Finding an Identity on the Comeback Trail: Skiing During the Winter Olympics

On April 12, 2013, in a game against the rival Golden State Warriors, the L.A. Lakers star Kobe Bryant scored 47 points. Two nights later, trainers abruptly bundled him off to the ER with a snapped Achilles tendon, an injury that had ended many a career. Professional athletes who play dangerous games depend in part on a personal fable, the sense of a measure of invincibility. Recovering from surgery, Bryant confessed to anger and some bewilderment. “How the hell can this happen?” he tweeted. He was wondering about what he would do—who would he be without basketball?

In a blog I posted last spring, I wrote about this incident with some feeling, both because this was one of those moments that underscored the grit of the professional athlete in a demanding game and because, I was myself rehabilitating a badly ruptured heel. In fact, I had some questions of my own. One of the first I asked the surgeon (who, reassuringly, made his living partly by patching up injured Buffalo Bills) was “will I ski again?” He said, reasonably, “let’s see that we get you walking first.”  

Scott's Ski Helmet and Poles, Courtesy of Scott EberleI soon discovered that, like Bryant, I was in for a disagreeable rehab. But after some wizardry in the OR, the docs said I could look forward to another ski season. So I took a flat file and an edge tool to our skis and waxed them carefully. And waited.

This last Valentine’s Day, with conditions near perfect, (or “sick!” as snowboarders will say), my high school sweetheart and I played hooky and headed for the slopes. The first ride up the chairlift proved good for a laugh; on this romantic holiday scamps had decorated the trees below with underwear bedecked in hearts and cupids. But skiing is serious play after all and so, on the way up I rehearsed the downhill maxims—shins against the boot tongues, hands in front, look ahead not down, roll the skis into the turn, plant the pole downhill, and the axiom of axioms, “don’t wimp out.”

Aside from heading for smoother terrain after initial moguls suggested I’d lost a step in the interval, I didn’t wimp out.

In a country that’s as diverse as ours it’s pertinent to ask about identity; historians and sociologists are always asking about who we are. We’ve come up with lots of different answers. We have sorted by age, gender, classes, neighborhoods, and affections. In my parochial grade schools, cataloging by religion had no point. But a fair number of classmates like me were the children or grandchildren of immigrants. So when the old gang would ask, un-self consciously, “what are you?”, we quickly learned that Kelleher, Boyle, Rice, Harmon, Hagerty, Finnegan, Corrigan, Joyce, Quinn, O’Toole, O’Donnell, and O’Brien were Irish, Breisacher and Keller were German, Anzevino and Costanza were Italian, and Czaja and Kowalski were Polish, and so on.

But as we became more cosmopolitan in the years since, the ethnic response grew less important. Now, more often, how we play says who we are. We’re as likely to answer, “I’m a golfer”—or a quilter, biker, fisherman, backpacker, bridge player, or a collector of baseball cards, Federal duck stamps, or Schnauzer memorabilia. And now, after a successful repair, I can happily say that I’m a skier, again and still.