Between the Skis

Originally Published in Tuesday News March 7, 2017
The VMS Telemark Team recently visited Grand Targhee where they participated in a big mountain telemark competition with more than 60 other students from schools in Colorado and California. Two students had podium finishes, but according to Ms. Sideli, who is one of the team’s coaches, the trip also yielded important life lessons. Ms. Sideli’s reflection, which appears below, shows that, in addition to the rewards of competition, our team sports are often vehicles for transformative experiences and personal growth.

“I have a vivid memory of the day I learned that no two snowflakes on this earth are identical. Like many kids, I became engulfed with the task of proving this fact wrong. I studied snowflakes on the chairlift during every storm, and grew excited every time I thought I found two that were identical, just to have them quickly melt on my mittens before I could show anyone. I shared my curiosity for this science fact with every stranger on the chairlift who was willing to listen to me.

As an educator, I am consistently reminded that like snowflakes, every child I interact with has his or her own unique qualities. Our tele team is made up of young adults with a variety of interests and personality traits. Similar to the fleeting snowflakes on my mittens, so too is the time that they will be in high school, bouncing around in the atmosphere with other snowflakes who each have a chemistry that is different from their own.

Each young adult that I spent the last four days with, made up an important grain of snow in our team unit. Separate, they were nine individuals competing in a big mountain event, but together the nine of them were united as a team, with one thing in common, a love for the sport of skiing.

It goes without saying that one of the highlights of the trip was the skiing. We lucked out with incredible weather and fresh snow on our first day at Grand Targhee. Following that, we skied the steeps off the tram at Jackson Hole and enjoyed another sunny day in the Tetons. But there was more to this trip than just skiing….

The moments that will stick with me are beyond the waist deep pow turns. They occurred when a member of our team shared water with a new friend at the top of the bootpack, or side slipped down Corbett’s couloir to return a yard sale of equipment to a woman who had clearly gotten herself in over her head. This trip was about the team unit. Challenging each other, learning from each other, living in close quarters with each other, and practicing kindness everyday with each other and the other teams we shared a space within the Teton Teepee.  Individually, it may have been fun to compete, but together we were capable of more. Teammates discussed line inspections together, picked each other up when they heard self-limiting thoughts about hiking, or reminded each other that everyone is capable of pushing through soreness and physical exhaustion if we focus on our mental strength.

During the finals of the comp, we had two boys and two girls left to compete when everything came to an abrupt halt. An athlete on the CRMS team fell into a rocky area and took a direct blow to his lower back. We sat at the top of the course, our stomachs flipping upside down, as we watched ski patrol lower a sled on a belay device down the cornice to reach the athlete. Our four athletes sat in anticipation, fighting the temptation to second-guess their line choice. They dug deep to ignore negative thoughts and instead found the courage to be ready for their runs, knowing they had prepared for this all season. Later that afternoon we learned that the injured skier was going into surgery. That night at the teepee, we scraped together supplies to each wrote him a get-well card. It wasn’t easy to find the words to explain how sorry we were for his injury. In that moment, we felt connected to someone who was a complete stranger just two days prior. These moments when each person on our team had to put aside his or her own individual needs for the greater good of another, are the moments I will remember. This is the ultimate expression of empathy that as a coach and educator, I hope all of my students and athletes will embody.

On our last morning we drove to a viewpoint in Grand Teton National Park for one last look at the majestic mountains. In our final reflections as a team we revisited what it means to feel invincible and that no one in the world has this benefit. Looking up at the Tetons, it’s hard not to feel like an insignificant creature, but the paradox was that we simultaneously felt stronger in the presence of each other and having shared the experiences of the last four days as a team.

In these uncertain times in our world, the Teton Teepee is a microcosm of what’s still right in the world. A space in which strangers become friends, meals are shared with loved ones and teammates, and the tranquility of the fireplace brings a peace that is often lost in the chaos of our everyday lives. The combination of being present in this space, and competing in an athletic event, is what made this trip so unique. As a coach, I love sports for the chance to teach athletes that they have an opportunity everyday to be better than who they were the day before. On this trip, I’m certain every athlete had a chance to experience this for him or herself, whether that was standing on top of a 10-foot cornice and navigating their way to the bottom of a run, or finding the patience to be kind to someone when they were physically and mentally exhausted.

While we may have come for the “sunshine and powder” that Grand Targhee is famous for, we left with a shared experience that reaches deeper than your typical quest for fresh turns.
While we did take home some pretty impressive results, beyond the hardware, this was a trip about life lessons. Our students experienced first hand that physical exhaustion can be overcome with mental strength and that they are all capable of more than they thought. They learned to squash self limiting thoughts and to focus on positivity. And most importantly, they remained kind and helpful even at the end of a 10 hour van ride! Oh and they also got to ski some awesome steeps and deep pow!”

>> PHOTOS: VMS Tele’s Grand Targhee
>> RESULTS: Telemark