Two years ago, when I learned that ten athletes from Shanghai University of Sport with no Nordic ski experience were going to join or ski team to learn to ski, I had no idea what to expect. Part of me was excited. I knew I had a lot to learn from these athletes about Chinese language and culture. Another part of me was nervous. I worried that adding 10 athletes to our tight-knit team of about 15 skiers would throw off the team dynamics that made UW Nordic feel like a family to me. I also worried that we would no longer be able to receive the attention and advice from our coaches that we all deserved.
Two years ago I could have never imagined what this experience would mean to me. Maybe I could have pictured myself cooking and eating hot pot with James, learning the Chinese words for my favorite vegetables, and running around shouting “xi lanhua!” (broccoli). Maybe I could have also imagined learning regional variations on my Chinese favorite cuss words with Andy. But there were a lot of things that surprised me about my experience skiing with the SUS athletes.
In retrospect, my fears of no longer receiving technique advice and coaching seem silly, because if anything, it was the opposite. I think back to one particular practice on a Wednesday in February. The team split into two groups: those excited and healthy enough to do intervals, and the those who preferred to ski easy and work on technique. I was feeling tired and chose the latter group along with several of the SUS skiers. Our goal for the day was to practice cornering on downhills, specifically right-hand turns. Conveniently, this was one of my weakest points as a skier. Having only recently started skiing, I got by on the strength and endurance I had built as a distance runner rather than the finesse and technique that come from years on skis. As such when, Coach Nathan asked me to demonstrate how I would ski our first corner, I was astonished and nervous. We had chosen a relatively easy corner to begin but it was a corner I had never skied particularly well before. Even though I wasn’t confident in my ability, I knew the SUS athletes looked up to me, regarding me as an experienced skier. I knew couldn’t let them down so I tried to appear confident and convince myself I could do it. I stood starting at the trail scouting out my route, took a deep breath, and took off toward the outside edge of the trail before cutting sharply in and skiing through the corner relatively gracefully. I smiled as I came to a stop and skied back toward my teammates, secretly quite proud of myself for how well I skied. That day, with every corner each athlete skied, I could see their improvement and an increase in their confidence. The confidence I could see in them boosted my own confidence as well.
I’ve always known that teaching is the best way to learn just about anything, but I’ve only recently come to understand just how powerful that can be. Being a mentor and a teammate to these athletes was so much more than I could have imagined, and I just hope their experience on this team was even half as meaningful as my own.