“Feet, feet, feet! All I’ve been tellin’ ya about today is feet! Okay?” I look over at the slight man wearing a royal blue ski instructor parka. He is grinning fiercely back at me, his brown eyes blazing in a deeply tanned face. We’re about the same height, the instructor and I, and we’re standing ski pole to ski pole, facing a double runner lift across the field of smooth white. To our right, a quick scoot away, is Sugarloaf’s Base Lodge, where almost two hours ago I was fitted for downhill skis, boots, poles, and a helmet in the rental shop.
My husband and I and our college pal had cut it close getting to the mountain in time for the beginner group lesson I’d signed up for, and the kind resort staff had done their best to keep me moving quickly. They’d radioed ahead as soon as I’d told them I was registered – “Yep, Cathryn Douglass is headed your way, puffy blue coat” – and one nice gentleman swiftly helped me with all my equipment, almost literally picking me up to stuff my feet into what looked like new Head boots.
I was glad for the hurrying, for the distraction, because I was trying to ignore the not insignificant dread I felt about getting on downhill skis again. In my mind, I was still a scrawny 8-year-old girl in a bulky purple parka from Sears, taking her first ski lesson at a small hill in western Massachusetts. Weighed down in uncomfortable boots, trying to put on a brave face, I’d felt stiff and scared and like I didn’t belong. I had longed for my mom, sitting in the warm lodge waiting for her kids, to come out and get me and take me back home.
Harold, my instructor, is cheerful, older-looking, and radiates vigorous energy. Late season skiing on a weekday, post-school vacation, means that there are no crowds, and no other sign-ups for the 10am group. I will be getting a private session. What an incredible treat!
We shake hands inside the shop, then make our way outside to the overcast, windless day. As he helps me get each boot clicked into my ski binding, he asks me how I’d describe my level of experience. I tell him my background: I am a Pilates teacher, a cyclist, and a runner, and for several years when I was a teenager, I competed on my high school’s Nordic ski team. I share with him that I feel I have pretty good balance, a strong core, and a decent understanding of human anatomy and movement. I tell him this is just my third time on downhill skis in my entire life. I don’t tell him about the purple parka.
As we jump right into our lesson and, as is my habit, I start to ask him questions about his life, an American slang term that is used to describe a person or thing as “exceptionally good” keeps coming to my mind: crackerjack. Harold, at ninety-one years old (yes, you read that right), is the epitome of crackerjack. Things I discover about him over the course of about a dozen happy lift rides together: Harold grew up in Jay, went to Bowdoin College, enlisted in the Air Force, tried out for the Red Sox (“No, I didn’t make it. My hitting wasn’t that good”), did stock car racing for many years (“Well, I liked to go fast”), coached decades of high school baseball and football, and has spent over thirty years on Sugarloaf as a coach, ski racer, and instructor. “Oh, it was a long time ago. A long time,” he says with a little smile when I ask him when *he* learned how to ski.
In the two hours or so that I spend with my new friend, I have the sense that, as with all larger-than-life people, the tidbits he drops about himself are just scratching the surface. And lest I forget, one last detail about Harold: he has a regular tai chi practice. Of course he does!
The second time I was on downhill skis, at least 35 years ago, I rode a chairlift midway up a mountain with a few other kids in a youth organization I’d been a part of; it was our first run. Still a total beginner, I had no idea how – or when – to get off the lift (I had been assured it was not a big deal), and I really fumbled the dismount. I hesitated a second too long, then panicked as I felt the seat on the back of my thighs hoisting me into the air again. I launched myself off just as the haul rope was about to round the top tower and head back down, and landed on my bottom, hard. As I lay there on my back, I could feel tears of humiliation and pain welling in my eyes.
Ski patrol hustled over when I didn’t immediately get up, and I was asked several times if I wanted them to bundle me in a sled and take me off the mountain. As much as my tailbone hurt, the thought of making a further spectacle of myself was so mortifying that I pretended I was OK. I showed everyone that I could still move my legs, and then, feeling seriously defeated, started to gingerly snowplow alone down the slope. Other skiers smoothly maneuvered around me; my face and hands grew numb in the cold. As the lodge finally came into view, I gritted my teeth and made up my mind: this had been a miserable experience, and I was never going to try this sport again.
