Doug Lewis, 59: Commitment and Purpose

After retiring from ski racing, Olympian Doug Lewis found purpose and meaning in educating young people. He discusses the mental demands of his 100-mile 24-hour runs, the gold-medal mindset that can help with any goal, and the joy of coaching.

We all may go through changes and challenges, some of which may lead us to question our worth and identity. With an elite athlete, that change is immediate and extreme. It is almost a parable for those of us who are forced to leave a career, a marriage, or other self-defining role. One day they are world famous, and the next day no one cares who they are. It can be a hard fall and not everyone survives it. Those that do find new purpose and meaning, very often in helping others. 

Doug, former Olympic downhill ski racer and World Cup medalist, was one of those; crushed by the carpet of fame being pulled away, he then found meaning in motivating and teaching kids. The thing about Olympians is that they know what playing at a gold-medal level means. For Doug, it means committing to age the best way he can. It helps having Kelly, his wife of 31 years, by his side coaching him in his long-distance runs, being at youth camps, or getting him straight on what they need to be eating. 

Then there are his 100-mile 24-hour runs which, truthfully, baffle us. His process, and what he teaches others who may be involved in any ambition, is that it is all about starting with small attainable goals. Start with what one can easily do, build confidence and enthusiasm for what is possible, then level up. Since a lot of us, including me, suffer not so much from a lack of capacity but from from a lack of imagination of what we can do, this sounds like a good road map for living at our age.

Doug, how old are you?
59. The big 60 comes in 2 months. 

Where do you live?
I live now in Midway, Utah, which is right outside of Park City. Originally an East Coaster. Grew up and raised in Vermont, so I think that’s where my heart is. But the weather and recreation and beauty of Utah got me out here; and the snow. I’ve been married 31 years. I married my best friend, another ski racer from Canada. She beat me in one race, and so I had to marry her after that. 

So what’s the secret to being married for 31 years?
Having the same goals and values and what you like to do, what you don’t like to do, and communicating. If you don’t communicate, you’re not going to last that long. So I think that’s been our rock, is just telling it like it is.

You’re an Olympic downhill racer. She beat you in a race?
Yeah, I had retired. I was coaching and I was running a race that she was in. And, you know, I’m an Olympian. Bronze medalist, the World Championship. No problem. I come down there watching this race and this woman beats me. And so I had to meet her. It’s crazy.

“I found my passion to inspire and educate young people”

And how was it going from being an Olympian racing in the World Cup to one day you’re not? What’s that transition like?
It was the hardest two years of my life; all of it. You know, I was in Sports Illustrated. I’m on magazines. I’m the guy. And then, within a day, I’m nothing, right? I’m a freshman at the University of Vermont running to school with the backpack on and nobody cared. You lose your identity. You lose who you are.

And I retired in 1988 from ski racing. There was no help then and it was really tough. I lost my way. I lost my sense of self. And I was really confused. And then the Green Valley School, where I went to school, said, “Hey, do you mind coaching in your free time?” I found my passion to inspire and educate young people. I had found a new passion. Then my life restarted.

You’re now about to go to the East Coast and you’re going to train young ski-racer kids?
In the fall, just when things are turning, the snow is coming and the ski season’s coming, I go back east and I visit ski clubs and we’ll do a day of elite team. An elite team focuses on sports physiology, so moving strength, power, capacity, agility.

We will get them maybe in the kitchen cooking, you know, healthy foods. Talk about, you know, the nutrients where they get their energy and how it helps them. But most importantly, probably mentally, we’ll talk about the sports psychology, the mental skills of ski racing as well, which is goals and grit and embracing failure and commitment and focus. And so we do a day of it and it is a lot of fun.

I feed off the energy of the kids. They feed off me. We get moving and, just getting them to change that thought process over here come ski season, this is where we get to push our limits, you know, be outside in the cold, feel the snow, and feel the speed. I’m really looking forward to that.

How old are those kids?
11 and 14. It is the age that I just really have fallen in love with. During this full day of workouts and learning, we’ll do 250 burpees. And I’ll say that right off the bat, right in addition to everything we’re doing, 250 burpees. And they’re like, “No way.”

