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Go Big or Go to Med School

Pro big-mountain and park competitor Claudia Bouvier talks to us about college note taking, croissants, and not watching ski movies.

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You’re 23, about to graduate from college. You want, passionately, to be a doctor, maybe an ortho-pediatrician, maybe an ER doc, but only an ER doc so you’ll have down days to ski. This summer, you took the MCATS and now you’re into bio mechanics and volunteering at the Denver Children’s Hospital. You look like a typical student in skinny black jeans tucked into leather boots, a funky looking scarf wrapped around your neck, and not much in the way of jewelry.

But you also won the Subaru Telluride Freeskiing World Tour qualifier last year, have top podiums in slopestyle, quarterpipe, and halfpipe competitions, and are sponsored by Smith and Rossignol, among others. Two years ago, you broke your neck and now your goals for this year are getting into med school, winning the women’s Freeskiing World Tour, and landing a 720 off a cliff. All this and when I ask if you want anything to eat or drink, complements of the magazine, of course, you order a small coffee. Is intriguing a strong enough word?

“Hi,” Claudia says cheerfully and with a big smile as she walks into Buchanan’s Coffee shop in Boulder, Colorado. “I’m glad you brought a camera, otherwise I wouldn’t know who to look for.”

“Actually I carry this around so small children don’t bother me. Turns out there’s something extra creepy about a guy with a beard and a camera.”

She tosses a long plaid coat over the back of a chair. Plaid and cotton, not pink and Gore-Tex. It’s a scene she fits into well—a busy coffee shop muted by the aroma of roasting beans with students typing away at laptops, some smoking on the patio, others engaged in debates about what appears to be interesting experiments with facial hair. There are lots of scarves, corduroy, and things made from hemp.

We walk to the counter to order and though I had wanted a cappuccino, which Buchanan’s does rather well, I suddenly find that walking away with anything other than a small coffee seems pretentious.

Sitting down with our drinks I ask, “Given your French heritage, how do you feel about the ridiculously large croissants here?”

“It’s fake, they’re just not real. Can’t be made the same way on that scale. I like to dip my croissants in coffee, I think it’s my favorite part of European breakfasts.” She says ‘croissant’ in the intriguing way those fluent in French have of making the last part of any word silent.

“I spent a summer studying in France, but since I speak fluently, my teachers would let me skip out of classes until tests and exams.”

“And in your off time?”

“I’d go skiing. Mostly at Tignes. My host family loved skiing, especially the dad, but they had never skied in the summer, so I took them skiing one week to Tignes and they were so excited about it.”

“And now, you do a lot of your school work in the summer?”

“This summer I studied for my MCATS, took them, and took one class. I usually take a really heavy course load in the fall. Then it’s nice, because I can go to school all day and come home and work out for a couple of hours. It’s a nice break and sometimes I study on the machines.”

“On the machines?”

“Yup,” she takes out her notebook for bio mechanics, neat and color-coordinated. “The stuff in red means it’s really, really important. Purple is kind of important. This way I know what to go over.”

Turns out being a dominant force on the competition circuit comes from a lot of biking, running, and yoga. She leans in a little, seems to get more excited in this vain of conversation, “I’ve been studying physiology, so I think I understand the body pretty well, and I know that you don’t want a lot of weight on the body, strength, yeah, but if you have a lot of bulk you’ll risk tearing a ligament or something. Lean muscle, I think, is the key to skiing.”

“As you’ve said, ultimately you would like to film. Are you a ski movie junkie?”

She pauses, considers, twirls her bangs and then laughs, “Well, OK, this sounds kind of counter to what I’m saying: I have a hard time watching ski movies because I am not a watcher. I like doing things. I can’t just sit down and watch a ski movie because I get so amped to ski, it’s too much. I’m the same with doctor shows, I can’t watch doctor shows on TV because I want to be a doctor so bad that I don’t want to watch somebody faking it.”

“Your dad, Daniel Bouvier, was a big part of the extreme skiing scene in Chamonix before he moved to Vail, Colorado, what kind of influence has he had on your skiing?”

“It was a huge influence. When I was eight or nine, he would ski down in front of me and do 360s, so I would try to do them. I would always follow him around the mountain and ski moguls and jumps, and just try to prove that I was as fast as him. I wasn’t, but now I am, now I can beat him.”

“As far as school goes, at what point will you have to sacrifice skiing for med school?”

“Realistically I can’t ski that long, you can keep a career going for a while but there’s young kids coming up that are getting to be better and better. Plus it’s so hard on your body, that’s why I’m setting myself up so it’s less of a sacrifice than a transition in my life.”

“You broke your neck skiing an S-rail two years ago. Has that changed your approach to day-to-day life?”

“Well it definitely increased my pain tolerance.” She chuckles and rubs the back of her neck where a scar remains from a surgery that replaced part of her spine with bone from a cadaver. “I definitely have more patience and can study longer. And I don’t treat things as such a big deal any more. If a competition doesn’t go well I don’t cry about it, it’s just skiing. School is the same way. If I get stressed out about it I think, ‘I could have had none of this, so it’s OK, I’m lucky.”

I ask one last question to wrap up the interview. “On a scale of one to ludicrous, how excited are you that it’s snowing in the mountains right now?”

“Ludicrous, I absolutely can’t wait to go ride.”

I expect this to end our talk, but you don’t have to get to class just yet, and you tell me how your schedule lets you leave Boulder Thursday night for Vail to ski from Friday to Monday. This is when you’ll perfect spins off cliffs. Then you tell me about medicine, your philosophy of physics class, and the morality of geriatric care. Eventually, you go to class, so I thank you for talking and, smiling, you blend into the crowds of students milling about. I walk out, camera in hand, to find the parking meter had run out and there’s a ticket on my car.

—Jake Davis