Lost and Found

This is an essay I originally wrote as a submission to a podcast I enjoy, called the Dirtbag Diaries. In it, I tell the story of slowly falling out of love with ski racing, and the torment of trying to balance high-level athletics with a growing passion for dirtbag-style adventures. It was a tragedy that finally catalyzed the changes I needed to make, and set me on the path that would lead me to where I am today. My story was not selected to be featured on the podcast, but I’m happy to be able to share it here on the blog.

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Tragedy takes many forms. But it invariably includes the loss of something we love.

It was February of my third year of college. My friends knew when they asked me that the answer would be no. Instead of joining them to ski Tuckerman Ravine on Mt. Washington, I was to spend most of the weekend staring at the inside of a hotel room. Just as I’d spent every other winter weekend for the past three years.

I have been a Nordic ski racer for almost as long as I can remember, and I’ve always loved the outdoors, particularly when it is covered in snow. I wish I could tell you that I’ve always loved ski racing. As a talented junior athlete, coaches often made grandiose claims about my potential, encouraging me to dream of the day I would be an Olympian. For a long time, I felt that achieving that goal would be worth just about anything.

By that February weekend, I knew something had changed. The shift had been slow, almost imperceptible. It wasn’t due to the daunting workouts, nor the nonnegotiable 10 hours of sleep per night. It wasn’t the endless travel or strict diet or time and money spent caring for my skis. In fact, I loved all of those things.

The problem was that college had introduced me to a new world of outdoor exploration beyond the Nordic racing bubble. I listened in awe to the stories of my classmates’ mountaineering adventures in Patagonia, Spain, and Alaska. In the nearby White Mountains, I got caught out in the dark for the first time. I hiked my Nordic skis up a mountain and tried to ski back down on them. I skipped class to canoe to an island. I skipped class again the next morning after deciding to sleep on the island. I stole a week to go on a climbing trip. It was my first time ever to the Red Rock Desert, and the landscape lit a fire in my soul that would prove impossible to put out.

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That stolen week…climbing at Red Rock Canyon, NV

As I fell in love with this new world, I began to resent my commitment to racing, and the limitations it put on my life. Trying to optimize my performance on the race course didn’t leave room for much else, and the pressure to ditch my newfound pursuits grew. Dryland training season lasted from April through November and meant no adventures outside the prescribed training plan. Race season meant long hours inside, preparing for the next race and recovering from the last. One day of alpine skiing in three years. Zero snowmen made. I raced in Utah, California, Alaska, Montana, and British Columbia, and cried on the van rides to the venues as I gazed with eastern eyes at the massive western mountains. I wanted to be in them. I didn’t even own AT gear.

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The Wasatch. When I raced in Park City I always wished I could be in these mountains

On that weekend in February when my friends were skiing Tuckerman, I was in Stowe, Vermont feeling thoroughly miserable as I took in the stunning snowy hilltop venue. Lost in bitter thoughts about the race I still had to ski, I didn’t notice immediately that something was wrong. When I saw most of my team huddled together by the start line, arms around each other, tears on many faces, I ran to them and knelt in the snow beside my friends who had sunk to the ground. What’s wrong? What happened?

The words were out in a heartbeat. Torin. Torin’s dead. My mind was absolutely blank with shock for a moment, and then the questions came pouring out. Our Torin? Our teammate, my classmate, the person who joined me for lunch while I was eating alone during that painfully awkward and lonely first week of classes? Yes, our Torin. Then the tears came. How did it happen?

Torin had collapsed on course mid-race. In the days that followed we learned that he had a rare genetic heart malformation. No one had known. Under extreme exertion, blood flow returning to his heart became restricted, causing a heart attack. During normal to moderate exertion, it would never have been a problem. Only under the intense stress of something like a Nordic ski race would the condition have been dangerous. Essentially, ski racing had killed him.

Nordic skiing is not your typical extreme sport. It’s not associated with risks of serious injury or death. The shock rocked us all. My teammates, Torin’s wider college community, his family, and his friends from home came together over the next week to hold a memorial, share stories, and offer what condolences we could. Everyone talked about two things: Torin’s smile, and his love for ski racing.

Many people seemed comforted by sharing these memories. My own family reminded me that he died doing something he loved, and that’s the best way to go. But my anger and resentment grew. Torin had loved ski racing and it had betrayed him! It had betrayed all of us. My pain that week was a mixture of grief for my friend snatched by the sport he so loyally loved, and my own resentment that ski racing was keeping me from doing many of the things I love.

I was almost surprised to learn that we were to race the next weekend as planned. Many of my teammates seemed comforted by the normalcy. A couple of my friends said they felt that was the best way to honor Torin: To keep loving ski racing.

But I didn’t love ski racing anymore. I stood on the start line the weekend after Torin’s death, watching skiers ahead of me leave the start gate. I listened as the beeps counted down to each racer’s start. I imagined the beeps were ticking heartbeats.

The heaviness of remorse in my chest made my breathing labored before I’d even started the race. All anyone could talk about was how much Torin loved ski racing, and there I was standing there when he couldn’t be, wishing I was just about anywhere else. Beep, beep, beep, that was my countdown.