“Yes, kiddo! Yes! You’ve got it!” Harold crows, pumping one pole in the air as I take my last turn before coming to a gentle, controlled stop next to him. In my head, I’ve been repeating his cues, little catchphrases that have made sense to me that he has expertly layered before each run we do together: “2-4-2” (two ski edges to four edges to two edges to make a nice turn), “feet, feet, feet,” “ankles flexed,” “shins forward,” “stand on one leg, then stand on the other,” and “never feel the back of your leg in your ski boot.” It has taken me almost the whole lesson to relax my upper body and trust that keeping my weight over my skis, instead of hinging at my hips or leaning back, won’t land me right on my face. Harold keeps complimenting me regarding what I have told him about my background, citing the advantages my Pilates experience, strength, and fitness give me. “You have the makings of a very good skier,” he says, kindly, and I beam with happiness.
As I have started producing smoother and better turns on the easy slope, I’ve been reflecting on my own journey of learning to teach Pilates, and what I now know, from a little bit of experience, is most effective at helping clients learn. I tick off the things Harold does that I recognize as hallmarks of a great teacher: giving me one or two short phrases that help me instantly visualize or understand how to move by connecting me to a feeling in my body; starting with the fundamentals and sticking with them; cheerleading like crazy the moment I do what he is asking for (and thus helping me imprint that moment and feeling in my body and mind); conveying his genuine passion for the thing he’s teaching me through inspiring use of vocal tone, volume, and cadence.
I’m also having So. Much. Fun! I am glowing on the inside as I realize I am letting go. I’m letting go of the fear associated with the memory of falling off that chairlift, so many years in the past. I’m letting go of feeling clumsy and out of place in my purple parka. I’m letting go of feeling embarrassed that my family could not easily afford ski equipment and ski lessons and ski vacations. I feel open and alive to this day, and I am absolutely delighted to have met the spry nonagenarian who pushes off in front of me each time with a wave of a pole and a shout of, “Okay, Cathryn, let’s go!”
When our time is up, we reluctantly part ways, and I ski back over to the chairlift with Harold’s business card in my jacket pocket (no email; just his name, title, an address in Jay, and phone numbers for his home and office). I text my husband to ask where he and our friend are, and we plan to meet for lunch in about half an hour. I decide to do four or five more practice runs by myself, and as I get on and dismount the chairlift without feeling anxious in the least, I silently thank Harold.
On my last ride, the gentle sway of the chairlift enhances my feeling of complete contentment. I am staring off into the trees, smiling at no one, when something moving below catches my eye. I lean forward to glimpse a snaking line of small children, all poleless, finishing their group lesson behind a young instructor. One tiny blonde girl is wearing fluttery pink fairy wings over her parka, and as they barrel toward Base Lodge, she throws her head back and lets out a wild scream of wordless glee. I feel that way, too, little ski fairy! I think to myself, and it’s all I can do not to join in with her.
My terrific day at Sugarloaf has taught me a valuable lesson about facing fear, and about the need to challenge the untrue and even hurtful things we sometimes think about ourselves. My fears about trying downhill skiing again were rooted in memories from a long time ago. As the years passed and I did nothing to confront those fears, I also built on them: I’m not that athletic. I don’t have the personality of a downhill skier (whatever that means). I’m clumsy. I’m not competitive. I don’t like going fast. All of those negative, silly things I believed about myself vanished into thin air when I took a deep breath, clicked into those big heavy ski boots, and followed Harold. Sometimes, this is all it takes – one two-hour ski lesson, one (fill in the blank with something from your experience) – one *something* to push over that rickety, ancient, shaky structure you’ve built between yourself and progress.
My husband and I have decided to do one last hurrah day of spring skiing at the end of this month, again inviting our college pal to come along. When my husband suggested a few other ski areas that are a little closer, I said, “But I want Harold!” He laughed at me at first, then realized I was dead serious. I want to soak in more of that excellent teaching that could only come from a person with a lifetime of experience.
And I just straight-up enjoyed every minute of those few hours with Harold. His affability, genuine care, and encouragement helped me change how I felt about myself. That timid little girl in the purple parka is firmly in the past now, although I won’t forget her. I can’t wait to spend another glorious winter day on a snow-covered downhill slope, thinking only about my happy feet, feet, feet.
Note: I wrote that last part some weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic turned all of our lives upside down. As you may have guessed, we did not get to go back to Sugarloaf before they had to make the difficult decision to suspend all their operations. (If you, too, are a Sugarloaf fan and would like to support the local community in Carrabassett Valley, please head over to their website and scroll to the “Community Support” section at their Covid-19 Updates page.)
Reading my words again now, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for my wonderful, full life – for all of you, our wonderful clients, and for each of the fantastic teachers I get to spend time with at Springboard and whom I count as my dear friends. And I’m looking with eager eyes not just to next winter, but to a closer time when we can all begin to make our way out of our homes, see our friends and loved ones face to face, and hug, talk, and laugh.
We love you, Springboarders! Hang in there. We can’t wait to be with you again!