Friday, January 31, 2014

How Skiing and Colorado Changed My Life

In December 1996, I went to Breckenridge, Colorado for my first ski vacation.  I was still in college, 21 years old, and a new bride (married in May of that year).  After retrieving our luggage from the airport, the in-laws, husband, and I made our way west toward the mountains.  I was surprised at how flat Aurora and the greater Denver area was!   Instead of a cozy alpine landscape ripe with majestic, snow-covered peaks; the terrain was a smooth prairie that was drab and brown due to winter's steely grip. However, as we drove further into the foothills past Denver, I caught my first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains through the 'Picture Frame Bridge' that straddled Interstate 70.  In this very moment, I knew instantly Colorado was a place of magic and wonder.

There is something about mountains, snow, and skiing that just stir my soul.  I feel alive, like I am capable of anything.  I think I can attribute these sentiments to my heritage.  My father was born and raised in northern Norway (Lofoten) where skiing and snow are part of daily life.  It snows in Lofoten for a majority of the year and for almost as long as there has been snow and people, skiing has played a huge role in Norwegian culture and history.

The above photo is my father, age 5 or 6 (circa 1945/46)

As my father used to say, "In Norway, if you can walk, you can ski."  Most children learn to ski at a very early age.  I, however, learned to ski at 13 in Norway.  I was there with my parents, visiting my father's side of the family for the the first time.  It was an amazing experience.  I loved meeting family members I had never met, learning to ski with my dad, eating my aunt's delicious food, and seeing the Northern Lights.  The entire trip brought out something in me that has stayed with me to this day.  This especially applies to my love of skiing.

During the first days I was learning to ski, kids my age and younger were flying down the mountain like Lindsay Vonn and Stein Eriksen.  Me?  Well, not only was I embarrassed by my lack of skills,  I looked like a cross between a newborn baby deer and the "agony of defeat guy" from the 80s ABC TV Show "Wide World of Sports."  I tried my best to master my skis and even though it took me a few weeks, I finally got the hang of it.  By the end of the visit, I was begging my dad to take me out to the mountains. I was hooked.

By the time I went to Breckenridge in '96, seven years had gone by since I strapped on a pair of skis.  The first day on the slopes, I was nervous.  Nervous? No, that is not the right word.  I was terrified.  That is it, "terrified."  Due to my shattered confidence, my husband suggested I take a ski lesson.  I begrudgingly agreed and the next day, I made my way to meet my instructor and fellow ski students. 

My instructor was a South American with a tall, lithe build.  His melodic accent was charming.  His tan face, weathered from sun, wind, and cold painted a stark contrast against the shock-white snow.  My heart was pounding and I felt like a teenager who just transferred to a new school and it was the first day of class. "But, I am not gonna know anybody!" 

The students were all adults, mostly couples.  None of them had skied before.  This made me feel better.  Not that I wanted to compete with anyone but the ski lessons with my dad were sure to come in handy.  As the day unfolded, I noticed the other students were falling down, skiing in a wedge (skis in a triangle pattern), their poles going in all directions, or going really slow.  One woman from Mexico City was saying in Spanish, "Make it stop! No! No! NO! I do not want to do thiiissssss!" 

The woman slid down the mountain, picking up speed, and like an out of control 18-wheeler with a blow-out going down a steep decline, she fell fast and hard.  YARD SALE! (This is what skiers say when we see ski equipment (skis/poles) scattered all over the hill).  I quickly skied down to her and then out of nowhere, I hockey-stopped (a quick parallel turn where your skis swoop together and you stop suddenly). I bent down to see if she was ok and she said she was fine but embarrassed and wanted to quit.  I felt bad for her.

As I was about to ski down to the rest of the group, I saw my instructor looking at me with a sly grin.  As I approached, he asked loudly, "Where did THAT come from?!"  I realized, "Oh wow! He's right. My dad taught me that. I have not done in years!"  I looked the instructor and said, "I have skied before but it has been seven years since my last time. Things are starting to come back to me now. Weird, huh?" He smiled and laughed, his white teeth sparkling with delight, "No! That is a gooooood thing! Awesome, duude! Awesome! Now, let's see what you can really do!"  

