by Nancy Alexander
I scored a huge win last week! Interesting I used the word “score” – like it was some kind of athletic contest. Actually, it was all about sports and what it is to be an athlete. I am grateful I won this contest. It felt so good and I am still smiling as I type this. The victory is still just as sweet as it was then.
You see you can take the girl out of sports. But you can’t take sports out of the girl. I grew up an athlete in part thanks to Title IX. The rule, part of the Education Amendments of 1972, stipulates that any educational program or activity that receives federal funding cannot discriminate on the basis of sex. School programs for girls exploded as a result and we had opportunities to participate in sports like never before. I’ve participated in a number of sports in my life including softball, volleyball, ice hockey, golf, and skiing. Title IX came just in time as I entered my high school years.
The most special of all my sports has been ice hockey. I played it for 41 years. Four decades of my life playing one sport. I learned to play from my father and that made it all the more special. We sealed bonds for life at the rink. There is so much more to learn from sports than the sport itself. I learned about how to be a team player. I learned how to treat others with respect because how you treated them would always come right back to you. I learned how to be accountable.
With my huge win last week, I realized another part of being an athlete. And this counts for all sports, at least to me. Part of being an athlete means training your body to do something creative. Participating in a sport requires you to purposefully perform an action with an end in mind. Sometimes that end is winning the game, scoring the winning goal, beating the other team or even beating the clock. Sometimes it just means performing to a desired level. As we age, we may not be able to perform at the level we did years ago, but we can still participate. We can be made to feel like we created something. Sometimes, that is the win. That was a big part of the win for me.
For various reasons, I have stopped participating in some sports that I loved. Hockey is one of these sports. Degenerative back conditions prevent me from playing due to pain and physical limitations. Sure, I could play a game but the next day was a nightmare. The muscle spasms always led to the big fear of my back “giving way.” I would get this horrendous pain and then my legs would give out from underneath me. I am literally locked in my body and I am bed-bound. When this happened days were often spent on a walker until I could walk unsupported again. It was my hell on earth. I am not willing to put myself in that position to chance it anymore. I just won’t. It’s my choice. And I have come to terms with my choice. I’m good with that. I now help coach the local women’s hockey team and I can stay involved with the game that way and help players improve their play and enjoy the game. I can help them be athletes.
But the truth is that though I enjoy coaching, something was still missing. Skiing was another sport I stopped doing over the past three years. Skiing is much more tolerable as far as my back is concerned. When I first skied (heck after my first run), I asked myself, Why have I not done this before? I loved it instantly and eventually I loved it almost as much as hockey. I started skiing in my late 30’s. I earned teaching certifications and taught skiing for years at local mountains. I skied close to 40 days one season.
And then I stopped. I didn’t stop skiing intentionally. It just happened. I’ve been asked, “Why did you stop skiing?” and there was no good answer. I just didn’t. Maybe it was bad weather, bad timing or something else. Life got busier for sure but I really don’t know why.
Enter this winter. Leading into it, I thought more and more about skiing, even dreamed I was skiing at a variety of mountains and resorts. When awake, I could close my eyes and feel the turns, feel what it would be like to be on edge. I could feel the smoothness in each weight shift, each turn. I could feel my body do it. I watched ski racing on television and saw the women before their run close their eyes and physically take that run with their bodies leaning left and right and their arms moving fluidly with every turn. I did that. I felt every turn. It was a grand feeling. I fell in love with skiing again in my living room and just had to find a way to get back out there. It was time to ski again. I must ski again, I thought.
My husband was excited about this prospect, too. Skiing is his favorite sport and he yearned to be back out there too. We decided to join the Rochester Ski Club for two reasons really. We did it so that we could share our renewed enthusiasm with others and sign up for their trips to certain resorts over the winter. This club had solid recommendations from friends of ours. We also joined as an accountability agreement of sorts. If we were to commit to joining this club and pay the fees, then we would have to do it, right? They offered a trip to Okemo Mountain Resort in Vermont. This is one of my favorite mountains and I have skied there 4-5 times during my skiing career. I call it hero snow. I may have skied all their trails over time– from greens to double black diamonds. [These are how trails are rated in terms of difficulty. Greens are the easiest and the more black diamonds a run has, the more difficult it is. The ratings are mountain specific. That is, you cannot compare them to other mountains. They are relative only within that mountain or resort.] Okemo Mountain Resort has always been known to have great snow and is very well groomed. We signed up immediately for the trip. I would get back on my skis!!!
I was planning to ski locally before this trip to Vermont to practice my form and make sure I could still make turns. No, really. Did I forget how to ski? Would I forget how to turn and fall and hurt myself? The local mountain seemed like a great place to try these things out for the first time in a while.
In short, the weather didn’t cooperate. After a brief cold start to winter, it grew mild and stayed mild. I heard conditions were awful. I had no desire to try myself out on bad snow. Still the calendar marched on and we got closer and closer to our departure date for the trip. Still no practice on the small hill locally.
I had stepped up my workouts about a month prior to make sure I built up my endurance and strength in my legs. But still, would my body know what to do up on that mountain? Would I be able to handle the long runs? The time came for our trip to Vermont. I decided then to look forward and not at what didn’t go as planned. That’s when I made my mind up to make this a good experience.
