When my friend Pamela heard her name announced for a gold medal in a national US slalom race last month, she was overcome with joy. She’s 55. She decided to start skiing again when she was with a group of women celebrating her 50th birthday, and raced for the first time since she was a teenager 2 years ago. Now she’s on the podium for the NASTAR championships.
Pamela is one of those people who can put her head down and accomplish anything she sets out to do, creating three books and a successful consulting and teaching life since she finished her PhD 10 years ago. She’s always been fit, but what she describes as a “leisurely exerciser,” with lots of walking, spin classes, weight training and riding her bike on Sundays with her wife along a lakeshore bike path. She certainly wasn’t racing — and then suddenly, in her 50s, was hurling herself down sheer ice on a black diamond run in Colorado, through giant slalom gates — and winning.
One of our recurring friend conversations is our relationships with our bodies as we’ve gotten older, and I’ve watched with awe and curiosity as P shifted from leisurely biking to “I like knowing I can keep up with the 30 year olds in boot camp class” to “I just spent a lot of money on a speed suit.” I asked her a few questions about this transformation — why racing, not just skiing, when you haven’t been a competitive athlete since you were a teenager? How do you handle the fear?
“Why racing, why not just skiing at 55?” she said. “I love skiing, I love everything about it — I love the equipment, I’m a total gear geek, I love packing, I love the research on the resort and studying the trail maps. It’s not just about the skiing, it’s about who you meet on the chairlift, talking about where you plan to go for dinner, hanging out in the hot tub . . . so many times I just stop in the middle of the run, and take in the vastness of the mountains, the cold, the sun.
“I get so invigorated from a week of skiing – it clears up any muck in my life, being out there in the mountains – even up at the little ski area where I race on the weekends outside of Chicago – it’s just a trash heap they put artificial show on – even that is invigorating. That’s skiing.
“Now racing… if skiing is the wide angle lens, then racing is absolute narrow focus. The level of preparation and precision is so much sharper to compete. You have to be able to turn where the gate is – it’s all strategy, tactics, skills. A lot of people can look pretty going down a wide open run — but can you ski on a course? I love going fast and it gives me an excuse to do it. When you ski fast recreationally, not only do you leave your friends behind but you can get your lift ticket revoked.
“Competing keeps me in an aspirational mindset. It pushes me to work out more. I watch a lot of pro world cup racing videos – I’m always thinking about ways I can improve, work on my technique, form. Women seem to be more coy about being competitive – like, we’re secretly paying attention to how we did. It’s not as socially acceptable to really care if you win.”
Now, I’m pretty adventurous with my physicality, but the idea of a vertical ice rink scares the crap out of me. Skiing, for me, is one of those things I don’t do because I’m afraid I’ll hurt myself and not be able to do the things I love, like cycling. I’ve been trying to understand how P handles that fear, especially after she had a concussion from a fall at the end of the season last year.
“For the championship, I really had to negotiate a whole new level of fear — it was a steeper course than I’d ever raced on. It’s water injected, and one that the US development teams use, so it’s meant to be icy so the course holds up and it’s very fast. It’s basically an ice rink.
“I’d never raced a black diamond in Colorado. The night before, I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking, I have no business doing this, I could be seriously hurt, have I deluded myself into a really stupid idea – if I really hurt myself, people would be kind but they wouldn’t have a lot of sympathy. It’s not like I’d be hurting myself feeding the poor in Afghanistan – I’d be hurting myself doing something of my own volition that was stupid for a middle aged lady to do – there’d be some sorrow but not really sympathy.” She laughed.
“The first morning of the championship, I had to put all of that out of my mind – I had to trust how much preparation I had done, had to think, I can totally do this. I strategized how to approach the trickier turns. I put the fear out of my mind. One of the things I talk about in my work about organizational agility is the idea of “anxious confidence” — you have to embrace this in the starting gate. You’re confident because you have the skills, experience, knowledge. But you’re also anxious because you have to deal with the unknown — a set plan is not going to work for you.
“You have strategy and tactics – it’s having a plan but holding that plan lightly. My first run, I took the advice of all of the race coaches to just go – don’t leave anything on the table. I got up some good speed, then hit a gate that was sheer ice, and I had a rather spectacular crash.
“It was my first run, total crash. I started to think, maybe I am in over my head. I wasn’t hurt but I was shaken. And you have to get up, ski down to the lift, get back up and get back in line, and race again so you qualify to continue the next day.
“Here’s what shifted the fear for me. After I wiped out we gathered just outside the finish area. Some of the women in my group who’d gone before me had wiped out in the same place. We started talking about ‘it’s steep, it’s icy, I went too fast.’ That little ad hoc group of women made a huge difference. Together we commiserated, regrouped, strategized and encouraged each other. We focused on ‘we just have to get through the next one.’
“On the second time down, we had already formed a few connections. We would cheer each other on as we slipped into the start gate, “okay Jane, go for it, ski fast – a little bit more, you go, you got this.” We started creating a holding space for each other. When you’re in a team that happens all season. For this race, without a team, we created it on the spot.
“The championships were a stretch experience, I knew I was up to the stretch, and the challenge became how do I manage my fear and uncertainty?”
Pamela ended up with a bronze in the giant slalom. And then two days later, raced in the slalom competition that she had no expectations for — and ended up with the gold.
“That gold was just giddiness and pure joy. There’s such camaraderie, the two women I shared the podium with, the crowd clapping – that moment was complete embodied joy and fun and realizing that it really was a result of an incredibly intentional year. Physical work, coaching, training, practicing. It’s so fun to be in a community of equally crazy people – to race at my age, you really have to work to find people in that tribe. And you see the people in their 70s and 80s who are still out there, who have every invitation from our culture and their peer group to chill out. It’s incredibly joyful.”
(This is Part 1 of my conversation with Pamela — on Friday Pamela will talk about how her relationship with her body has changed since she started racing).
Pamela Meyer is an author, educator and organizational consultant living joyfully in Chicago and skiing wherever she can. Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who works as a consultant and teacher in the space of strategic system change in academic healthcare in Toronto, focusing on creating sustainable, socially accountable healthcare communities. She also co-leads a learning and development project for orphaned and vulnerable youth in Uganda, and takes every chance she can to explore the world. She also blogs at fieldpoppy.wordpress.com.