704 days. Almost 2 years. That’s how long I waited to step back in the World Cup starting gate after my most recent injuries. It was an arduous journey of highs and lows, darkness and light, hope and despair. Thoughts of retirement, of a life without ski racing, inundated my being every single day. These thoughts still occur on the daily, but I’ve come to see them as just that: thoughts. And there are so many thoughts that do not serve us, in the journey of recovery and in the journey of life.
Everybody knows there is a mental/emotional component to returning from injury, as well as a physical one. But these elements are often regarded as distinct, disconnected, just as the mind is so often considered separate from the body. Through difficult injuries, we discover that the physical and mental states are so deeply connected and cannot be distinguished easily. This lesson is one of the most valuable things I’ve learned during my career in skiing, and one I will hold onto for the rest of my journey through life.
Pain and discomfort are inevitable. After badly injuring my right knee in 2017, I experienced pain to a degree I never thought possible: debilitating, all-consuming pain. This, of course, faded in time, but for about a month I started to understand what people who experience severe chronic pain feel every single day of their lives. It was crippling. Your mind constantly returns to the pain; while sleeping, eating, doing physical therapy, spending time with loved ones — it is nearly impossible to escape the darkness and self-pitying thoughts. As you become accustomed to the pain, you start to forget how much brightness exists in normality. How you miss that brightness, how you’d do anything to have it back. Even just a little bit of it. A glimmer! A healthy, fully-functioning body?! What’s that? There is only this, right now. And this hurts.
Once you get accustomed to feeling pain, you start to expect it. A physical sensation becomes conditioned by your emotional attachment to it. It’s a strange and silly thing, creating your own pain. But we all do it — it’s the way we’re wired. Just like we’re capable of creating our own contentedness, despite external circumstances. It’s usually, but not always, a choice. And if you step back to treat yourself with compassion and open your mind, you see that you can free yourself from a lot of the pain you feel: physical and emotional. This realization is a game changer. A life changer, I would say.
When clicking back into my skis for the first time in 7 months, I felt an intense pang in the front of my knee. That’s my patellar tendon, the one they grafted to repair my LCL with. Okay, that’s a thing now. But…maybe it won’t always be that way. Maybe this, too, will fade with time. After sliding around for a couple of days, my first arcs came back naturally and a sense of relief and bliss overwhelmed me. Whoa! Bliss? What’s that?! I’ll take that! It was scary, going fast. But that’s what made it so rewarding. The speed came back slowly, but as the trust in my knee and body returned I once again found myself flooded with the freedom of flow.
If you know flow, you know it’s not a state that is found outside of risk. It’s the place where your mind and body come together as one; the challenge of doubt creates the possibility to feel the flow wholly. Doubt and fear, especially in skiing, are conditions that allow for true freedom to be felt. You do not have a great run despite the fear, you have a great run because of the fear. At first I thought that ignoring and burying the fear allowed me to ski well. Now I know, I need that fear to feel joy.
I don’t think the balance of fear and joy transpires only through skiing, either. In love we experience this connection: the fear of losing something meaningful allows you to delight in it’s pleasures. The fear of another brutal crash, another agonizing injury is something I face every time I click into my skis now. And it’s in the acceptance of possibility that I find meaning. Stepping up to a challenge is fulfilling in and of itself — you don’t have to win to feel successful.
Injuries have provided me with so many opportunities to grow, to see things from a different perspective. Now, when I push out of the starting gate, I know that I’m given the opportunity to experience freedom and not just the opportunity to win. And I’ll take that opening, that risk, that flow, every single time. Give me the fear, and with a clear perspective, I’ll turn it into joy. My mind and body experiencing it all, together, in its imperfection.
adventures to and from, here and there, home and away, around the world--through my eyes, lens, and mind