Controlled Fall: Becoming Whole

Posted on September 18, 2018

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Photo by Mike Stoner

This book is called Controlled Fall: Becoming Whole because that’s how I monoski, throwing my upper body down the hill and hoping that the skis rolls on edge, turns and picks me up before I hit the ground. Each turn is a leap of faith and each run a series of controlled falls. When I raced, to be successful, I had to find comfort in discomfort.

Letting go remains the hardest part in skiing and in life. Potential genius dies in the grips of worry and I’m a worrier. I worry about everything. When my coaches asked about my run I often replied, “Noisy,” because I thought too much. At a rainy race at Waterville Valley the spring before my accident I made a huge mistake at the very top, ruining the run. With nothing to lose I took out my frustration on each turn. I achieved the moment, nothing else mattered and I finished closer than I thought possible.

After that run I tried to convince myself in the start that I’d made a mistake, that I had nothing to lose, to let go, to let the genius, the training and probably something greater than I could understand take over.

The year before my accident I raced a Giant Slalom at Burke Mountain Academy. Even though my brother Matt was a student there, I couldn’t help but feel like an outsider from a small Massachusetts mountain, what the Vermonters call “Flatlanders.” Much to my chagrin I coveted what they had—the skiing success in far off places, the equipment straight from companies race rooms and the team uniforms—without going out to seize it. It was easy to concede the race before it even started.

Then I saw Diana Golden, a one-legged skier, the ultimate outsider, and I wondered why she was there. The answer, she was a ski racer. I didn’t meet her that day. We never competed on the team at the same time. I wouldn’t get to know her until she was dying from breast cancer in her thirties, but the image of her controlled fall gave me a path to follow. Fall but get back up. The ones that never quit are the ones to fear. I wanted that for myself, but I also wanted to stretch the world’s view the way that she had. Excuses and limitations are what we make of them.

The uncertainty, the hope, the passion and the fear of monoskiing made me feel alive. I felt that same vitality when I jumped into the unknown of the project to climb Mt Kilimanjaro in a handcycle. William H. Murray said in The Scottish Himalayan Experience,

“There is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!”

I haven’t overcome paralysis. I’m still paralyzed every day. Years ago I read a book on the Dalal Lama. The author asked His Holiness what enlightenment was like. I read with anticipation. The Dalai Lama said that enlightenment was the top of the mountain and he wasn’t there, but he knew that he would make it. I can’t pretend to be like him, but the point for me is that we’re all climbing the mountain. The view from the top doesn’t exist. I’ll try not to pretend that I know what it looks like.