The first World Cup of the season in Ruka, Finland is always special. The world’s best cross-country skiers, ski jumpers, and Nordic combined skiers all gather beneath a Finnish mountain (which is really just a small hill) to showcase their talents where there is no sun.
When executed correctly, the sport of ski jumping rewards an athlete with the gift of human flight. Human flight, the feeling of it is irreplaceable. On the other hand, something that I feel is very replaceable, ski jumping poorly. Nothing is more uncomfortable than touching the ground far too soon.
What follows a bad ski jump is an extremely awkward amount of time straight lining down a steep slope on 252 cm long skis with rounded edges in a thick yet oddly tight suit thinking to myself, “What the !%$# just happened.” There is nowhere to run or hide. At the bottom I am greeted by a large camera, this is just a reminder that my previous failure was just broadcasted to millions of viewers worldwide. This is a reminder of all the unreal celebrations I had prepared for that camera but no; a celebration wouldn’t be suitable at this moment. I take my skis off as quickly as possible and exit the outrun.
Here the athlete standing in the leaders box greets me. He is always a good guy but at this moment he just seems like a show off. Being the guy in the leaders box is tricky- the key is to not assume eye contact with anyone who goes shorter than 110 meters. That’s my rule at least. This guy doesn’t follow my rules so we exchange an awkward look. I watch as his is trying desperately hard to wipe the stupid smile off his face, as to not rub it in. However, he is also winning a world cup so that is impossible.
Now I walk back to the cabin, undress and glance at my phone. The date reads November 23rd. Oh yeah, I almost forgot Thanksgiving. I think to myself, worst thanksgiving ever. I head to the athlete cabin in pursuit of its abundant supply of treats. I don’t know who is in charge of deciding which snacks to provide in these cabins but whoever it is has a twisted sense of humor. Donuts, cake, candy bars, pizza, and soda are the nutritional staples of these athlete cabins. These are all foods that professional athletes in a sport that involves flying should most likely avoid. However, there is a bonus to this madness. My thought process is I either jump far or I jump short and eat a donut. Both equate to about the same levels of happiness. So I eat a dry donut, pretending for a second it’s pumpkin pie, and watch the rest of the jumping event.
I watch my name slip further and further down the results list. Only the top 50 athletes from the qualification round get to compete in the World Cup. By now I know very well that my name, along with 15 other athletes, will fall below that number 50. If I truly was the social planner I believe myself to be, I would throw a party for all 15 of those athletes. I think I would name it something dark and dramatic like, “The Forgotten Ones”. Anyways, I can’t help but feel sick about the whole situation. My name belongs at the bottom of that list like the Kardashian’s belong in a world without social media: it doesn’t.
On Saturday, once again I did not qualify. By now, we had quite a club forming. Austrian Nordic Combined Athlete Mika Vermeulen said when asked about his jump, “I think I could have jumped again after I landed and nobody would have noticed.” This was actually a very thoughtful observation. Maybe I will try this next time, just jump again.
In addition to a party provided for the 16 unqualified athletes, I recommend that FIS provides some kind of services, most preferably in the form of a therapist. However we aren’t there yet so I assumed this role myself on Friday and Saturday. My mother is a counselor so I’ve been bred for this my entire life. I don’t even have to look at the results list to find the unqualified athletes. They can usually be found in the café eating a donut. Anyone eating a donut didn’t qualify. Anyone with bloodshot eyes didn’t qualify as this indicates recent tears. I like to walk up to these sad guys and offer my condolences. I remind them that it truly isn’t the end of the world, if I can smile and laugh about this then so can you. French athlete Laurent Muhlethaler tells me when explaining his sadness, “I think I would like some whiskey, and a girl.” We both laugh. Humor is a universal language.
If I had to create a list of the places I would prefer a vacation, it would probably read like this.
However I woke up on Sunday just one jump away from turning my competition trip into a vacation. I didn’t feel nervous, just relaxed and confident. I have this trick I use when I’m worried about the future or caught up in the past. I believe that any stellar idea deserves an even better name so I have coined my trick, “Trump it” (trademark pending). Can be used in a sentence as, “Hey don’t worry about that, just Trump it” or “I was super stressed out until I shut my eyes and just Trumped it.”
This is how it works. I close my eyes and see all the past failures I’m identifying with. Then I find the futures worries I’m hooked up on. The next thing I do is imagine a massive brick wall rising from the ground in front of all my future worries and behind me closing off all the past failures. This relegates me to only one thing, my present moment.
On Sunday I qualified in 33rd place. Which had me thinking, “Jeez dude was it really that hard?” The answer is no, I believe as humans we sometimes make things much more difficult than they need to be. Everything was starting to flow again. It felt amazing to finally be back in my realm. I believe the prior two days gave me a lot of perspective and gratefulness for the opportunity I get to compete on the highest level of my sport. Something that I have always taken for granted, qualifying, re awoke me to the challenge of this pursuit. On Sunday the result wasn’t perfect, I didn’t have a mind-blowing performance or finish inside the top 30. However I got to take part in something incredible and move one step closer than I was the day before.
I went on a cool down ski after the race with Bryan Fletcher, my teammate, role model, and father figure while on the road. We got to chat and I congratulated him on his solid performance all weekend long. Before we finished our ski, we stopped in front of the ski jumps. He pulled his phone out and asked me to take a picture of him. “My wife wants me to take a picture in front of every venue this year, we are going to make a photo album of it.” This is Bryan’s last year on the World Cup Circuit. From a first glance the picture is simple, just a man in front of a ski jump. However this isn’t just a photo. It’s a goodbye, a cheers to all the good times and bad. “It’s kind of bittersweet,” he says. With one last glance at the dark complex flooded by light, I replied, “I bet.”