This isn’t your typical “legend” story. I don’t even come close in style or ability to the legends that have graced our mountain and, quite honestly, I never aspired to be one of them. Tamara’s run off of Oly Lady was my jam, but I preferred hiking up to the Palisades with skis on my back than actually side-slipping down the flattest chute I could find. In nearly all parts of my life, skiing included, I’m on the more risk-averse end of things.
What I find legendary is how a mountain, a sport, and an amazing ski team program taught me not only how to ski, but how to be uncomfortable, face my fears, and do hard things.
I was a Mighty Mite in the late 1980s, back when Nestle was a sponsor and race days meant Crunch bars for everyone. I won first place only once, on an obstacle course near today’s Big Blue Express. Everyone else was disqualified by crashes or missed gates. Not me. Slow and steady, I managed to pick my way through the course and onto the podium at the awards ceremony in the old Cinema House.
Those were fond years on the Mighty Mites – shredding down Mountain Run in a ribbon-like line behind our coaches, still too young to “ski fast, lose pass” but just the perfect age to take the jumps off “danger trail,” long before everyone wore helmets. We puzzled adults skiing on Links (now Mountain Meadow) with our single-ski drills, ran laps on Cornice 1 & 2, and held picnics on the “big rock” on Mountain Run in the Spring. Our coaches were amazing: Astrid who rocked the bright fuschia zinc lip balm and big jumps. Frank with the best yodel: “heidi-heidi-heidi ho, that’s the way we want to go; heidi-heidi-heid-hay, we want to ski all day!” Ron, Michelle, and Dennis: favorites through blue stars and Development Team, who lead stretches at the top of the Gondola that left us so tangled they could beat us to the lift line at Gold Coast and grab first chair.
Later, knowing Race Team wasn’t for me, I joined the Freestyle Team in the 1990s where I learned to ski bumps and did push-ups and sit-ups in the same locker room as Shannon Bahrke and JT Holmes. Raymond, one of my coaches, made me ski a moguls course off of Red Dog over and over again, hiking back up every time, until I was too tired to be afraid of the jumps. Best teaching and learning moment ever.
Eventually, my focus turned to high school academics, which pulled me away from the mountain. Through college (UCLA), graduate school (Georgetown), and the early years of marriage (my husband didn’t grow up skiing), trips to the valley were fewer and farther between.
But then I had kids – a son and a daughter. And five years ago, on September 17, 2016, I found a hard lump in my breast. Three days later, at the age of 36, when my kids were 6 and 3 years old, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
My treatment plan included bilateral mastectomy (removal of both breasts) followed by 6-8 weeks recovering from surgery (tubes on either side of my torso, drains taped to my abdomen or tucked in sweatshirt pockets. No shower for 3 weeks. No lifting hands above elbows. No picking up kids). Since lab results showed micro-cells had spread to lymph nodes and the tumor was highly aggressive (level 3 out of 3), I began 16 weeks of chemotherapy (8 infusions, every other week, including “the red devil”), followed by 5 weeks of daily radiation (think laser treatment). I lost my hair, eyebrows, and many nails on my fingers and toes. The skin on my chest and around my armpit was fried, my face was pale.
In December 2016, between rounds 2 and 3 of chemo, I took my kids skiing on First Venture. Grateful for a ski hat covering my bald head, I was out of breath as I brought them down between my legs. Still, I wanted to be there. I needed the fresh, healing air of the mountains and I wanted my kids to have memories of skiing with me on a mountain that had taught me so much. Too exhausted from treatment, I wouldn’t be able to ski again until May (thanks to the Spring Skiing Capital).
In the five years that have passed since then, I’ve thought about many things. First and foremost, I’m so grateful to my husband, children, parents, sisters, extended family and friends who supported and encouraged me throughout the journey. Another thing that I keep coming back to is how this mountain, skiing, Mighty Mites and Freestyle Team, all also helped prepare me for the challenge. Below are a few of the lessons I learned:
1. Carry your stuff:
Hefting heavy, awkward gear around on your shoulders or in your hand is part of the deal. Even when you’re cold and your feet hurt. You have to think ahead and be prepared. It’s the same for surgery or chemo – you need supplies: bottles of water, a warm blanket, cozy socks, magazines, chapstick, ginger tea, and lemon candies. Pillows for your armpits that are still sore from surgery. Maybe a nail file (one never knows), all crammed into a bulky bag. As my son, now a Mighty Mite, heard from his coach: there’s never bad weather, only bad gear. Truth.
2. Put your head down and grit your teeth:
We skied and rode lifts in snowstorms, with wind and ice blistering our faces (Siberia comes to mind), before Costco sold hand warmers in bulk. When chairs stopped, we waited – fingers frozen, faces wet and burning at the same time. What could you do but put your head down, attempt to hide from the wind; clench your teeth; sit on your hands; wiggle your toes; and try to stop thinking, until, inevitably, you made it through – either to the top of the lift, the bottom of the mountain, or even better, to Gold Coast for hot cocoa? Isn’t that how life is? Sometimes there’s no way around the storms; you have to go through them.
3. We can do hard, scary things
I’m cautious by nature. The thought of skiing Chute 75 or Palisades was absolutely terrifying. But year by year, my Mighty Mite group skied more challenging terrain. Together, with a coach and teammates who were there with me. Some leading the way, some behind picking up gear following “garage sales.” I pushed myself to face scary turns because I saw others could do it, and that made me believe I could do it too. So it goes with breast cancer: Many, many women are diagnosed each year. Each journey is common and unique at the same time. Diagnosis is scary. Surgery is terrifying. “Red Devil” chemo is soul-crushing. But I had so many people (patients and healthcare workers), who led the way ahead of me, and so many loved ones (family, friends, colleagues) supporting me and picking up the pieces. As with skiing, cancer, and life: Courage is feeling the fear, and doing it anyways. Bird by bird (thank you Anne Lamott, repeated by Ted Lasso). Turn by turn.