Skiers’ legs are not dainty. Not fragile. Not petite or willowy or particularly “stem-like.” They are hard-earned tree trunks. They are purpose-built appendages. They have been specially crafted, deliberately hewn. Ski legs are all about quads. Hamstrings. Glutes. They fill out jeans, dress pants, sweats, and most important, a downhill suit.
When Picabo Street’s downhill ski bibs – yes – worn by Picabo herself – prodigiously arrived at the Buchanan household, we were all impressed – if not a bit aghast. My USSA-ski-racer cousin had somehow commandeered them (you’ve been in Picabo’s pants, Ben!?), and now they were on our living room floor. My 6’2,” long lean older brother swam in them. On me they were not much better. An impressionable 16 year-old, I wondered about this woman with behemoth thighs and Olympic gold medals.
As a high school ski racer in a mountain town, spandex had become a thing of comfort to me. The long-sleeved downhill suit that zipped up to my chin made me feel agile – almost liquid on the hill. When I stripped off my snowpants and black North Face coat, left shivering in a form-fitting suit, I wondered if I might have temporary superhero status. My downhill suit did not have a size. It did not pinch at the waistband or restrict my legs the way denim did. I didn’t have to worry about it riding up or falling down. And when I pointed the tips down the slope in my downhill suit, I was in my element.
Though it was the article of clothing that most revealed my body, and could have made me feel the most vulnerable, on the race hill my downhill suit never felt like a liability. I was not being judged on the flatness of my stomach or roundness of my breasts. I was being judged on my strength, drive, attitude and training. On the hill, I was proud to have ski legs. I was proud to fill out the thighs of my suit. When I hit gates, they went down; not the other way around.
Even at 16, some of the best skiers I knew were the ones that could very well fill out Picabo’s pants. And I admired them. They were beautiful, athletic, aggressive forces to be reckoned with. They didn’t ski a course – they chewed it up. They took advantage of every muscle fiber – every ounce of power that their hard-earned ski legs could muster – and leaned into the hill. They fought to keep upright against chatters and ruts. They relied on sheer strength – and big muscles – to beat out the girls with dainty stems and size 4 pants.
Now, 15 years later, Picabo’s pants aside, I am back on the hill. In neon green snowpants. And poles from the thrift store. And skis that have not seen snow for nearly 10 years. From the passenger side of a Subaru, I gaze out at the place where I grew up. Empty of my 6’2” long lean older brother – my skiing companion for all of those years – it feels like a different landscape. It is not a race day. I no longer own a downhill suit.
But still, it is the same.
Legs that have not seen snow for months; years; almost a decade; seem to recalibrate instantly. We know how to do this. We know about this steep white terrain. Instinctively, I am in my wide racing stance, carving edge to edge, pole-planting with confidence. I can feel it coming back again.
The hill is steep. The snow is slick. The light is flat. It wants to take you down. It wants to topple you. There is no room for being tentative here. You must be tenacious. You cannot get in the backseat; cannot sit back and wait for the hill to come to you. It will – and then you will be part of it. You must stay on the front of your skis – on the front of your feet – crush the grape between your big toe and the front of your boot – anticipate the steep as it rushes before you. You must maintain the angle of your ankle and knee and hips and butt. You must lean hard into the hill. You must proactively shift from edge to edge. There is no time or space for passivity. It is all about activity. You have to want it. You have to own it. You have to feel the mountain. You have to carve as if your life depended on it.
You must murder the hill. Or it will murder you.
Now perhaps this all sounds a bit hyperbolic – a bit aggressive. Isn’t skiing a leisure sport? Perhaps. Perhaps I dramatize the aggression. Perhaps this offensive approach is not necessary to successfully get down the hill. Not for everyone.
Perhaps. But I do know this: it invigorated me. It empowered me. It gave me more than a rush; it made me feel strong. Powerful. Beautiful. Capable. Even when my legs were burning and I wanted to stop – just to rest for a quick 20 seconds, something inside me – long cultivated in this small ski town – insisted: hold onto this turn. Hold on! You’re heading into chopped powder – if you can’t hold onto this turn you’ll lose it– and your goggles – and your skis – and your dignity. Hold this turn. Hold onto the pain. Hold onto the burn.
My 6’2” long lean older brother encouraged me to take up racing when I was 12 or 13. I was far behind my peers, who had been training since they were born. But I did it anyhow. Because I wanted to be with him. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to ride in his truck and carry my skis like him. I wanted to wear a downhill suit and train at night under the Keystone lights like him. I wanted to learn how to tune my skis like him. But now, even after the 6’2” long lean older brother is somewhere far above the top of the ski hill, I see that it was never about being cool or on the team. It was never about training gates or riding the 5 am ski bus with the other teenagers. It wasn’t even really about being like him.
Skiing had always been – and will always be – about finding your power. That core of strength deep inside. The voice that tells you to murder the hill. To hold onto that curve. To switch edge to edge. Not to wait. To do it now. To lean forward – not back. To look down the hill. To go for every turn; to never hesitate. To hold onto the pain and work through the burn and get past the finish.
In his quiet way, Ross was teaching me to feel beautiful in spandex; to be proud of tree trunk legs; to conquer things that are scary; steep; slick; hard. He was, in every sense, teaching me to point them downhill, trust myself, and let my body do the rest.
These photos have been generously provided by the Getty Museum’s royalty free, Open-Use Content Gateway Program. More info here: http://www.getty.edu/about/opencontentfaq.html.