Learning to Faceplant with Grace, Part II

The things that pushed me into signing up for Ski Team were few, but persuasive. Naturally, the first was the social pressure from my classmates. I’ve always been more than a bit of an outsider when it came to my peer group and though I had pretty much convinced my self that I didn’t care and didn’t want to deal with the vicious circle that defined the high school hierarchical system, I must not have COMPLETELY convinced my self that, no, it didn’t matter what I did. I was never going to be “cool.” At my school, the cool kids were the sporty kids. There were exceptions, but they were darned few. Joining a school team was the best way to rack up cool points fast.

The second reason was my parents. Though they neither were terribly interested in sports either, they both feared that I was somehow missing out on an important part of what it meant to be a teenager. Thus far, they had let me amuse myself with the distractions of my choosing, but now, for whatever reason, they decided to dial up the pressure.

“You’d be great at it!”
“I’m not that good, Mom.”
“Sure you are. I bet you’d really enjoy it too. It would be fun!”
“I like skiing with Dad. I don’t really want to race.”
“He tells me that you’re really fast and very good. They could teach you how to ski like a pro! Don’t poo-poo it until you’ve tried it. I bet you’ll have a blast.”

Only after being assured that I didn’t have to keep doing it if I didn’t like it, did I concede and, reluctantly, sign up. The very act felt weird. Going into a classroom after school to rub shoulders with a bunch of kids I didn’t know and put my name down on a piece of paper that looked startlingly unofficial. Just a bit of lined paper with the words “Alpine Ski Team” at the top. After a quick greeting and pep talk from my now official coach, we wandered out into the hall and went home. It was still green and warm out since this was the beginning of the academic year. I had no idea what was going to happen from here on out.

What happened was the classic, “bait and switch.”

The guy who was supposed to be our coach was also one of the science teachers and well known for being the poster boy for the absent minded professor. He was very friendly, soft spoken, knew his subject… and was renowned as both oblivious and a pushover. My visions of simply going on school sanctioned and paid for ski trips melted away like snow on hot pavement very, very quickly.

On a fine, late summer day, I reported to the gymnasium after school with the rest of the team for our first meeting. There was our coach… and someone else. She was young, perhaps in her last twenties. She was short, maybe only five feet and a handful of inches and as we found out in the next few minutes, she was also, out new coach. The old, pushover whom I had been hearing about from my new social circle, had decided that he just didn’t have the time to do the ski team any more and that this lady here, was to be the replacement.

Her name was Coach Warhawk and she matched up with her name beautifully.

I wish I were making this up.

What happened next was some of the most gut wrenching, vomit inducing, and sweat wringing workouts I have ever endured. If I didn’t have a healthy aversion to excessive physical exercise before, she cured me completely.

We ran.
We did sit-ups.
We ran.
We did push-ups.
We ran.
We did relays.
We ran.
We did leaning exercises.
We ran.
We did crunches.
We ran.
We ran.
We barfed.
We kept on running.

It was… well… I can’t seem to get away from the word, “horrible.”

To be fair, by the time the snow started to mercifully fall, I was in the best shape I had ever been in my life. I’m not sure what kept me from quitting. I suppose because it seemed like such a waste to have gone through all that hell only to leave before my skis ever touched the mountain. I kept going to practice and she kept finding new ways to cause us physical discomfort. To day that my heart wasn’t in it is like saying that a victim on The Rack just wasn’t trying hard enough to stretch. All I wanted was out, but the chains wrought of teenage shame kept me firmly affixed to the table.

Finally, winter was upon us and we got to do what were signed up for. Ski!.. Sort of.

We lived a short drive from a variety of great skiing mountains and our coach had worked out a great deal with one of them. If we practiced there, we could ski for free! There is, however, always a catch. In this case, the catch was all about daylight, or the lack thereof. All practices would be held after the rest of the customers had gone home and the lifts were closed. Coach Warhawk saw this as a huge bonus. Not only did we get to practice hard without worry of other skiers, but we once we made our run, we had to then take off our skis, put them on our shoulders and run back up to the top of the slalom course. It was a practice and workout all in one!

Oddly enough… not what I had envisioned when I signed up.

My mother was right about something here. I was getting better at skiing. Much better. The other people on the team skied like suicidal lunatics with a speed fetish, which perhaps some of them were. The idea was to keep up with these crazy people on skis and I did my best. After all, we were going to be racing at some point here and the other team was likely to be populated by crazy speed junkies as well. I pushed harder and faster than I had ever done before. I wasn’t the best, far from it, but I was waaaaaay better than I was a year ago. I flew along on the ragged edge of control, trying to eek out jus a bit more speed in the vane hope of catching up to the front runners as the somehow slipped away in front of me.

At one point, many practices into the pre-season, I felt like I just might be good enough. I could hold my head up with the adenine junkies and claim to have truly tossed caution to the wind. I could ski like one of them. I had visions of even making the A list. The ski team’s starting lineup. I was getting into it! Then, I had a “moment.”

It was late in the evening and like usual, we were practicing at out after hours mountain. All the sane folks had gone home for the night. The lifts had stopped and the only thing running was our feet at they carried up to the top of the slalom run so we could fly down it as fast as humanly possible. We had been at it for some time and the route we took down the hill, winding between the flags had been scraped free of anything that could be called “snow.” It was glare ice. The only thing that kept you on track were the steel edges of the skis, which were practically sharp enough to shave with. At the bottom of the run was Coach Warhawk, lying on her belly with a stopwatch at the last flag. She was timing the runs and marking down the times. This was the data she would use to make her decisions about A lists and B lists. This was the make or break.

Time to push.

As I made it to the top and snapped into my ski bindings, I tried to psych my self up. I could do this! I ditched my jacket in favor of a tight fitting Lycra top and lined up. The course was poorly lit by far off flood lights that cast weird shadows across the undulating and scarred surface of the run. We had set up our flagged course on the edge of the trail so as not to be in the way of the other skiers, now long home and drinking hot coca and eating pizza. During the day, it made sense to have things crunched over to the side like this. Now, with the sun down, just making out the flags was getting tricky. Reading the terrain was just guess work.

One… two… three….Green light! GO! The little flags snapped by as I willed my self faster and faster, picking up speed and pushing through the course as hard as I could. SNAP! SNAP! SNAP! The flags went by and my edges carved deeply into the ice. Long shadows played over the run, making ridges and bumps hard to judge. I was going flat out. I was right out on the edge of my ability.

And that… is when I missed.

Last installment coming up.

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