I am in my late 50s and have the muscle memory of an expert skier and a 25-year-old dancer. I also wrestle with ongoing back and shoulder pain, a tricky knee, and the mindset that I shouldn’t push it. I proved myself wrong. Propelled by anxiety, ego and passion, I spontaneously found myself skiing off the cornice at Mammoth last week, road-tripping solo to meet a fellow skier after vowing to lay low this winter and do nothing to aggravate my body. I rolled off the couch, packed my bags, and a day later got off the gondola at 11,000 feet ready to carve turns off of the icy cornice. I killed it and secretly I knew I would.
Spooked by a pulled shoulder from over-working it with a 27-year-old trainer, a stiff knee, and jumping around a dance floor, I cowered into 2020 icing, hiding out, binging on The Crown, Fleabag and Succession, thinking my wild athletic days are numbered. I surrendered to my Netflix and HBO subscriptions thinking they would usher me through winter. My thoughts were dominated by not knowing what my body is now capable of. Have I crossed over to the other side yet? Lucky for me, I grew up with role models, older women, my mother and aunts who skied into their 70s and got me into the sport when I was a kid. There was always a culture of athleticism into older age in my family but they weren’t experts like I was. Like I am. I was curious if I was crossing the threshold into the older who really needed to take it easy.
There was always a culture of athleticism into older age in my family
I was slowly falling into anxiety induced by overuse and mixed cultural messages about age, time and power. I felt lost in space between ‘I used to do this’ and ‘I do this.’ I didn’t feel so much like the aging woman but the grounded athlete and that gave me a slightly different edge. My belief about myself was still bathed in action vs the age; however, I was feeling myself slowly giving up.
So far, my petite, fit body has taken some orthopedic hits, particularly when I was a child, but it hasn’t totally let me down. I was born without a hip socket and had to spend several months in a body cast and leg braces when I was just age three. I also had knee surgery at 9 years old, and after 30 I started having back and neck pain but I was able to override it. Now at 58, the shit was hitting the proverbial fan. So much of my identity and ability to cope with life involves an escape hatch usually in the form of hiking, skiing, dancing, playing in nature for hours, even walking my dogs.
After a couple of weeks of protecting myself, I texted a gal pal; she’s 58, has four grandkids, and skis like a mad woman. I heard through a mutual friend she was back to skiing after taking a fall last summer off of a skateboard. She cracked her head open on the boardwalk in Manhattan Beach, and tore her ACL. After a surgery and a rattled brain, she was skiing.
If she could ski after all of that, I certainly could, I thought.
Fear was pushed aside and I did the dig of ski clothes and long underwear
“Are you in Mammoth?”
“Yes,” she replied. “Are you alone?” I asked. She’s married and her husband doesn’t ski as much as she does and he’s not as good. Plus she’s more fun when she is on her own. “Yeah, I am with Jack, my dog.”
Perfect, I thought. Skiing and a dog? “Yeah, come up. I’m skiing all week!” she said.
I went online, booked a room, looked at the weather for clear skies and everything lined up. I felt my heart beating with excitement, jumped up and down in my house at the ecstatic thought of actually hitting the road to go skiing. I was gone and I was going. Fear was pushed aside and I did the dig of ski clothes and long underwear. Oh yeah, and I now wear a helmet after years of skiing with my long hair flying in the wind with a warm hat and goggles.
What propelled me into such a spontaneous road trip? Fear of complacency, not fear of hurting myself further. I have been plateauing at a chronic pain level that wasn’t getting better, but it wasn’t getting worse. The best medicine for that shit is movement and acts of bravery. I knew that inside this aging athletic body was a competent and strong skier. She was cowering to the mantra of ‘take it easy.’ Yes, we have to listen to our bodies, and we also have to listen to our souls, so I heard the call.
Who are we?
In the evolution to late middle age, society is screaming at us to be enlightened, adventurous and worried at the same time. Am I a badass or an old lady? Am I stupid or courageous? Well, there’s only one way to find out. I carry all of that noise with me and usually let my inner 25-year-old override the seduction of complacency. I jumped in my car, drove alone to Mammoth, found my friend at the resort walking Jack in the village after a day of skiing. We had dinner, I acclimated to the high altitude and we made a plan for a day of high-level skiing. After two days of pushing it and taking the gondola to the Cornice, skiing off of icy cliffs and still managing to want more, my knee did hurt. But not that bad and, in fact, it doesn’t feel any worse or much better. I just feel more complete and back to myself.
Hitting that moment of complete flow on the slopes opened up the right valve in my heart
Being on the snow, carrying my skis, hurling them into the Gondola, clamping down on my boots, walking the steps in the bricks that are ski boots, I was the same old girl I always was. Hitting that moment of complete flow on the slopes where my turns felt like perfect dance steps with the environment opened up the right valve in my heart. I was smiling — ok, I was beaming with joy. My friend and I were at the same pace and level taking in the Sierras, the trees, the spray of snow as we swished to quick stops next to each other checking in, blissing out, reveling in the camaraderie.
I came home and realized that the two-day adventure, something that used to feel natural, now seemed like an accomplishment. For us mature skiers, surfers, hikers, lovers, travelers, dancers and movers, the mental and physical game of life gets softened or more desperate as we change. I still try to identify with my braver self whether it is for love of a sport or an image of who I think I am and what I need to experience to feel fully alive. I am just really grateful that I still have the choice. As I read back on this in 2022, I am inspired by my former self in 2020. I took a fall hiking at night and cracked my head open as well and now have to find that courage that I had before the pandemic. Reading this inspired me. I hope it inspires you too as we keep reinventing our bodies and ourselves.
Written by Wendy Abrams, a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.