I’ll remember the chairlift ride for the rest of my life.
I was all alone, but it felt like everyone was watching me. Still breathing heavily from my last heat, I was trying to remember the pointers my coach had given me only moments before. I was on the doorstep of my first Ski Cross World Cup Big Finals. I could win a World Cup! This was my childhood dream. I was flipping out. My head was racing.
It felt like I could either run a marathon or pass out at any moment. My legs started to shake, even though I wasn't cold. I had never been so nervous. In that moment, the last two years came flooding back, my shoulder ached, my knee hurt, and my chest was tight. It was like the universe was reminding me just how much I had been through on my way to the most important run of my career.
Two years ago, I crashed while racing in Watles, Italy. I dislocated my shoulder and was airlifted. They gave me a drug that was supposed to knock me out and alleviate very intense pain. “Two minutes and you'll be asleep” the medic said, but when two, five, ten minutes passed without effect, the medical team knew something was very wrong. Twenty minutes later, we landed at the hospital, where two nurses cut my race suit off, pinned me onto a gurney, and gave me something to bite down on.
Three doctors appeared. I tried not to yell or pass out as they yanked on my dislocated arm. Despite their best efforts, the pain was at an all-time high, and my body went into shock. Now four hours from the initial injury, with no cessation of pain, I considered the prospect of life without an arm.
The doors at the end of the hallway swung open and in walked a doctor who was very unlike his colleagues. Beneath his lab coat was a Hawaiian shirt and a shell necklace, making him look like he belonged at the beach rather than a hospital. Sitting down next to me, he took my arm, placed it around his stomach and said, “Follow my breath”. Working through a series of breathing exercises, he slowly rotated away from me, still holding my arm. In and out, the breath work continued. I could feel my whole-body relaxing. Pop! Just like that, my shoulder was back in the socket, and the excruciating pain stopped! He stood up, placed my arm on my chest, smiled and walked out.
In that moment , I first learned how powerful the breath can be in guiding mind and body. No drug or brute force was able to relocate my arm, but with some simple breathing, I could relax and heal myself.
Two months later, a trial surgery permanently repaired my shoulder. I returned to racing.
It was a slow start to the season. With the Olympics only months away, I was not where I wanted to be. Two days before flying to Korea I took a harsh landing, leaving me with a swollen right knee. My team’s medical staff worked through the knee stability protocol and everything seemed to check out. Race after race, my results got worse, with no real explanation other than a nagging knee. Last race of the season, Canadian Nationals, my last opportunity to gain a good result. Day one of training, I overshot a small feature and landed hard again on my right leg. I knew instantly, something was wrong. I could barely put weight on it, let alone ski a course.
Something needed to be done. I couldn't race like this for the rest of my career. Although my coaches and support staff were against it, and the medics agreed that my knee was uncompromised, I knew I had to listen to my body. I made the tough choice to pull myself from the race. Turns out my body was right. Two weeks later, I was back on the operating table, the ACL in my right knee hanging on by only a few fibers, just waiting to snap.
After nearly a year of rehabbing the knee, I felt ready to return to snow. I had listened to my body, giving it time to rest and strengthen. But pain in my shoulder sent me back to the hospital again in February 2018. Blood tests showed a fully occlusive clot in my right shoulder. Not from any of the surgeries, this was a very rare case of Effort Thrombosis. The muscles in my upper body were impeding blood flow, which resulted in a blood clot.
This was the scariest injury yet. Clots like this can end athletic careers. If I had to take blood thinners for the rest of my life, my ski cross racing days were over. My body was clearly telling me I wasn't ready to return to racing.
Another six months on the mend. Intensive blood thinners and very reduced activity forced me to take a different look at recovery. Until now I had focused completely on my physical state. All I worried about was making my body robust enough to hurtle down a course. But the blood clot made me understand how both physical and mental states are impacted by trauma. Both have their own separate healing timelines. So that is exactly what I did. I gave myself time to heal both physically and mentally.
I began to realize just how much trauma I was holding onto. We are programmed to go all the time nowadays. Even when we do take a break, the first question is ‘how quickly can I return?’
Over the past two years, I learned to trust my body’s instructions. Some cues are subtle, some are obvious, but the worst thing is to ignore them. Life is a game of longevity. Whoever stays healthy the longest has the best chance of success. It’s not easy, giving yourself time to heal. We worry that if we don’t take chances now, we lose them forever. But there will always be another race, another performance. Lifelong success comes from taking breaks once in a while.
My legs were still shaking as I raised the safety bar to exit the lift. I looked for anything to calm me down. After two years of injury, it was just me and my three competitors in the start gate at the World Cup Big Final. I remember my coaches talking but I can't remember what they said. I remember clicking into my skis and looking left to see one of the top- ranked Swiss skiers, then looking right to see two French home crowd-favourite competitors. Welcome to the big leagues.
“Five minute course hold” says the official. We are waiting for commercial break on the live broadcast. Most athletes hate holds before their race, because they are ready to race now!
Two years had taught me how valuable even the smallest amount of rest can be. I began with the breath technique from the Italian doctor who relocated my shoulder. Four seconds in, four seconds out. I scanned my body and visualized the positive feedback it was relaying. I gave my mind a listen. I was freaking out. But I knew that all I needed to stay focused on the job ahead was to give my mind a task.
Over and over, I visualized the start, scanned my body and took deep breaths. Those five minutes of rest allowed me to focus and reset, giving me the best opportunity to execute everything I had trained for.
“Skiers enter the gate. Racers Ready. Attention.”
Gate drop! One minute and twenty seconds later, I crossed the finish line in first place. I won my first World Cup! Standing on top of the podium, I took one more moment to listen to my body and mind. A win doesn't happen in one day. It takes periods of work and periods of rest.
(Top large image by Millo Moravski/Agence Zoom/Getty Images; middle and bottome large photos submitted by Kris Mahler)
The Kris Mahler edition
Q: The best book you've read?
A: Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig.
Q: Must-listen podcast?
A: Ben Greenfield.
Q: Best advice you ever received?
A: Everything in moderation. Even moderation. ( thanks Opa!)
Q: If your life is a movie, what would it be called?
A: Better Spent Outdoors.
Q: Word or phrase you over use?
Q: Skill you wish you had?
Q: Something no one would guess about you?
A: I don't wear socks in my ski boots.
Q: What scares you?
Q: Who gets an invite to your ultimate influential dinner party?
A: Six elderly from the local old folks home.
Q: What makes you cry, every time?
A: When my parents cry.
Q: Next goal?
A: Finish the season healthy.