And you know, ten at a time, 50 at a time. All of a sudden we’re 200 in and they’re like, “Let’s go for 300.” This age, 11 or 14 is the age where the motivation and the inspiration and the energy and the joy of moving and pushing limits is so pure to me.

“If you commit, you’ve won”

Talk to me about the word commitment for you. What does that mean?
I think that’s the root of all my success. I mean, I talk a lot about goals. People talk too much about goals, but goals are it to me. Everybody has dreams and goals and all that. But to make them real, to make a dream, a goal, to make it a reality, you have to commit. And that kind of commitment where you feel it in your gut, where you live it, where every part of your being is committed, that’s a place that’s really special and it’s really where amazing things happen and you’re not always going to get the goals. I never got the goal. I got the bronze medal. But if you commit, you’ve won. And we just had a T-shirt. I ran a camp called Elite Team and on the T-shirt this year it said, “When you say yes to the challenge, you’ve already won.”

It’s not about the outcome. It’s about saying yes to that challenge and committing with your entire being. Once you do that, everything seems easier.

Let’s say aging is a challenge. How do you commit to aging well?
Well, you’ve got to commit that it’s not going to be easy, right? It’s not going to be a pill. It may involve some pills or whatever, but it’s not a pill. It is moving. It is committing to sleep. It is committing to nutrition; it is committing to relationships. It’s a lot of things. It’s not just one thing.

Until you commit, you won’t go to bed at 8:30 instead of 12:30; you’re not going to reach for the broccoli vegetable mix over the Pringles or whatever. Once you commit, all the questions are answered for you.

That’s the hardest part. Grabbing the broccoli over the junk food is just a byproduct of committing to what you want to do.

“It’s not the outcome. It’s that day-to-day process”

So it sounds like we’re talking about process.
It’s not the outcome. It’s that day-to-day process and what’s going to get you to make that right decision, the decision that’s best for you or the decision that you want about ageism. And again, it’s not just one thing. It’s a way of life.

If I said to you: Doug, I want you to age the best you can; I want to see your gold medal game in aging — what does that look like for you?
I feel very lucky. There’s a lot of luck involved with my genes and a lot of things, but I feel very lucky. Whether I’m 60 or on the edge of 60 or 70 or whatever I want to be, I’d rather be doing it well than just being there. So what I want to do is keep moving, keep enjoying life. And to do that, I need to have that gold-medal game of giving myself the ability to do that.

And it’s not going to be easy. I mean, everybody’s looking for the easy thing and it drives me crazy.

Tell us about your running.
I hated running when I was on the ski team. I was an anaerobic athlete; 2 minutes is what a downhill consists of. And after retiring, I just needed more goals. So it’s more of a mental thing for me. Obviously it’s physical, but this will be my 6th 100-miler. And it’s going to take 24 hours.

And during those 24 hours, I can almost guarantee six or seven times I’m going to go deep, dark, black, negative. And that’s what I love. I want to see how deep I can go and still get out of it. And that’s what I love. It sounds a bit weird, but that’s what I’m looking forward to, is just to see how far I can push myself, how dark I can go and make it.

It’s really testing yourself. It’s putting yourself on that edge between control and catastrophe. So control puts you on the second page of the results sheet, which is not the goal as a racer. And so it’s really finding that sliver where you are pushing it and right to the edge but without going over. It’s like when you’re leaning back in your chair, you almost go over; that feeling. That’s what I live for: that feeling of adrenaline and risk. I just love it.

“That’s what I live for: that feeling of adrenaline and risk”

What you’re talking about is like emotional collapse and trying to pull yourself out of it. Is there adrenaline involved in this?
Yeah, it’s a different kind. Obviously, there’s lots of small adrenaline hits, but I can’t describe it. I’m still in the middle of it, you know. I just love how far I can push my body and mind at the same time. And so, that’s what happens on that day, which is amazing, and I’m looking forward to it. But it’s also the last six months of training and eating and sleeping and all that, that really I live for.

Does your wife do this stuff?
Unfortunately, my wife had the injuries of ski racing. I was pretty lucky. So my knees, my back, everything works. Hers is a little bit put together with screws and things like that. 

But she’s my best coach. I wish I had her when I was racing because she knows exactly what to say at exactly the right time.

