Sierra Schlag Skis for the Joy of It
Losing her dad on 9/11 led to years of struggle. Then the skier reconnected with the happiness he’d given her by hauling ass down a mountain.
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Sierra Schlag shared her story with producer Paddy O’Connell for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It was edited for length and clarity.
Losing a dad on 9/11 is a very unique experience, because I have this personal loss. But the entire country experienced this loss, and the entire country watched it happen on television. There are all these adults coming up to you and telling you how sorry they are for you, and that there are people fighting wars for you. It’s all just a lot. That was my reality.
Skiing is something that my dad taught me in our driveway when I was two, and it’s remained this constant in my life that I can connect with my dad through.
Everyone just calls me Schlag. I live in Carbondale, Colorado now. I was born in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, but moved to Park City and grew up there. I’m a skier and biker, so I spend a lot of time doing that, but honestly love any outdoor activity. I manage Evo social media for my job. So, I know a thing or two about social media.
I think my passion is intertwined with my identity. I’m super passionate about skiing. It’s the thing I think about every single day, every single hour probably. It’s the one thing in my life that brought me so much joy and reminded me that there’s joy in life. That in the end, it’s going to be okay, but it’s also okay to have these intense emotional feelings towards what had happened to me.
On September 11th, 2001, my dad came in and kissed us all on the forehead like he did every morning before starting his commute. He took the train from New Jersey to New York City and made his way to the 105th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center.
We were all in school, but my mom told us that we were having a playdate with another family. Mrs. Zucker picked us up from school. We went over to her house and we did our homework, but she wouldn’t let us watch TV. Eventually, she brought us back to our house and the whole block was covered in cars.
My birthday is six days after 9/11. So I thought, Oh, maybe we’re having an early birthday party for me. We ran down the driveway and went into our backyard, and I remember making eye contact with my grandpa, and his eyes were just full of tears. We were shuffled into our house and the TV was on. I remember seeing the Twin Towers, but not really registering. Because I’d been there, I’d been in my dad’s work building before. My mom sat us down and she said, “There’s been a pretty big accident and planes flew into daddy’s work building today. And we don’t know if he’s okay or if he’s alive.”
I was five, so I didn’t really understand what was going on. I saw my older brother, who was 10, crying, so I just instinctively started crying because I thought that was what was expected of me. The aftermath of that was just a huge blur. We didn’t have answers for a really long time, and my mom had to go to New York City a lot to try and identify my dad’s body. It was just a lot of not really knowing if my dad was still alive or not, until we got that confirmation a couple months after.
My mom’s from Japan. Growing up in a Japanese-American household we’re not very emotional and we weren’t talking about it a lot. For probably 10 years, I didn’t speak about my dad with anyone, and my family didn’t share it with anyone. That is not very healthy.
We were the 9/11 family. So my mom moved us to Park City, and we got to have this blank slate in a community that didn’t know our story. Which also allowed us to repress a little bit of our emotion.
I got into high school and wasn’t processing it and wasn’t talking about it. It became pretty evident that I was carrying very heavy grief and heavy trauma, and that was layered with being a 16-year-old, being angsty and feeling misunderstood. I became super depressed. I was going to therapy at that time for the first time, and I was talking about my dad’s death for the first time ever. That’s when I was diagnosed with clinical depression.
I felt like I had succumbed to this grief and this tragedy that had happened, and I wasn’t strong because I was depressed. I thought about dying a lot because I felt like I was never going to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I think what’s helped the most in trying to manage my grief is obviously doing a lot of therapy. I thank my therapist a lot, because she’s making me understand that my trauma and what I’ve been through is not a burden to people. But in turn, I think being able to spend time outside and heal in nature was also a saving grace of mine.
It was in my depressive episode in high school, kind of rock bottom, when I turned to skiing. We were at Park City Mountain Resort. I remember skiing down the run with all of my friends, skiing fast, and having this joy in the community around me. It was like a switch flipped for me. I remembered that there’s so much joy in this life, and skiing is that joy. That my dad taught me to do it, and there’s a way to connect all these pieces, and I’m not going to be depressed and sad or victimized by this grief forever.
I feel my dad’s presence the most when I’m skiing when I’m hauling ass down a run with all my best friends. When you’re going fast, and you look to your left and your right, and you see your best friends, with shit-eating grins on their faces. That’s when I feel so connected to my dad. This is what he would’ve wanted me to be doing.
One piece of advice I’d give is to be slow. Go slow with yourself. Go to therapy, because it might be scary, but it’s totally worth it and it’ll make your life so much more enjoyable. You’ll be able to emotionally understand everything that you’re feeling. Healing is not linear, and giving yourself grace is so important when you’re working through hard things like this.
I have a really unique story, but the feelings I have experienced throughout my life are not. Everyone in the world has experienced some form of emotion that I have felt. Understanding that you’re not alone in those experiences is really, really important. It’s scary to bring them up to people, but people will be able to connect with you. Be slow with yourself.
Emotionally go slow. But skiing, go fast.
Sierra Schlag is a mountain human who is happiest on skis or holding a puppy. Her incredible journey is documented in the film Bloom, which you can watch the trailer for on YouTube. You can also follow Sierra on Instagram @_schlag_, and online at sierraschlag.com.
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