I had 15 kilometers to cover. I had the rest of my racing career ahead of me. I couldn’t continue with this weight in my chest. I had to find the love again. Love for anything. If ski racing wasn’t what I wanted to do anymore, then I had to start making different decisions. I had to run around in freshly fallen snow, even if it was bad for my recovery. I had to go alpine skiing again, and maybe take an avalanche safety course and start exploring the backcountry. Leaving the start line, I left behind the limitations I had imposed on myself for so long. My future could be as big and expansive as my love for the outdoors if I wanted it to be. But for the next hour, I wanted to have one last ski race. A joyful one, like races used to be when I was young. I wanted to love ski racing one last time, for Torin.

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Photo by Mary O’Connell

That night I watched the sunset from my hotel window. The moon was already up, and I could feel that urge, hear that call: That one that simply says, go outside. On that night, I heeded it.

I took my skis and my headlamp and walked the path to the lake. Skis on, I glided onto the frozen, snow-covered water and watched as the last of the sun’s light faded and the silver glow of the moon grew stronger. I was exhausted and cold and I knew that what I really needed to be doing was lying in my bed. But another part of me really needed to be out on the lake alone in the dark. I couldn’t keep neglecting the part of me that aches for mountain solitude, that craves travel and adventure and exploration, that thrives on pushing the boundaries, even at the expense of my training or racing. I had loved ski racing once, and in recent years my love had grown to include outdoors adventures of all kinds. I didn’t see a way to reconcile these conflicting passions, and my life had grown out of balance. Yet when the results had been posted that afternoon, they had confirmed what I’d known as soon as I crossed the finish line, eyes full of tears: I’d just skied the best race of my career.

In spite of all I experienced that winter, Torin’s death didn’t make me love ski racing again. I had to make some changes to bring the love back into my life. Nothing, not even a tragedy like this, could make those changes for me. It was time to heed the call of the outdoors in other ways. I wanted to be a dirtbag. I wanted to live in my car, good sleep be damned, and I wanted to travel and be a ski bum and climb big mountains and not be tied to my training plan every single day. If I rediscovered my love of ski racing along the way, that would be welcome too.

I graduated college in 2015 and turned my back on the dream of being an Olympian. I took a job in Alta, Utah that winter, and reconnected with my love of alpine skiing. I bought AT gear and learned to use it. I took an avalanche safety course. When the snow melted a friend and I lived out of a car for two months and explored southern Utah. I climbed my brains out. Until I injured a tendon pulley. Then I climbed my brains out one-handed.

Tragedy takes many forms. But it invariably includes the loss of something we love. I had lost my love for ski racing, and lost touch with all the other ways I loved to be outside. That happened slowly. I lost a friend and teammate in one horrific moment. Torin’s death reminded me that we are the ones in charge of doing what we love. With time, my focus shifted from grief over what I lost to gratitude for what I found: an opportunity to learn, to discover, to rediscover.

Ski bumming and car living left a gaping hole for me. My year away from Nordic ski racing highlighted all the forgotten reasons I loved the sport in the first place. Armed with this clarity and my motivation to take ownership of my future, I set out to build a life for myself that combines what once seemed irreconcilable passions. I wanted to ski race again. But I also wanted to keep traveling. I wanted to be free to ditch the training plan for a weekend if the mountains were calling. I wanted to train hard, but occasionally step out of the tracks made by a groomer.

I’m proud to be racing at a national level again, but even more proud to be doing it on my own terms. Following training and racing opportunities, I base-camp in one great outdoors hub for several months and then move on to the next. I work short road trips into my training plan, living out of my car, running and skiing all over our country’s most inspiring landscapes. I pull my race seasons together on a shoestring budget, sleeping on couches and feeling grateful that racing helps me stay connected with my friends who live all over the world. Sometimes I do forgo the chance to be in the mountains in favor of sticking to the training plan. I make these trade-offs all the time, and I do so mindfully, knowing how important it is to feed both my competitive athlete side and my dirtbag side.

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Training last summer with Mt. Adams in the background

I am a semi-nomadic, semi-pro athlete: Two pieces, each shaped by the other, united in one identity. The challenges are as unique as the path, yet undoubtedly familiar to many who are driven by the love of the outdoors or a desire to combine passions that seem at first glance not to fit together. Sometimes when the challenges become overwhelming, I remember skiing alone on the lake after the best race of my career, I remember Torin’s devotion to a life he loved, and I remember that I can always make a change. The balance is up to me.

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6 Replies to “Lost and Found”

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this. The world needs to hear more stories like this one… a testament to the transformative power of a fearless examination of where we find ourselves and the motivations that drive us.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your story, it reminds me that an “Either/Or” life is limiting, living a life of “And” is full of possibility. Keep living your adventurous dream!

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    1. Thank you! What a great takeaway. It’s very easy to get funneled into an “either/or” mindset, but it’s rarely our only option. Feel free to send me a message if you want to keep the conversation going. I’d love to hear about your “And” decisions!

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