling charging up and down my spine and into my left chest well, that it left me in tears. At one time she believed finding true success in the ski world, in the sport of “extreme” skiing meant NOT skiing like a girl. It meant not showing weakness of any sort, not trusting intuition when a line in the mountains looked like nothing but trouble. She then showed a series of photos of her accidents that resulted in pushing that boundary, when she lost the sense self and, instead was out to prove herself.

I will declare that I have spent all of my life, since all but two years of it have been spent on skis, trying not to ski like a girl. To me, being a girl meant being weak, even though I idolized skiers liked Picabo Street. I didn’t equate Picabo with any weakness just because she was female. For some knotted reason deep within myself, my own femaleness didn’t translate to success or appreciation or acceptance or even love on the ski slopes. It wasn’t like I was anti-girl or anything; in fact much of my high school days was about promoting women in sports. But for me personally, I relished when someone would pay me a compliment like: “Wow, you ski like a guy!”. If I was called a girl, it was a slam. To be compared to skiing like a guy meant that I was good, I was tough, and I wasn’t weak.

What Dyer articulates on the stage in Jackson Hole are the sentiments I’ve been grappling and wrestling with my whole life, especially in my twenties when I moved to Montana to ski. I was that girl who would walk into ski stores in search for a new pair of skis and scoff at the shop guys and declare: “I don’t ski on women’s skis. Don’t even try.” I should add that this wasn’t always about bravado because of my height and weight many skis designed for women don’t fit me. But I got off of separating myself from those “girl” skiers.

Hell, even a week before Nationals when I was training on Big Mountain, making my own race course, skating from the Summit House to the top of Chair 5  then dropping into Ptarmigan Bowl before arching into the trees, trying as much as I could to mimic a race course, I was paid my favorite compliment on the chair lift. After my run, I loaded the chair with a couple. My team jacket and my Nordic poles standout and as the lift bobbed in the air, the guy turned to me and said, “Oh wow, you’re not a guy. My wife and I’ve been watching you skate at the top and I told her, ‘Look at how good that guy is’. But you’re not a guy”.

What did I say in return, swelling with pride? “Well I’ll take that as a compliment, so no problem.” Yes, I thought to myself. I skate like a guy! That means I’m tough. That I’m good.

When my ribs hurt before I even started to compete in this year’s National Championship series, I told myself not to be weak. Frankly I was tired of being hurt. I spent all of January and February, three times a week at my physical therapists’ working on my knees. I told myself that I was stronger than any kind of pain. So I pushed, and I pushed.

And I crashed. And then I pushed again for a second run. That decision to make a second run was certainly due to the adrenaline rush but also from my deeply rooted fear that showing any sign of weakness was a flaw, a defect in my personality  A marker that exposed me to the world. Weakness didn’t meant that I was injured, it meant that in order to prove to the entire world (as I even have that kind of an imprint. Where do I even get off?) that I could overcome my injury, I’d have to push through the pain and demonstrate my strength over injury. To me, this meant not skiing like a girl. Although I don’t really know if any man would have made that decision to go for a second run or not.

A friend recently asked, “What if you had fallen again, in that second run?”

I didn’t even consider that. Hadn’t even, until she brought it up. Then she added, “How far to do you have to beat yourself up so you no longer feel weak??”

I don’t have that answers to those questions yet, but when I watched the video and listened to Dyer, an incredibly accomplished skier and pioneer for many big mountain/extreme female skiers, I realized something: by denying my female self, by looking at my womanhood as doing nothing to further me in skiing or in life, is the wrong course, the wrong line. And if I continue to believe that being told to ski like a guy will make me stand atop the podium or score some cover shot on some slick glossy ski mag, then I will probably continue to injure myself, again and again.

Another friend wrote me a message about her recent injury, a break to her shoulder, and how the healing time allowed for her to experience some beautiful insights. Insights, I thought? I’m fucking pissed right now. There’s no time for insights. I have to work on grad school, write press releases, work on brewery details. And I have to mull over each and every detail about that race series and how I failed.

Did I fail? No (that took a lot for me to write). And shouldn’t the lens be a bit more wide on that entire experience? Shouldn’t I also cherish the thoughts of laughing my ass off in the wax room after a series of jokes with my teammates? Can’t I be happy that an 11-year old boy from Whitefish, green to the sport, traveled with this family in Steamboat and raced well and had the time of his life? Can I look back at all the high fives and hollers from my teammates from start to finish with a big smile on my face? That a teammate and I thought it was hysterical that I was bib 6 and she 9 and when we stood next to each other it made 69!

Apparently not, because I’m squeezing out one event to make sense of it instead of breathing some air into the entire experience and taking it all in: the good, the bad, the in between. The camaraderie with my teammates, the way Mt. Werner lit up in the setting sun at the end of the day, the hours we spent, circled together under the flags of Olympians, sharing what we, as athletes had spent a season working on.

I’m sure, as you’re reading this, between what my friends have told me and Dyer’s message, I’m missing the point.

Just like to took me a very long and slow season to go from alpine skiing to sort of being able to make a telemark turn, I have to make these mental changes to reclaim a title that isn’t awarded in cowbells or bottles of wine, but is worth more than any medal: SKI LIKE A GIRL.

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