by Courtney Culnane
As I stood in the gate, the only thing I could hear was my heart pounding. This was the colligate nationals and I was in first place. The Giant Slalom at Sugarloaf is known to be one of the most challenging races in the east and it was far from over – I had another run to go, and a win would mean volumes for me, my team, BC and my family. It would mean that all the hard work had finally paid off, in a way everyone would see.
The pitch of the slope was so steep that, on this sunny Friday afternoon, the light that normally lit the trail was absent, a shadow cast over the mountain. In an attempt to relax, I breathed heavily, exhaling clouds of warm air into the freezing atmosphere. I looked up at the cloudless blue sky then my eyes slowly scanned the mountains in the distance. I planted my poles over the wand that times the racer’s run, in position to start. My knees were relaxed and my back was tight, ready to attack. The blue panel on the first gate waved in the wind. Breathe in, breathe out.
Suddenly, I heard the starter, his mouth near my ear. “Racer, ready……..ten seconds.”
“Breathe,” I said to myself. “This is it”
“Five, four, three……….”
Since I can remember, skiing has been my passion. I first put on skis and hit the slopes when I was two years old. When I was eight, having exceeded the levels in the normal ski school at Okemo Mountain, in Vermont, I was put into a racing class. What had started as an alternative to daycare quickly became a weekend routine. For the next five years, my family commuted from Connecticut to Vermont, so I could train every day, as most competitive ski racers do by the age of thirteen. When I entered high school, my family moved to Vermont full-time and I attended Stratton Mountain School, a private academy for world-class winter sport athletes.
At Stratton, I trained intensely, year-round, a regimen that consisted of daily weight lifting to grueling hill sprints and agility training. I was up at 6:30 a.m. every morning to run before hitting Stratton to train, attended school, and went straight to my afternoon workouts, returning home around 9:30 p.m.. In high school, I competed and trained in Austria, Switzerland, Canada, New Zealand and Norway as well as at almost every mountain in America. At times, because of training or races, I would miss weeks of school and have to teach myself the missed lessons on the road. It was almost as if I were a rock star on tour. Over the years, I have suffered frostbite, stitches, and concussions and had a few surgeries (chin reconstruction from a fall, pins in my hand), yet I have seen far worse injuries and I have even lost friends to the sport. The discipline and love for what I do had gotten me into Boston College and then to the collegiate nationals every year. Now it was time for all that work to payoff.
I blew out of the start gate, blinded by adrenaline and pressure. The shouts of encouragement from the side of the hill, muffled by my helmet, faded as I pushed my way to the first gate. I doubt I took a breath my whole run. I swooshed down the course, my chest tight with the feeling of excitement and anxiety – I knew this could very well be the race of my life. I brought myself back into the race and focused on the feeling in my ankles, knees and thighs, concentration bringing me around each gate as fast as possible.
Traveling through the flats of the course I looked up and saw the dark pitch ahead—the final stretch. As I dropped over the pitch and fell out of the sunlight, my skis caught air. I could still see the finish arena below, decorated with sponsor banners that read Power bar, US Collegiate Ski Association, Rossignol skis and Smith sunglasses. Crowds of people—my friends, my teammates, my family—were watching. I felt their eyes on me.
My skis hit the chatters on the ice. My legs were wobbling. I threw my body to try and stay on the course only to lean in too far. My hip slammed onto the ice. As I was sliding down the steeps of the hill, one of my skis shot off and flew into the woods.
I stopped myself with my hands and boots and curled into a ball on the side of the trail, out of the way of those whose dreams were still possible. The pain in my side was nothing compared to the pain of defeat. Tears welled in my eyes, freezing as they rolled down my cheeks. Today it was over for me. The trail was cleared and the race was stopped. Coaches and officials ran over to make sure that I was okay and I kept my mirrored goggles down to hide the fact that I wasn’t.
While I picked myself up and put my ski back on, I felt that I had still fallen inside. Had I endured all the years of training and preparation only to feel so defeated? I wanted to rewind time and give myself to the course once again. My mind raced with the thought of all the people I had to face, the idea of watching someone else climb to the top of the podium to accept the award that should have been mine.
My dreams of becoming a national champion ended that day. A few weeks after the race, I picked myself up, emotionally this time, and looked into the future. Perhaps for some people a trophy to show off on the mantel is reason enough to compete. For me, skiing—all the commitment and dedication I’d given my sport—was worth a lot more than a trophy. It could not be represented materially. It was larger than turns on the hill: I was doing what I loved. I didn’t need to look down at everyone from the top of the podium when I have had the opportunity to look out on the world from the top of a mountain.
Every race holds the risk of disappointment and defeat, but nothing will change the thrill of pushing your body to the limits. This was what I lived for, and, while it let me down that day, I still had my sport. It’s not easy having a passion. A passion means that nothing will change your attitude and no negative result will make you work any less hard. All of the obstacles and hard work are vastly outweighed by the love of the sport and an occasional proud result – it is the fuel that fires the passion, that gets you up in the morning and keeps you awake at night.
So many athletes are only satisfied with medals around their neck. I love the sport for itself—its highs and its lows, when I see my name on the top of the results page or ski-less on the bottom of the hill. That is what a passion is all about – unconditional love.