I’d never felt such cold, balancing on my skis in the starting gate, dressed only in a thin racing jacket and stretch pants, shivering, waiting. I cringed at the lack of snow on the mountain race-course. I wondered how the Eastern Ski Association could make me—us—practice for the downhill championships with so many stumps mushrooming from the icy trail? At this moment, all I wished for was my feather comforter over my head instead of my silver crash helmet, a fiberglass bucket that afforded little protection from the 10 degree February morning here on Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine.
“Lia, I’ll ski first. I know you’ll be slower,” said Damien, taunting me with his devilish grin, his Colgate-white teeth, his cheeks growing frost-feathers on his teenage fuzz. Seeing my expression, he became serious, “You look a little scared.” He paused and closed his eyes. “Remember, courage isn’t the absence of fear—it’s doing your best despite it.”
I laughed, “Ha! Speak for yourself. You look like a snowman.” Trying to reassure myself, I continued, “Watch out or I’ll catch you on the first fall-away turn, just above the birch grove.” He turned toward the course, so I yelled again to his hunched back,“Don’t forget your pre-jump. Remember Marsha is ahead of you.”
The wind muffled my words as it blew the inch of powder away from the makeshift starting gate. Damien poled out of the start, his skis rattling on the boiler-plate ice. When he hit the first turn, his skis scratched the crust, creating a sound like fingernails scraping a chalkboard. He tried to skate in order to pick up speed for the first artificial bump. He looked like a baby bird attempting its first flight, arms and legs askew. Then, silence.
I counted to thirty in order to give him a lead, in case he had trouble. A blast of loose snow delayed my leap out of the gate. On course, I hit a tuck, head to knees in a perfect aerodynamic egg position, to get speed for the bump. The bump came sooner than I expected, indicating the course was faster than before. Three gates down, I had to start my turn for the fall-away gate much earlier than I had planned. As I set my edge on the dusting of wind-blown snow, I saw a track below me, headed for the woods.
Out from the woods ran my friend, Marsha, frantically waving her arms as if she were a policewoman trying to stop cars. She struggled for balance in her effort to stop me. “Come quickly, Damien tried to pass me, lost control and went into the birches,” she screamed, trying to be heard over the moaning wind.
I threw my skis sideways, clicked out of my bindings, and ran toward the largest birch tree. Pressed against the white bark, Damien’s head tilted at a right angle. Unmoving, he resembled a chickadee lying in the snow, neck broken, after flying into a window. When I knelt by his head, I saw a red spot on the snow. His ski helmet dangled from his face. His skull was split open. I tried to brush away the trickle of blood flowing across his check. Unseeing, his dilated, blue eye stared at me. In my stupor, I barely heard Marsha yell, “Go for help. I’ll stay with him.” She pushed me away crying, “Oh my God!”
I ran back to my skis, struggling to find them through my tears. In a daze, I skied the rest of the course, standing up, missing most of the control gates. At the finish line, I saw my father, Stan, and yelled to him, “Send help up to gate 4. Damien went off course.” I waved uncontrollably up the hill. News about Damien’s death spread quickly after the directors closed the course and canceled the downhill race. Not one of the junior skiers wanted to race again, yet the coaches demanded some sort of result in order to pick the team for the up-coming Junior Nationals in March. For this reason, the race officials reorganized the downhill race into a slower giant slalom to be held the next day.
I knew that in order to make the team, I needed to have a solid result to complement my third in the slalom two days before, yet my heart cried out at the injustice of having to race when I only wanted to stay in bed and think about my friend, Damien. On the other hand, I also knew that he would want me to race—not to give up on our dream.
Years before, Damien and I had made a pact: for three winters we had worked to make the team to Junior Nationals. Although he was from a town in New Hampshire, every weekend from December to April, he would travel north to my Vermont hometown and practice with me. We would borrow slalom poles from the ski patrol at Mad River Glen ski area and set up short courses. For fast downhill training, we would get to the mountain early, before the recreational skiers, and practice tucking the intermediate trail called the Porcupine. We both agreed that if we worked harder than the pampered racers in organized programs, we could achieve our dreams of being on the US Ski Team and, just maybe, the Olympic Team of 1972.
He was my first boyfriend.
Now one day after Damien’s death, once again I stood in the starting gate. I caught the eyes of the head race-official, John Boast, who stood below me, his thick, dirty-blonde hair, tanned face, and powder-blue parka making him look like a model from SKI Magazine. He was the one who had demanded that the race be held, because ambitiously he wanted to coach the Junior National Team headed for Montana.
My anger at him caused my breath to quicken. I looked down to make sure my boots weren’t touching the electric wand across the start. I extended my poles over the trip rod. My adrenaline made me forget everything as I stood charged, ready to fly. “Racer ready,” yelled the starter. I jiggled my goggles to clear the fog off the lens and looked down again. That’s when I saw it on my blue stretch pants—a dried, white crust from Damien’s brain. “Five, four, three, two … ” I bent low, my heart jumped. “One … ” I drove my poles outward, kicked my boots back, launched my body over the baton, as every one hundredth of a second counted. “Go.” My body sprang off the pad before my boots tripped the wand.
On course, I had to ski a perfect race for both of us. I took a deep breath as I pushed out into the line of red and blue flags. I was in a trance, my skis dancing left to right, slicing the icy track, my knees pulsating, my weight driving forward to each gate, my knuckles knocking the giant slalom poles aside. I felt as if a fresh wind were pushing me on. Now I understood—yes, ski racing would still be my life. This dance with the snow and the challenge of the gates transported me into a zone beyond words, into a world of light, texture, and balance.
The wind-snapping flags led me down the course like Buddhist prayer banners, just like the ones my mother used to fly in our yard—my mother, who also had died.