Why I came back to skiing

Why I came back to skiing

'I was picking a David and Goliath fight, and I was not Goliath'

By Phil Marquis for CBC Sports
April 3, 2019

Choosing a career in sport means accepting certain risk and slim chances of success.

It means accepting that defeat will occupy great importance in one's life, and so will suffering, usually in silence. The suffering is endured in hope of ecstatic, ephemeral success. We don’t play sports, at least not skiing, with the intention of getting rich, or even building a heroic physique. The wealth we gain is in unique experiences. As for that rippling body, it becomes a working tool, scattered with scars, deteriorating from the constant absorption of shocks. We aren’t in it for glory or rewards, but glorious moments are shared over beers with teammates after a hard day, and the reward is living a privileged lifestyle, where the office is located atop giant mountains. Not so bad, come to think of it.

Phil Marquis, a two-time Olympian in moguls, holds up his gloves with the slogan: Phil Marquis, a two-time Olympian in moguls, holds up his gloves with the slogan: "What ACL? Keep fighting" (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Over these last years, I sacrificed my body with only one real motivation: to learn more about myself. It was a personal and sometimes selfish experiment in understanding how far I am willing to go physically and mentally. Do I have more to give? And, am I ready to take the winding road back to the top? It takes a lot of courage to speak your dreams, even more to pursue them. Doubt is a parasitic state of mind: it consumes positive thinking. It makes us hesitant, even paralyzes us. Last summer, doubt was constant. My mind questioned my own courage.

Through the ups and downs, wounds and sorrows, the long days when nothing went well, I struggled with feeling unprepared, helpless and vulnerable. But hope remained. The hope of one day returning to that indescribable state of sporty intoxication that itches athletes to the bone. I wanted to finish victorious, win against my doubts, knowing too well André Agassi’s wise words : “A win doesn’t feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn’t last as long as the bad. Not even close.”

So, why did I come back for one last season before retiring? Why did I risk my health knowing I would never be back at the same level again?


Getting back on skis

The cliché about the swan song is that when the time to retire is right, athletes will know it. But, it's not so simple… at least not in my head. I don’t feel old or young. I don‘t feel pushed to the exit by a younger, more adventurous  generation of skiers. But, I don’t want to be complacent either, letting the clock run to an imminent end. I try to live in the present. I push until luck smiles on me. I'm not one to complain, even when times are tough. As demanding as this last year had been, I found a lot of motivation and managed to create many positive situations, even amid doubt. I learned more in the last 12 months than the past 12 years. And, although my physical ability got me to the top of my sport, my mental ability is my superpower now. I bounce between doubt and hope, but I can rely on a wide range of experience to guide my actions.

So it was with both wisdom and realistic expectations I put on my skis this autumn for the first time since my operation. I was aware of the work ahead. I was aiming for a rebirth. I was ready to commit my body and soul, knowing success is not measured by results but by total immersion in this process of returning to competition mode. In hindsight, I was picking a David and Goliath fight, and I was not Goliath.

I underwent my right knee surgery in February 2018, after the Pyeongchang Olympics. The Games experience itself was extremely rewarding, but once it ended, the return to reality was brutal. Suddenly, there was no plan or goal to achieve. I was facing a vast nothingness. Deep down, I felt I should have been with my teammates, in Japan and France, on my skis, celebrating my sporting career one last time. But I was stuck in Quebec, off my skis for eight months. This new reality made me feel helpless, disappointed and angry. My body needed a break, but my brain barely accepted the situation. Occasionally, my mind wandered off to the idea of total commitment to return. I did not want to let injury define me, and certainly not to let it have the last word on my career. Obviously, I couldn’t ignore the signals my body sent, but I was ready to take my chance. The idea of ​​a return took hold.

Marquis tore his ACL before the 2018 Games, but he was determined to ski in Pyeongchang.

Journey back to the World Cup

Competing again on the World Cup circuit required absolute, total commitment. I needed a schedule with specific goals to assess my progress and adjust my rehabilitation accordingly. Beyond this Cartesian approach, I needed a mission, an ultimate goal to motivate me. In January 2018, I injured myself on the Deer Valley trail. I associate that nightmare scene with salty, bitter tears, and a deep ache of defeat. The circumstances of my injury made me feel that I had fallen prey to a force of nature. I felt these were the sacrificial dues I had to pay for all my years of pleasure. During my rehabilitation, I replayed that Deer Valley episode until it reached boiling point. I felt I needed revenge. I was consumed by the desire for a rematch with nature. I wanted a last duel between skier and  mountain. What better stage for vengeance than the 2019 World Championships?

Marquis, right, with moguls teammate and friend, Mikael Kingsbury. (Matt Roberts/Getty Images. Marquis, right, with moguls teammate and friend, Mikael Kingsbury. (Matt Roberts/Getty Images.

Over the last decade, I have developed beautiful friendships within the Canadian and international freestyle community. After the Olympics, it felt like these great relationships had come to an abrupt end. The celebration in Pyeongchang gave way to forced loneliness, and my farewells were incomplete. I suddenly had no reason to return to places that held symbolic meaning for me. Not surprisingly, I was nostalgic. And I was struck hard by the speed with which everything had ended. I didn’t even have a chance to mourn properly. I wasn’t ready to close this life chapter. I wanted to be with my ski community again, my second family. I needed to say thank you to all the unique places we visit through the competition year. I wanted to meet my opponents one last time, thank them, and show my respect to this group of mogul enthusiasts before I actually said goodbye.

I have always thought sport is a beautiful school of life for a young individual. It  teaches us to persevere, to get up again after falls, to be patient and to pick our moments. But practised alone, sport loses its colour. When individuals work together towards a common goal, no single victory is tastier than a team defeat. At least, that's what I think. That's also why I immersed myself again. A last thoughtful adventure, a return to competition supported by the  team I unconditionally love... I want to bring my energy, my passion and my experience for the last time. I have learned so much from the athletes who preceded me, it was my duty to continue the teaching tradition. To be at peace with myself, I wanted to be next to my friends one last time and feel the strength of ‘All for one!’

I was haunted by the prospect of future regrets if I didn’t attempt a last mission. I needed this last season to turn the page on my story peacefully. It was the only way to find peace and move on to a new stage in my life.

In February 2019, Marquis landed on a World Cup podium for the first time in two years.

This explains my return to competition. I found the strength to brush away the expectations of others and make it a comeback for me, first and foremost.  I enjoyed every moment, sharing a unique lifestyle with extraordinary people. I know where my finish line is now, and it neither takes me by surprise nor leaves me feeling devoid of meaning. I have proven to myself that everything is possible. I avenged myself. I lived this privileged athlete’s life one last time, sharing great moments and great emotions with my friends, my team, my family, trying to be a leader for those coming up behind me. And, finally, I have found the tranquility I was looking for by ending my career on my terms, my way. The circle is complete. Thank you.

(Top large photo by Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press; middle large photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Submission Policy

Note: The CBC does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that CBC has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Please note that comments are moderated and published according to our submission guidelines.