Give us an example of this. Say, you’re, say, 60 miles into one of these things. It’s the night. What does she tell you?
Number one, she is making sure I’m clothed, I’m hydrated, I have the fuel. All that she has. She’s the list maker, which is great. I seem to wing it a lot, so we really match that way. But she’s got the list. She goes, Kelly’s job is to raise the doubts that I need to have because I’m very confident and she is my doubt keeper. “Do you have that? Are you ready for that? Can you make it?” And she gives me reality when I seem to live above reality.

“It is all about building and working hard and training”

There’s a lot of people who are going to read this, who are athletes over 50. What are your thoughts on that?
If I could just relate it to the running. Oh, I’m doing 100 miles, right? I didn’t start out doing 100 miles. I’m not that person. I did my first marathon back in 1990. I worked up to a 30, a 50 K, a 50 mile or a 100K. So it is all about building and working hard and training.

You just go a little bit harder, then your body adapts and you’ve got to go harder. And that’s what I would love to see in our age, right? You don’t start out at 100 miles. You don’t start out squatting 400 pounds. Right? It is bodyweight, it is flexibility, it is range of motion.

It is all these simple things that you can learn to do correctly with just a little bit of help. All of a sudden, those little breakthroughs are really feeling good, then you can start to add and add and add and add; all that.

It’s amazing how good you feel mentally and physically when all that work pays off.

What kind of music do you listen to these days?
Everything, whether it is Loggins and Messina to the Who to I don’t even know their names. I just hear them on Spotify or whatever. But I listen to everything. Anything that is emotional and has a beat, I’ll do it. Except country. I’m not there yet. Sorry.

What’s your ambition for the next five years? What are you looking to be?
At 65, I hope I’m still able to inspire and educate these young athletes. Hopefully doing it right with them. That’s my aspiration is to be right next to them, doing the burpees, doing all that stuff, but also teaching them the correct way. And how to push their limits. I’d like to travel more with my wife on these adventures.

“Everything we eat is something natural that’s not processed, that’s not packaged”

What do you eat?
Without my wife I would not be a great eater. What we love to do now, and I’ve fallen in love with it, is everything fresh. So when we come back from the grocery store, 95% of our stuff goes into the fridge. 

Everything we eat is something natural that’s not processed, that’s not packaged, and it’s taken us about ten years to move into that. But we are cooks. We rarely go out to dinner because just the stuff that’s in food outside of our home doesn’t work well with us. And I don’t know what that is. It just doesn’t work with us.

We cook all day, every day. We love cooking; a lot of roasting, a lot of just natural foods. And it’s changed our life as well. And it’s fun. I mean, that’s what people have got to realize. All this crazy stuff is super fun.

What are the three non-negotiables in your life?
I have to move every day, whether it’s a run, a walk, a bike, you name it. I’ve got to move. You’ve got to be kind to people. I think that’s number two. Push limits, help people push their limits and live, because if you’re not pushing your limits, you’re not living.

Doug back in his competative days doing his thing.

“It’s just one step at a time”

How do you want to inspire people who are reading this today?
I think so many people look at people like me or these amazing athletes or amazing people and they just think they can’t get there. It’s just one step at a time. My goal is to inspire to take those first steps.

Set that first goal at a mile or a 5k or whatever your goals are, but set them nice and low and doable. Do the hard work. And once you get that small little taste of accomplishment, it’s intoxicating and it will lead to more. So keep that dream high, but keep that goal super low and accomplishable and that confidence that you get on that first win will get you to the next win and to the next and to the next.

People think, “I’ve got to climb the mountain.” Let’s just get to the top of that first hill and get some confidence. We can do it.

Connect with Doug:

Main image by David Harry Stewart.

See medical disclaimer below. ↓



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The ideas expressed here are solely the opinions of the author and are not researched or verified by AGEIST LLC, or anyone associated with AGEIST LLC. This material should not be construed as medical advice or recommendation, it is for informational use only. We encourage all readers to discuss with your qualified practitioners the relevance of the application of any of these ideas to your life. The recommendations contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should always consult your physician or other qualified health provider before starting any new treatment or stopping any treatment that has been prescribed for you by your physician or other qualified health provider. Please call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical or psychiatric emergency.


David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.


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