(Part 1 of my conversation with Pamela Meyer about ski racing at the age of 55 was published on Wednesday).
When I started talking to my friend Pamela about skiing, she was wearing a sweatshirt from her NASTAR championship week, and she showed me her medals. “I’m just sitting here geeking out about the whole thing,” she laughed. I started to understand how racing isn’t a thing that she does, but part of who she is, and who she’s becoming.
The two of us talk a lot about the things that can go haywire in our bodies as we get older. P has had a couple of cancer scares, and has had to have rehab on her knee to keep skiing. It would have been really easy for her to ease into her 50s on a base of yoga and vigorous walking — the “invitation to chill” that our culture gives us, as she put it. But because of racing, she’s more present to the strength of her body than she ever has been.
“I feel more in collaboration with my body,” she reflected. “I have truly struggled through mid-life, through peri-menopause and post-menopause — the extra 10 pounds that may be moving around but it’s not going away. I’ve gotten caught up in the whole western civ body image frustration. Racing and doing well has given me the perspective of what am I complaining about, this is a great body, I’m healthy, I am getting to do the things I love well.
“I realized I have a uniquely good body for skiing – if I were thinner I might not have the same centre of gravity. At first I was really self-conscious about pouring myself into the speedsuit. But after racing — I realize, I don’t look so bad. There are some areas I wouldn’t mind photoshopping, but this community — it’s people of all shapes and sizes. We’re all out here being willing to shimmy into our suits. It’s given me a love of our foibles and humanity, made me cut myself some slack, appreciate myself more than criticize myself.
“That’s our socialization – we’ve been totally hoodwinked into battling our bodies. It’s not helpful! In my work with organizations I take such a strength-based approach, but with myself, all I want to do is focus on deficits. Racing has helped me revel in my strength.”
We talked about how being in your body and its strength is about making choices and being intentional — and it’s also closely intertwined with decisions about who we want to be as we age.
“To be an athlete at mid-life requires being more mindful,” said P. “I take a very phenomenological approach to exercising and racing. I have to be in my body, I have to pay way more attention to my form. I take boot camp classes and I’ll sometimes go slower than the rest of the 20 – 30 somethings, really pay attention, make sure I’m not landing funny on my knee. The things I could get away with in my 20s, 30s, 40s – I can’t get away with now. You can’t be an athlete or an active person without being in your body all the time – even standing. I have to work on my postures, remember to engage specific muscles.
Racing keeps P motivated to stay fit all year around. “I was back at the gym two days after winning the gold medal. I pay tons of attention to what I eat. It’s about making conscious choices overall. It’s not super-strict but I have a lane that I try to stay in. The alternative is incremental decline – it’s the lobster in the pot thing – if you’re mindless, then you keep rationalizing poor choices, as opposed to making conscious choices.”
P had a concussion at the end of last season, as well as some issues with her knee. I asked why that didn’t make her rethink racing.
“The concussion seemed like a bit of a fluke. Because it was at the end of the season, it wasn’t a disruption from skiing. I focused on the recovery. I learned everything I could about from concussions. I know people who’ve had all kinds of injuries who come back, and I know some who haven’t. I’ve chosen to pay attention to the people who come back.
“If you ride the chairlift enough on your own you hear all the stories from the over 50 crowd — like the racer who says ‘I just had this hip replaced.’ It’s just expected that stuff will start to break down and you’ll do whatever you need to do to get back in action and you’ll just be joining everyone else. I was at a racing camp where the oldest person was 77, this guy Jimmy, who said, ‘you stop skiing, you’re dead.’
“Once you decide you shouldn’t be skiing anymore, then you think of all the other things you shouldn’t be doing. And there is always risk. I had another conversation with a woman who said ‘I stopped skiing because I decided it was too dangerous, I stayed home and slipped on some black ice in the driveway.’ Someone else I know slipped loading her dishwasher and blew out her ACL. Shit happens if you’re flying down the mountain or loading the dishwasher. I’d rather get hurt having an interesting life than loading the dishwasher!”
Starting to think of herself as an athlete in her 50s has also shifted how she negotiates the world. “Now I seem to interact with the people who construct me as a serious competitive person — who don’t treat me as a dabbling middle aged lady . Whether it’s people in the ski shop, health providers, physiotherapists — people who take me seriously as a racer. I think that’s crucial. First, I have to take myself seriously. I have to seek out and co-create that identity in many communities . I’ve moved past treating this part of myself in a little bit of a joking way — now it’s just what I do — I love it – I’m not apologizing or making it a goof thing – it’s another part of my life and who I am.”
The most powerful impression I was left with after our conversation was about how racing for Pamela is about living as fully as possible, flying in the face of fear.
“There’s this moment at the top of the course, in the starting gate. You’re trying to strategize, and there are so many variables, and there can be a lot of fear. And then it’s your turn, and you slip into the start gate, and the course director is at the top on the headset, and says ‘Course is clear, Racer ready, 3, 2, 1 GO.’
“I just LOVE that – that moment of Racer Ready, when in all of your being you have to be ready. it’s negotiating your preparation, your fear, your physicality. When they say “go” – you’re expected to be ready to go. I don’t care what noise has been in your head, you have to GO.
“We have so many metaphorical starting gates in our lives — moments where you have to GO whether or not you’re ready. It all crystalizes. I realize that if I can do this, I can speak in front of hundreds of people, I can negotiate all of the other burblings of fear in my life. I take this attitude of just go, there’s a point where you just can think about this anymore – go on the date, sign up for the class – just go.
“It’s like I remember a friend describing driving in India — realizing that you couldn’t wait your turn because there will never be a turn. You have to just go. Don’t wait for the perfect time where you don’t have a stomach ache, where you have no fear. I love that – it’s the best socialization ever. Take that attitude into anything and you’ll survive.”
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.