I talked with my husband and we both shared that we would be happy with skiing green and blue runs given the long layoff we had. My real goal however was not so much what I did or where I did it, but I wanted to relive the feeling of carving down a mountain, of feeling the smoothness of every turn, of feeling how just a slight lean would pressure my ski into the snow to make magic happen. I had to feel it. I had to create something with my body so that I was one with that snow and with that slope. I wanted to create a work of art. This is how I defined what my win would be. I wanted to be an athlete again.
This all may sound crazy but I wanted it, and I wanted it bad. I carved turns in my mind countless times before I got on that ski lift that morning – left and right, left and right – and it felt effortless. I journaled about it for weeks, describing what it will feel like to make each turn, feel the wind in my face. I described how I would look back up at the hill and see my carvings in the snow. I saw it with every word I wrote.
I believe an athlete produces a work of art with her body. I don’t care which sport it is. But an athlete achieves things with her body that many others can’t. This feeling, this creation, is what I missed. As we age, we may think we lose our capacity to do it. I can tell you this: If you think you can’t, you won’t. With practice and with the proper mindset we can do it. I am proof, I just did it.
It didn’t start well. Our first trip up the ski lift went fine. I remembered how to sit on the chair as it scooped me up and how to stand at just the right time to dismount. My boots felt tight but they always did on the first run of the day. I remembered how to hold my poles and how the straps should go around my wrist first. Ron went down first paving the way down. We started to descend and my first turn to the left went fine. That is my strongest turn so I wanted to lead with that first. The next turn to the right didn’t go as well. My inside ski turned properly and faced across the hill. My outside ski however wanted to go straight down the hill. Oh no, here come the splits!! No, no, no… I thought to myself. This will not happen!
I summoned the strength to pick up the errant left ski into the air and planted it next to the other ski. I then performed a hard and abrupt hockey stop. No, you don’t, I said to my legs. I may have even said this out loud. I don’t remember. This is not how it’s supposed to go. Ron was still ahead of me and didn’t see what had happened. He had stopped though and was waiting for me. I gathered myself up emotionally and mapped out my next turn and then the next turn and the turn after that. My form improved. I kept my skis together!! Boy was I glad I got that out of the way! I made it down to the bottom of the hill and back up we went. Time to do it again.
This time it went much better and I grew more confident in my ability. I started to vary my turn size and shape. Yes, this feels better, I thought.
Up again we go, same green run. Now I start to gain a little speed. Felt good, and the body mechanics were coming back to me. I was extending my hips better and it felt smoother. Once down at the bottom, Ron and I took a short rest in the lodge before heading back out. We went all the way to the top of the mountain this time and this would include some blue runs in addition to green runs to get down to the base. We took our time going down, taking standing rests when needed. It was a beautiful day with clear, blue skies. We call them blue bird days. It was cold (about 16F degrees), but the snow conditions and the scenery were spectacular. It was during the week so there weren’t many skiers around. We had the mountain to ourselves. We skied the blues and the greens most of the way down. I encountered some steeper pitches but just kept telling myself, keep your skis together, extend your hips, stay forward over your skis. You can do this! Yes, I did all these things. My confidence was growing and I had a smile that spanned the trail.
We stopped to rest just before going down the original green trail that we had already skied to get to the base of the mountain. It was all starting to come together. We started down the trail and then it happened. I leaned and my skis took off. I kept perfect form. I kept my arms in front of me and they complemented every move my legs made. I was moving my arms like I did when my eyes were closed months ago. I leaned just enough to either side as I did months ago. I felt the smoothness of every turn. One blended perfectly into the next turn. I was one with the snow and I created a work of art. I reached the bottom of the hill with arms and poles pumping overhead. My smile was even bigger now. I was victorious. I did it.
In a manner of a morning I made it to my special place that I was longing for. You may think it was “just some runs” but it was so much more to me. I overcame not skiing for 3 years. I overcame the fear of falling. I overcame the fear of hurting myself. I overcame the fear that I would be injured and could not work (scarier when self-employed). I overcame the fear of failure. I overcame it all because I knew what I wanted and I was convinced I would get it. I kept my focus on what I wanted. That run meant all of that to me.
We skied more that day and went out the next day. I can’t even really describe those runs but I can tell you everything about THE run. I created something for the first time in a long time. I was an athlete again. I won.
I can’t wait to get back out there again. I consider myself very lucky. I am so grateful for the Rochester Ski Club and Okemo Mountain Resort for the opportunity to make this happen. I’m sure some may call me stupid. I’m sure some are questioning why would I risk all that I risked. They’re probably wondering, Why did it matter so much to you? You’re approaching 60 you know, what were you thinking?
The answer is easy – I am an athlete. Always have been and always will be. And I don’t want it any other way. There are some who can’t play a sport anymore just like I can’t play hockey. But let’s focus on what we can do. This is not about being reckless. But let’s ask the questions: What can I do? What do I want to do? What gets my juices flowing?
Age can be your excuse, or it can be your motivation. I love a good challenge. How about you? Never stop creating. Never stop exploring. Never stop trying.