For four months now, I’ve been doing my floor exercises. I groan a lot as I work to strengthen the new hip. To spare Ellen I usually put on some loud guitar music. Joe Satriani is good. I balance and arch and pull against the stretchy thera-bands. And I wonder, will I ever be able to ski again?
In addition, for the last month or so, I’ve been visualizing, reading about and watching video of the World Cup racers. They just finished their North American swing, with the women running speed events up in Lake Louise while the men were in Beaver Creek.
It’s true that what these racers do in a course is largely unrelated to the skiing I might do in the future, or was ever capable of doing. But they are our gods and goddesses. Models of Lycra-clad body position and ski edges carving perfect arcs on marble-hard snow.
There was one still shot of Aksel Lund Svindal, the young Norwegian who won two races in Beaver Creek. Despite the terrific speed his eyes gaze calmly down the hill. His hands are stationed comfortably in front, as if he were holding an open book. His bones are stacked in a muscular yet relaxed heap to the inside of his arc. And his skis – so perfectly weighted – appear to be slicing something as soft as soap.
I had another image in my head. This one was sent to me by friends who took Stu Campbell out for the day at Stowe, Vt., last April. Stu was the instruction editor at Ski Magazine for 33 years, a wry and generous New Englander who had friends everywhere in the ski business. Stu had been fighting cancer for years, and by April he could barely walk. But he could ski, as the photo attests. The legs look skinny inside his wind pants, but the skis are bent into sweet crescents, and there’s a grin peeking out above a high collar.
My doctors and physical therapists would not say when they thought I might be ready to ski. When I mentioned to one of them that Telluride was reporting pretty good conditions and I was thinking about giving it a try, his brow furrowed, and he worried aloud about the myriad ways I might tweak my new part.
There are prohibitions against bending more than 90 degrees, pivoting violently, or letting that leg cross the body’s centerline. Permanent, rest-of-your-life kinds of rules. Take it easy, the doc said. Give it some mileage before you venture into the powder. Dislocation is the big fear. It’s rare, but it’s debilitating and painful and requires surgery to fix.
I couldn’t even think about how awful that would be. After the drama of surgery, and all the rehab. But something said it was time, time to find out. Would it hurt? Would it feel weak? Would it support me? I tried to forget the quote I’d read from Canadian Erik Guay, who said after finishing third at the Beaver Creek downhill: “You’ve got to be on it the whole way down. You make a little mistake and it goes bad so fast.”
First-day first-run butterflies are part of the deal every season, new hip or not. From the lift I listened to the roar of the snowmaking guns. I watched ski-cross athletes training on their bumpy obstacle course below, so obviously comfortable on their skis already.
This was the day after the ribbon cutting on brand-new Revelation Bowl, and I knew the locals would be tearing it up up there. I buckled my boots and started down Village Bypass, the greenest of the lower mountain greens.
The skis did what they are supposed to do, curve when tipped on edge, skid sideways when flattened to the fall line. The hip felt solid. It took a while, but I did manage to connect with the two best mantras I know for reclaiming the feeling: stand on your feet, and go down the hill. They sound simplistic, self-evident, moronic even. But their truth is deep and absolutely key to making it all work, to unlocking a smile like the one Stu Campbell sported.
Stu died the week before this, on Dec. 4. I made runs on the groomed slopes below lifts Four and Five and See Forever from the top of the mountain at just under 12,000 feet. The turns got better and smoother and freer, and I made a few for Stu. Brothers in muscle memory, even when there are no muscles.
Perfection was not on the table. But glimpses of it were. That’s the beauty. I thought again of Aksel Lund Svindal. He told the press after one of his sublime, near-perfect race runs, “I was going down, and the snow was so good, you could do anything.”