I grew up in a small town: Mazama, Washington, right at the base of Washington Pass, and the North Cascade Mountains. My high school was called Liberty Bell High School, named after a granite peak, towering eight thousand feet into the air at the top of Washington Pass. At age 18, I moved to Anchorage, Alaska to pursue academics and professional athletics. As we all know, Anchorage sits at the base of the Chugach Mountain range, surrounded by high peaks and dreamy mountains. These two locations, thousands of miles apart have both been home to me for over ten years. Although they are very different in population and climate, they have one thing in common: mountains surround them. Since being a kid, I have felt oddly claustrophobic when visiting locations that don’t have mountains hugging the town. It feels boring, and meaningless. I think this obsession with mountains has a deeper root meaning within my personality. It represents my addiction to challenge, thrill, and purpose. When I see a mountain, I want to know I have the power to stand on the top of it. Rather than just a beautiful view, it is an object to overcome.
At age 16, as I was going through high school, I had one winter of sickness after sickness. As I attempted to race US Nationals and the local Junior Olympic Qualifiers, I was forced to sit out weekend after weekend from sinus infections. After three rounds of three different antibiotics, I finally went and visited a specialist. The doctor prescribed me Levaquine, a stronger antibiotic that he ensured would finally kill this three month sinus infection getting in the way of my sixteen year old ski goals, which included racing at World Junior Championships in Italy. While the antibiotic cured the sinus infection, I confronted a lifetime mountain that would change my life. One of the poorly advertised side effects of this antibiotic is Achilles tendinopathy, and long-term tendon damage. One month after taking this antibiotic, I developed such bad Achilles tendon damage I could no longer walk between my high school classes—let alone ski race! For the following two years I worked through the long process of strengthening and rebuilding all the tendons and muscles in my feet to overcome this Achilles weakening. For the following 14 years, I have worked through constant set backs, as this drug has affected the collagen designed to strengthen my tendons. I have had at least twenty different injuries throughout my body during this time.
As a professional cross country skier, and one of the best skiers in the world, my training is unbelievably intense. I spend all day, every day of the year, strengthening my body to compete in both sprinting and long distance races, ranging from four minutes to 1.5 hours. Training is pretty similar among the best athletes: running, roller skiing, skiing, and gym work. The best trainers correlate with the best athletes. Since this unforgettable “mountain” I stumbled upon at age 16, I have had to develop my own path. Quite early on, I had to recognize that my training wasn’t going to look like the rest, and if I wasted a second too long focusing on it, this “mountain” would break me. At age 16, I learned to develop my confidence from a unique place. Rather than train along my teammates, and gain confidence from knowing I was doing better work than everyone around me, I trained on my own. In those times alone, I taught myself to make my brain the strongest muscle in my body. Although my knee, or my ankle tendon, or my feet wouldn’t allow me to ski bound, run, and rollerski, these were simply “mountains”. Not a view, but an object—something to conquer! I found ways to creatively work on my endurance and strength: spending endless hours in the pool, skipping rather than running, hiking up gas line 100 times a summer, biking intervals, you name it.
My mountain has been ugly, but attainable. During my tough hours of fighting through the process, I have built my brain into my powerhouse. When I show up on the start line to strap on my skis, this chance is not a routine, but an opportunity. I am a fighter, and I have built that one day at a time over these past 14 years. I am a two time Olympian, a World Championship medalist, a World Cup medalist, and one of the most successful American skiers in history. In November, I earned the yellow bib, representing the overall World Cup leader, something no other woman has achieved in this country.
Just like the Methow, and Anchorage, I am surrounded by mountains, and I love it! I think during these times of challenge, we develop into strong, powerful, motivated humans. For me, that has meant becoming one of the strongest skiers in the world. Tomorrow, maybe that will mean becoming a mother. And then the following day, maybe that will mean dealing with grief. I don’t believe climbing mountains is easy, and I don’t think it gets easier with time. I think it is a constant challenge, and a battle of toughness. The best success I have had is to develop a strategy, and a brain that has the motivation to fight. With those skills, even having a mountain as big as Denali in my life cannot set me back.