What I've learned from ski racing over the years is that it all really comes down to one decision: whether or not to take the risk. And what I mean by that is every time you push out of the start gate you are faced with uncertainty, including, but not limited to, the weather, the conditions of the course, the snow pack, and the potential for a minor or even season-ending injury.
When you're at a race, it's all or nothing, and the only way to give it all is to decide to take the risk, to say to yourself that you are going to give it everything you've got, even though there is always the possibility of a crash or an injury. If you do make that decision to give everything, you will ski aggressively and perform to your best ability. However, making that decision is very hard. Because after you’ve been injured once, your whole mental perspective changes because you gave it your all and for some reason everything went wrong. With everything being on the line, how can you willingly make the decision to put yourself and your safety at risk? It's simply a matter of whose mental game is the best.
As someone who has ended their last two seasons early because of an injury leading to surgery, I often question why I even wanted to come back to the sport and if it's worth it anymore considering how much damage the sport has done to my body. Or because of how much stress it put me through. Or even simply having to watch my teammates succeed while you're stuck on the sidelines. And it's extremely hard to make the decision to come back. At times I don't even want to. But the amount of hard work I've put in to keep coming back and overcome injury after injury outweighs all the doubt I've faced in the last two years, and that is extremely powerful. That is how I keep making the decision to take the risk. Even after having terribly traumatic crashes and having to rebuild my strength and mental game from the ground up, I keep doing it because ski racing is what I love to do, and I know that if I put in my everything I can really go places.
I decided to ask some of my Rowmark teammates about how they keep going despite the risks of the sport and how they make the decision to race without fear. Vivian Turner, an up-and-coming FIS athlete, has never had a serious injury that forced her to take time off of skiing. She says, “there's always a thought of injury in the back of my mind, but I think if I focus on it then it will become more possible because I'm not focusing on what I need to if I'm just thinking about what could go wrong.” She decides to take the risk by only thinking about what she needs to do to ski her best every run, and if she gets injured there's nothing she can do if she's sending it.
On the other hand, another Rowmark athlete, Milan Mickelson, suffered a season-ending injury in January. At a Super G race, he was bombing down the hill and got caught in some loose snow. It had snowed 4 feet since the beginning of the race series, so the conditions were not very safe. His ski got caught and didn’t come off like it should have, and it snapped his tibia in two pieces. It’s called a boot-top spiral fracture, and it’s brutal. Milan said that he “decided to return to skiing because of the unmatched love I have for the sport, but now that I got injured, the thought of it is always in the back of my mind since I'm now at even higher risk of re-injury.” I asked him how he plans to get over that fear so he can return to skiing at his full potential, and he said, “I plan to use lots of positive self-talk to really make sure that I'm able to feel confident enough when I return to snow. I think that if I'm able to do that, then I will set myself up for a great season.”
Both athletes still decide to take the risk even though they either have been injured or face that possibility daily. Being able to overcome that fear is the part of ski racing that separates those who are mentally tough and acknowledge the risk and still decide to take it from those who choose to play it safe. Overall, the way to succeed in any sport, not just skiing, comes down to your mental game–what you say to yourself. Whether it's dryland, in a race, or just trying to do well in school, the mental toughness me and my teammates have earned through our ski racing careers has helped with so many other aspects of our lives.
What I've learned from asking different people about their own experiences is that we are not alone. Everyone is afraid, and that fear is there for a reason. But the difference between just being good and being great is looking at the fear head-on and still choosing to take the risk and overcome every obstacle that the fear throws at you. You can't ignore injury. You have to acknowledge it and still overcome it.