Back in November, GreenSportsBlog interviewed cross country skier, purpose-driven marketer, and environmental advocate Erika Flowers-Newell as she was about to embark upon what would likely be her last attempt to qualify for a U.S. Olympic team.
Erika’s 2018 Olympic qualifying campaign came down to the U.S. Cross Country Ski National Championships in Anchorage, AK two weeks ago.
I planned to report on how Erika fared until I read “A Dream Endured,” her powerful post on her blog, Klister^ And Cookies: Living Life Out of Suitcase and Ski Bag, about her experience in Anchorage, and much more.
What a great read! Here is Erika’s post in its unedited entirety.
by Erika Flowers-Newell
The most common way to leave Alaska is under the cover of total darkness. The large majority of flights leaving Anchorage depart around midnight (in order to make connections in the Lower 48), an hour when most people are fast asleep. In the winter, this means your farewell can easily go unnoticed save for the flashing light of the plane that children sometimes confuse for a shooting star. As we departed Alaska last week, I was, for once, grateful for the long night.
Sunset in Anchorage (Photo credit: Erika Flowers-Newell)
I traveled to Alaska before the New Year with a single goal. Over four years ago I scribbled it at the top of my training plan. Since then, I’ve written it in the upper left hand corner of every single page in a half dozen journals I’ve carried with me at one point or another. I’ve drawn it at the top of goal pyramids and training plans and visualized it too many times to count. My goal was not to make the Olympics. My goal was to win the 10km skate at U.S. National Cross Country Ski Championships. I’ve never stood atop a Championship podium but even four years ago I believed I could. I LOVE the 10km skate, I’ve had success in it before and I knew that if I sunk all my teeth into that dream, I could make it happen.
Racing the 10km Skate at U.S Nationals (Photo credit: Erika Flowers-Newell)
Yes, I also really wanted to make the Olympic team, a dream I’d thought about since I first stood on skinny skis. I knew that if I could win that 10km skate at Nationals I would put myself in the running. But I also recognized that the Olympics are not the be-all end-all for skiing success-at the end of the day, its just another race (with a bit more press and free clothes). Instead, I planned to show up stronger, fitter and better prepared than I have ever been for U.S National Championships and I wanted to prove that to myself by winning the National Title. If I’m being 100 percent honest, I think a part of me also wanted to prove it to everyone else. A nod for the Olympics would have been the cherry on top.
Solo skate intervals this summer with an eye on U.S. Nationals (Photo credit: Erika Flowers-Newell)
Perhaps that burden of proof was my achilles heel. Over the years I’ve had coaches tell me I’m good at skiing, just not quite good enough. Others have dismissed my racing as fun hobby, feigning interest but never taking my aspirations seriously. On the flip side, I’ve had people like my mom, who told me “you can do anything you set your mind to.” I’ve also had the unquestioned support of many, both financially and otherwise, to help me pursue racing at the highest level. I wanted so badly to prove the doubters wrong, to show them that I can in fact be great at this sport. And I wanted to show my friends, family, sponsors and most importantly myself that I could, in fact, do anything I set my mind to. I wanted to prove my mom right.
One of my first “races” on skinny skis. It appears I may have taken a wrong turn. My mom would braid my hair before the races. At this point in my ski career I was psyched to just bring home a participation ribbon (Photo credit: Erika Flowers-Newell)
In short, I came up short. I finished 5th for Americans in the 10km skate — a good race but well over a minute from the top of the podium and a far cry from the race I’d visualized and prepared for. Over the next three races at U.S. Nationals I finished well, but again, not great… A mediocre skate sprint in 14th (11th American), a decent classic 20km in 10th (6th American), and a personal best but otherwise unremarkable 10th in the classic sprint (7th American). I finished the week deflated, like a helium balloon that had lost its lift.
Photo credit: James R. Evans
I don’t write this blog for sympathy and I don’t aim to tell a sob story — I just hope to tell a true story. While we often sugar coat the harder parts of this sport I *think* (or at least I hope) there is something to be gained by sharing a less curated version. Going into the last race of the week, a fellow athlete and I shared a brief exchange. I could see the same look of disappointment in her eyes. Muscles and mind exhausted after a long week of racing, she said aloud and, to know one in particular, “I’m just so tired of caring.” And in that moment I could relate. It is freakin’ exhausting to care that much about something! You invest your entire soul into something every single day, foregoing money, stability, a home and even people you love to devote your entire life to something you love. You live and breathe your sport, willing every cell in your body to go when you say go, to rest when you need to rest and refocus again and again and again and again. When it doesn’t work out, it hurts like hell.
Trying to find some perspective while cooling down after the races (Photo credit: Erika Flowers-Newell)
BUT! And there is a big “but” in there, I think that THAT might also be the most rewarding part of skiing and the part I hope never goes away. If you take away the Olympics and the Championships, the Junior Nationals and first place ribbons, anyone who does this sport, especially at the elite level, must truly love it. To care about something that deeply and to pursue it with that much passion is worth gold. It’s also the thing that scares me the most about life after skiing. I don’t fear the end of my race career. I fear never finding another thing that I care about so damn much. People say ski racing is like a roller coaster whereas real life is more like a merry-go-round. On a roller coaster, the highs are higher and the lows are lower. As much as those lows really suck sometimes, I’ve still always liked the thrill of the coaster the most. To dream big is to endure both the wild successes and the trying failures along the way and to come out the other side richer for both.
Lucky to have my sister and dad in Anchorage to cheer me on! (Photo credit: Erika Flowers-Newell)
They completely surprised me, showing up unexpectedly and dressed as narwhals! (Photo credit: Erika Flowers-Newell)
Squished against the airplane window among fellow economy class passengers, I was grateful for the dimmed cabin lights as we departed Anchorage. I needed a few moments of darkness to clear the saltwater from my cheeks. I took stock of the last year, the last four years, the last ten…wondering what I might have done differently, what I may have missed in training or otherwise. I racked my brain reviewing the back-to-back uphill run tests in the heat of August, the strength sessions that left me curled up in a ball on the floor, the post-workout snacks and dry clothes that I diligently packed for every workout, the exercises with mental strength coaches and planning meetings with ski coaches, the on-snow camps, the lactate testing and hill bounding and double pole pain trains. Soon the yellow glow of Anchorage disappeared from view and my window showed only the small blinking light of the airplane wing. It looked nothing like a shooting star up close. Still, I’m glad I wished on one as a kid.
Not the Path to Pyeongchang I’d hoped for…but beautiful nonetheless (Photo credit: Erika Flowers-Newell)
^ According to Dictionary.com, klister is a sticky wax for use on skis. According to Erika Flowers-Newell, it is also shorthand for “struggle”