By the end of the day, I am telling you, I felt like I had skied every day since that first day in Norway.  Something unlocked in my body and mind.  My legs, my arms, and whole body found their rhythm.  I felt like I was born to  ski. 

After 1996, I did not ski again until 2005.  Unlike the first Colorado trip, I found myself with 25 extra pounds on my body.  My cardiovascular capacity was non-existent.  I was 29 years old, about to be 30 in a couple of months but I felt like I was 99.  Unlike the success of my '96 visit, this time around was awful, especially in the first days.  Every time I fell, my ski pants would pop open and I had to struggled to fasten them.  My heart thumped like it was pumping mud.  I was sweaty, tired, frustrated, and I felt fat.  Despite being able to "get my ski legs back" eventually, the '05 Breckenridge trip was an epic fail.  As I was packing my skis up the day before flying back to DC, I said "Forget it.  I am not doing this anymore."

When I turned 30, I experienced something I can only describe as life-changing.  I was 155 pounds, wore a size 12/14, my blood pressure was 150/90.  My doctor advised me to lose "at least 15 pounds" on at least two occasions.  For a while, I ignored her advice.  I avoided mirrors and every huff and puff I exerted walking up and down stairs was conveniently forgotten.  I ate McDonald's, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Ben and Jerry's every day.

But a month after 30, I woke up in my mother's house in tears.  It was Mother's Day and I knew, I was NOT fine.  I was sad.  I was unhealthy.  And dammit, I wanted to ski again!  I needed to ski again.  In that moment, in my pjs, I said, "This ends now."

The next day, Monday the 9th of May, 2005, I called my doctor and made an appointment.  My visit was in mid-June. I weighed in at 154.6.  I wanted to cry.  I thought, "How could I let things get like this and stay like this for so long?"  The nurse staff took two vials of blood and my doctor gave me a physical.  A week later, I received a call that my blood pressure was a bit high and my cholesterol was 198.  I was told to make another appointment for a follow up and to create a "game plan"  for my health.  In July, my doctor gave me a diet and exercise plan.  I was also instructed to keep a daily journal to keep track of my food, workouts, and progress.  It was hard at first and I felt like screaming many times. I  wanted to eat pizza and New York Super Fudge Chunk! Forget this hummus and celery junk!"

In December of 2005, I had my final weigh-in.  I was 122 pounds!  I wanted to pass out!  I did it!!!  I felt incredible.  I knew that when February of 2006 came (time for the annual ski trip), I would be so ready!

A few days before my ski venture, I tried on my previous year's ski clothes.  I was practically drowning in them.  They were huge!  I went to the local ski shop, Ski Chalet, to buy new gear but all I could find in my size (size 4/6 in ski wear, not street wear), were ski pants.  I had to borrow a ski jacket from my sister.  It fit beautifully.  Within days, I was back in Colorado and I was so happy.  My spirit felt lifted.  My heart fluttered with joy as my strong lungs breathed in the crisp, clean, cold mountain air.  This was pure bliss.  I was where I wanted to be and where I NEEDED to be.

I made my way over to the Beaverun Quicksilver chair lift and got on.  My new body felt light, yet powerful.  The lift gently glided me over the pearly slopes, glistening with fresh hope and promise.  The moment my ski tips touched the snow-covered ground as I pushed away from the chair, I let out a loud "Whooooo!" A few people looked over at me.  Oh well, they can stare, I didn't care. I felt good!

I skied down ski runs with ease.  I felt like I was flying.  Runs and turns that were difficult to navigate the previous year were now a cake walk.  As I returned to the lift at the base of Peak 9, I hockey-stopped my skis and the lift attendant scanned my lift ticket.  I could not stop smiling.  The attendant asked, "Having a good day?" I replied, "You know it, dude!" I got back on the lift and thought, "I am home."

It is my father's love of skiing that introduced me to the sport and thus, Colorado.  Further, it was my love of skiing and Colorado that made me the healthier and stronger woman I am today.  So, with that said, I say "I am thankful, I am grateful. Daddy, Colorado, I love you. You are both my most precious treasures."