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As my heart drummed in my chest, I felt grateful that I wasn’t one of those skiers who got so nervous that they threw up before every competition run. The venue, a pitch on The Throne at Wa.’s Crystal Mountain, was steep and uninviting. Lactic acid burned in my legs, and my breaths were short and unsatisfying.
The event assistant nodded to me and pulled his radio to his mouth, “Ian Greenwood, dropping in.”
The following two minutes were a blur. Scoured snow roared beneath me with brief reprieves as I soared through the air. After each impact, I fought to control my speed so I could line up the next cliff. As I skidded into the finish corral, I knew I’d linked together a strong run. Later that day, at the awards ceremony for the junior freeride event, I learned that I’d placed third.
Little did I know, it would be the last time I’d stand on a podium.
Young skiers are constantly told that if they work on their skills, train hard, and put in the time, skiing can take you places. You’ll have fans, maybe an income, and, best of all, your life will revolve around showing the world what you love most.
The truth is, though, few people have the natural talent to “go somewhere” with skiing.
I first got on a pair of skis when I was three. My parents, to whom I’m forever grateful, took me to Crystal most weekends until I was old enough to get there myself. Then, I drove my family’s blue Toyota Land Cruiser up to the hill whenever possible. The pro skier fantasy hung just beyond the twists and turns of Highway 410 as I sped through the dark, opting to ski in lieu of traditional weekend social opportunities during the winter months in high school.
The dream stayed alive until I went to college at B.C.’s Quest University. Nearby Whistler was, and still is, a freeride mecca. It quickly became apparent that the kids who grew up skiing the gnarliest lines off the Peak Chair were cut from a different cloth. Massive 360s onto hardpack? No problem. Straight-lining through narrow rock corridors? Easy. When I watched a friend of mine effortlessly drop into and spin off the main cliff on Air Jordan, a notorious line at Whistler, I knew it was time to throw in the towel.
Reality eventually forces most to forget their professional skiing dreams. While slightly silly given the pure privilege that underscores it, this moment can be painful for some. When your relationship with a sport that you love dearly changes, it can cause burnout or, even worse, make you want to quit.
My ski partners, some of whom I met during the halcyon days at Crystal and others at Quest, followed similar paths.
One friend, we’ll call him B, clearly had it. I can’t precisely say what it is, but watching him ski, you could just tell he had a shot at making his way into the big leagues. During B’s time at Quest, he participated in a series of Freeride World Qualifiers and dominated the competition, landing himself on the podium at most events. During this first year, he qualified for the Freeride World Tour.
I spent the following season watching him compete and tracking his results. He placed surprisingly well for a first-timer, lacing consistent lines at most events. As that season came to a close, event officials crowned him Rookie of the Year.
His second season on the Tour was less kind. The judges punished him for pushing his limits a little too hard—sloppiness is rarely rewarded at this level. His lower-scoring runs didn’t stack up, and he didn’t make the cut for finals. His journey on the Tour ended as soon as it started.
Missing the cut on the Tour presents athletes with a crossroads. One choice involves training up and getting right back into the qualifiers. The other is a symbolic pump of the brakes. B opted for the latter, settling back into everyday life in Seattle and getting a job working as a bartender. When we spoke about his decision, he told me he “needed some time off.” The challenges associated with freeride competition, including hectic travel, immense pressure, and late nights, had become too much. Last season he skied three times, down from 80 days during his peak.
This isn’t a tragic story; it’s the opposite. It’s a story of shifting values and accepting life changes with open arms. A story that resonates with myself and the droves of other bright-eyed kids who thought they might be the next big ski star.
When a dream dies, you’re left with a void. Sure, it’s sad, but it’s also an opportunity, a blank page begging for a fresh start. A few years ago, I had a conversation with another college buddy. He’d pursued the dream to the very end, skiing multiple days a week throughout high school and college, hoping the work would pay off. In short, he’d given skiing everything he could. That morning, as we sat enjoying the sun during an excursion to Hood River, Ore., we discussed what skiing meant to us. He’d wondered, wistfully, “If I’m not giving it my all, is it worth skiing at all anymore?”
The question really stuck with me. I’ve come to understand that there are certain types of people who enjoy pushing themselves to the limit—the Strava addicts, the peak baggers, and the obsessive trick-learners among us. They know what makes them tick, and, to them, skiing isn’t worth it if it doesn’t have a clearly defined “point.”
Skiing doesn’t always have to have a “point,” though. Making mellow groomer laps is fulfilling, as is grilling brats in the lot with your friends. Obsession narrows your field of view. When you take a step backward, it’s clear that there’s more to skiing than seeking your limits. It’s a community, it’s new friendships, it’s quality time in the outdoors.
And then there are the lifelong friends. As you age, meeting and getting to know people becomes more challenging. Work, children, and other obligations clutter the relationships that once came quickly. Skiing’s a magic reset button. Pow turns make jaded 30-year-olds giggle like little kids and act as a bonding agent for new friendships. Meeting someone new and realizing that you share a common pastime never fails to excite.
I say none of this to dissuade those who toil to better themselves through skiing. If chasing that next remote peak or prepping for the upcoming round of Freeride World Qualifiers gets you pumped, go for it.
However, for skiers like me, who risked burning themselves out, racking their skis, and letting them collect dust on the garage hooks, know that you’re not alone. The goals don’t disappear, they evolve. These days I take pleasure in recalling the places I would never have visited had I given up on skiing earlier. Banff in the springtime, Kicking Horse in the dead of winter, and Whitefish after I graduated from college. Sharp peaks etched against the sunrise have burned themselves into my memory. And, as I not-to-patiently wait for another season to shred pow with my favorite people, that is enough.