The first time I tried to quit ski racing was on my first Europa Cup trip. That's traditionally the occasion when young Americans are thrown to the wolves to start 120th on European cow pastures covered with gravel and 3 inches of snow. In addition to humility, I learned a lot on that trip. For one thing, at around 35 degrees below zero, the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales are equal. I also learned about an FIS rule that at the time prohibited ski races on glaciers. Apparently the rule was intended to protect World Cup racers exclusively from freezing to death, because it was quickly waived so that our minor league show could go on. That was my introduction to what I then predicted would be a short international racing career. Soon I would also learn not to trust my predictions.
One morning on that trip, a teammate and I, both from California, were out before dawn for our "warm-up" jog, a misnomer considering the frigid temperature in Austria. We didn't speak until we reached a snowy expanse of pasture outside of Kaprun. Thinking back, I recall it as a beautiful moonlit scene, but at the time we didn't notice the serenity. I, for one, was preoccupied with one burning question. What the hell was I doing here? To be a post-high school-age American ski racer is to constantly question the legitimacy of your chosen career. While I was getting frostbite in exchange for unimpressive 30-something-place finishes, most of my friends were well ensconced in college. At that particular moment, college-in fact any institution-sounded a lot better than ski racing. I imagined myself somewhere in the southern reaches of my balmy home state, reading on a sunny lawn between classes. I finally pulled my collar down just enough to be audible and asked my friend, "What are you thinking about right now?" Her immediate answer: "San Diego State."
Neither of us quit at the end of that season, or the next or the next, though each year we contemplated it. In fact, the quitting urge became a January tradition, even as I moved steadily up the rankings. Long winter nights far from home invite introspection, and it's hard to rationalize skiing as a career. There's little money, less fame, no time for school or a social life and, as a downhiller, a high risk of injury nearly every day. What reeled me back every time was one thing-spring.
Spring showcases everything that's good about skiing-and skiers. The snow is deep, the days are long and warm, and all the hassles of the season are automatically erased from memory. More importantly, everyone seems a touch more relaxed, a tad friendlier and, I have to say, a whole lot better looking having a picnic on the rocks than huddled around a Styrofoam bowl of chili. The way we act in the spring isn't some crazy cathartic behavior. It's what skiers would be like all the time if it we weren't so freaking cold.
Admittedly, one of the very best lessons to learn from skiing is how to suck it up. That doesn't mean we have to enjoy the suffering. The fact that I am an unabashed cold-weather wimp stuns many people. "But you're an Olympic skier-that's ridiculous," they say. My answer to them is this: Each person is born with his or her own finite capacity to endure cold. If you use it all up when you're young, you're toast. Mine's nearly gone, so I have to use it judiciously. I can spend it on one day in January-or 10 in the spring.
As a recreational skier, the choice is clear. But even for ski racers, an entire season of mediocrity can be salvaged with a few good races in the spring. Spring is when awards and titles are dangled like carrots in front of racers to keep them running to the end. The bribery starts at the Junior Olympics, where youngsters get their first glimpse of their nationwide competition and a chance to catch the attention of a national team coach. That prospect-and the swag doled out like Scooby Snacks-is enough to keep kids hooked for another couple of years.
The stakes get higher at the Seenior Nationals. Winning a title comes with a sure spot on the national team as well as a nice check. After a season of battling on the World Cup, the payout seems to be a much better deal relative to the energy expended. That said, there is no better example of spring's rewards than at the World Cup Finals.
On the World Cup, spring brings a significant thaw in the Cold War of team rivalries. As the circuit strays from the Alps in March, the national team units dissolve into one big commune. Forced to travel as a group on tour buses in Japan, or live together on the same boat in Scandinavia, or abide by the slower Mediterranean rhythm in Spain, the team's barriers can't help but crumble. Athletes and coaches who snarled in the T-Bar line in December wish you luck and barter for uniforms in March.
Despite the mellower atmosphere, the competition actually gets better as more racers relax into their groove. The season that seemed to plod along interminably suddenly accelerates, and every race becomes precious, approached with a calmly focused sense of purpose. So even though you may see Tomba racing in nothing but shorts and a bib, as he did for his fans at the 1995 World Cup Finals in Bormio, Italy, you'll also see the best racing of the season. Just when things are getting really good, the racers are happy and fast, and enthusiastic fans are out in droves, it's time to say goodbye. And it's so sad that you just have to come back for another season.
That's how we get suckered back in. Whether you're racing or just gliding down a smooth cornfield, spring is so good that when November rolls around, with its flat light, excruciatingly low temperatures and edge-sparking "snowpack," we scamper excitedly in brick-hard boots to the trough.
Incidentally, my morning run companion and I, despite our San Diego fantasies, ended up at colleges in frosty mountain towns so we could keep racing all winter...for fun...nine years later.
Edie Thys raced in the '88 and '92 Winter Olympics, which she wishes had been held in the spring. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out her previous Racer eX columns at www.skimag.com.