Nothing prepares you for the moment when you are in the start house getting ready launch out of the gate for the second run, knowing you have a lead of at least a second over the second fastest guy in the first run. The race in question being the giant slalom of the 2018 Paralympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Every star and planet has aligned for me. My equipment is in order, the ski is perfect, and my body is strong and without pain. I no longer have anything to blame for failure except my ability to execute. The feeling is akin to the lone batter who, in the bottom of the ninth inning, bases loaded and with a full count, his team three runs down, needs nothing less than a home run.
My mind is another factor entirely. It is something I have spent a lifetime living with but have only the last few months trying, with the help of a sports psychologist, to truly understand. It feels chaotic and completely unable to focus. My coping mechanisms for the rush of anxiety, perfectly adequate for any other race, are no longer enough.
“What if I fail? Crazier still, what if I succeed? What is that going to be like? What will I say in the post-race interview with NBC? What if I make a goofy face on the podium and I end up as an internet meme?” These are all thoughts that are not helping me. They are distracting me from focusing on the task at hand, yet I can’t push them away. I’m twenty seconds from starting and I’m running out of options. Fighting these thoughts is now useless. They flood in because I am completely out of time. My outriggers find good purchase and I push out.
The first six gates are executed completely on auto-pilot and I barely remember anything about them. Approaching the seventh gate my attention starts to narrow. I start thinking about the turn, how I need my body situated, what muscles to flex and when. I see the eighth turn in my periphery, do a quick calculation, and execute the pressure phase of the turn exactly in the right spot. Suddenly I’m back in total focus. I remember how to do this. The rest of the run goes by in a flurry of quick calculations and executions, my brain performing thousands of calculations. I’m trying to go fast enough to win but not take so many chances as to make a mistake and throw the run away. Every turn needs a decision on the appropriate amount of pressure based on perceived snow quality and bumpiness. It would only take a tiny miscalculation to ruin this day. The finish line approaches and I know I am going to finish. There is no doubt in my mind that I have at least gone fast enough to podium. Maybe even to win.
The crowd is not as a loud as I expected. Something is wrong. Second. I’m in second. I miscalculated. Disappointment rushes over me. Then I think a bit more. I got second. I’m on the podium! I’m not riding in a helicopter, barely conscious, hoping my neck isn’t broken. I’m not many seconds out, trying to come to terms with a terrible run. I’m a Paralympic medalist. Oh my god. I can live with this. Everyone else is out here to win as well, after all. I go congratulate first place and hope to make it out of my interview unscathed.