Ski racing is a family to me, big and close-knit. Like any family, we disagree often, squabble periodically, and fight occasionally. Yet the ties that bind are strong: our passion for our sport, the joy in being in the mountains, the adrenaline rush of speed, the satisfaction of mastery, and, as the saying goes, the shared “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”
That is why a death in our family is so devastating and so painful; we feel that we’ve lost one of our parents, siblings, or children. It doesn’t matter whether we knew them personally, by name, or not at all. And, sadly, we have had two deaths in our family in the last month. First, the loss of the French veteran speed skier David Poisson in a downhill training crash at Nakiska, Canada, in November. By all accounts, Poisson was loved and respected by everyone in our ski racing family who knew him.
And then, much closer for me, the death of Max Burkhart, a 17-year-old German skier who was in his first year as a member of the Sugar Bowl Ski Team & Academy for which my daughters race, and I am on their Board of Trustees. I had only met Max twice, first when he interviewed for admission to SBA when I was the co-Acting Head for two months in the spring and then early this fall during parents’ weekend. I sensed immediately a passion and joy in him and knew that he would fit right in at SBA. Max had only been at the academy for a few months, but the word was that he blended in quickly and was well liked by all for his intelligence, determination, and good cheer.
Ski racing a sport that has its risks. The speed, the demands placed on the body, and the physical obstacles that present themselves put everyone who slides into the starting gate in harm’s way. It is rare for anyone in ski racing for any length of time to leave the sport unscathed. It seems as if broken bones and torn ACLs are simply a right of passage for any racer deeply committed to going down a mountain and around gates as fast as they can.
Despite those risks, racers rarely think about death. Yet, it is certainly not unheard of in our sport. In my 50 years in our sport, as the esteemed late Hank McKee described in an article in 2015, athletes in our sport die, if not frequently, at least with painful regularity. The deaths usually result from racers sustaining a traumatic injury from a crash (usually in a speed event) from which the best medical care could not help them to recover.
I’ve had many ski racers come to see me professionally because of a fear of injury. I’m either able to help them set their fears aside so they can pursue their ski racing dreams, or they realize that the risks aren’t worth it and choose another path in their lives. Ultimately, every racer must accept the risks and either choose or choose not to fling themselves down the hill at high speed.
Injuries are understandable, and they usually heal. Death is inexplicable and final.
I’ve never worked with or known a racer who feared death. Perhaps it’s the “arrogance of youth” that leads to the belief that young athletes are invincible (this feeling certainly fades as you get older). Maybe ski racers self select and only those with the innate and learned courage to face the challenges and risks remain in our sport. Regardless, the concern for death rarely crosses the border of our ski racing psyches. Except when death forces us to look hard at it and make a decision about whether to fight or flee. The pain of David and Max’s deaths has certainly raised that specter in the young racers I’ve talked to in the last few days. Yet, I have not heard one of them say, “Enough. It’s not worth it.”
And since their deaths, racers from entry-level FIS to the World Cup continue to wake up on race-day morning and confront the challenges that lie ahead. They continue to slide into the starting gate, look those dangers in the eye, and then proceed to throw caution to the wind and hurl themselves down the mountain. These racers are somehow able to ignore the dangers, compartmentalize them, or rationalize them away (“It was a freak accident. It couldn’t happen to me.”). The mind is a powerful instrument and we have the ability, through cognitive bias, self-deception, and just plain willful ignorance, to put out of our minds that which conflicts with our most basic wants and goals. Simply put, they are able to just accept that, in ski racing, “S&%# happens, but it probably won’t happen to me.” I admire them for their youthful courage and for their ability to not get overwhelmed by the fragility in life.
That is not so easy for the “grown-ups in the room;” the coaches who are responsible for the health and safety of the ski racers and their parents who love them dearly and who can feel helpless and afraid as they watch their children race down the mountain. Having spent more years on this planet and having gained the experience and wisdom and, yes, pain, that comes with age, we adults are much more acutely aware of our own mortality, that of those most dear to us, and the capriciousness of life.
Over the past few days, I have been sure to give my daughters extra hugs, kisses, and “I love yous” (I must confess that I haven’t told them about Max’s death yet). And I have certainly asked myself whether I want my daughters to continue ski racing. My wife, Sarah, who was not a ski racer, asked me the same thing. Oddly, probably not unlike ski racers themselves (once a ski racer, always a ski racer?), I too go through a variety of psychological and emotional gymnastics to justify to myself and to Sarah why they should keep racing. I suggest that, statistically speaking, there are far more dangers in their every day lives than there is in ski racing. It is more risky to drive to the mountains than it is to ski race. I argue that the benefits of ski racing far outweigh the risks. And, as I’m sure every parent can attest, how can we not support our kids’ passions and determination to the fullest extent possible. Though, admittedly, I may draw the line at downhill!
Perhaps this remarkable ability to accept the dangers and focus on the benefits of ski racing comes from our implicit sense that to surrender to fear, even of something as catastrophic and final as death, is to surrender to life and all that it has to offer. Because maybe a life without risk is really just a living death and it’s much better to live life to its fullest and accept the possibility of death than to live a life that is void of, well, life and to not experience the wide range of feelings that, in my view, makes life worth living, whether excitement, pride, inspiration, and joy or anger, frustration, sadness, or hurt.
Whenever we are confronted by death of any sort, we humans have a tremendous capacity to ignore it. Why? Perhaps it is hard wired into us through evolution to ensure our survival. Or maybe, and I’m going to go all Descarte here, it’s comes from our very human ability to think, reason, reflect, analyze, and explain that provides us with the capacity to be philosophical about how we deal with life and death. And that enables us to keep not only soldiering on through life, but actually embracing all that it has to offer, both in happiness and sorrow.
All I know right now is that I will allow myself to grieve for that part of myself that died with Max, for the Burkhart family, for my Sugar Bowl family, and for our big and wonderful ski racing family. Then, I will get into our trusty Highlander with my family, drive up to Donner Summit, and, upon arrival, revel in the greatest pleasure that my life offers me as a husband, father, and former ski racer, namely, living the ski racing life with those I love the most.
I hope everyone of you who is a member of this incredible, worldwide ski racing family will find your own way to grieve for Max in his death and to honor him in the life he led and in the dreams he pursued.