The honor code

Wedding Crasher’s Rule No. 76: “No excuses; play like a champion!” is a favorite quote in my family –supposedly as encouragement. But while Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn are mocking athletics and also their seriousness for crashing weddings, there is a truth to this axiom: do your best.

In other words, honor the sport.

Sport teaches its athlete: sometimes we learn how to win, other times how to lose, how to work hard, how to think positively. The greatest lesson I learned came from a former Olympian coach and family friend, he said, “honor the sport.” Our sport was Nordic skiing; a brutal, demanding, lonely sport – not as sexy as mountain biking, not as fun as Alpine skiing, not as celebrated as running. It’s cold and you wear Spandex; it’s uphill without the adrenaline of downhill racing, it’s snot frozen to your face. It’s a wonderful sport.

It seems like a simple enough philosophy, but many professional athletes – in my opinion as a stranger who merely watches 5-second clips and reads articles – aren’t adhering to this simple maxim. Without their respective sports, where would athletes such as Tiger Woods and Shaun White be? They have helped to define their sport, but where would they be without it—without a little luck, a coach who believed, a parent willing to push?
Linsanity: a perfect example of someone, Jeremy Lin, who was obviously talented but never given an opportunity to play in the NBA until his coach was desperate. It seems like athletic excellence would be an easy thing to recognize, but it’s rife with human error. Perhaps Lin won’t take for granted his celebrity, his money or his identity as a basketball player because he knows that he is not an infallible athletic god, but a guy who is lucky and talented.
Some people are freakishly talented. Haven’t experts dissected Michael Phelp’s body to prove he is literally made for swimming? But think if he had gone to a high school without a swim team or if he had liked racing his downhill bike instead — then he wouldn’t be a topic for discussion. Sometimes the sport finds you early, sometimes late in life. Sometimes the sport takes away too soon.

The death of 29-year-old skier Sarah Burke in January, while tragic, is part of the sport for which she was passionate, a part that she herself acknowledged, saying in an interview with USA Today that she felt lucky she’d never had an injury that had ended her career, because she knew it was almost an eventuality. It’s heartbreaking for her family that it also ended her life.

Burke was an individual who did honor her sport by coaching, donating money and advocating for its entrance into the Olympic games. If you google Sarah Burke there are many pictures of her skiing, pictures of her on a podium, and one or two magazine shots of her celebrating the sexuality of an athlete. If you google Lindsey Vonn, the opposite appears.

 While Vonn is the dominant woman in downhill racing, her Olympic weeping about how much work she put into her race to win by less than a second had this Nordic skier shaking her head. I suppose hard work is relative, but any endurance athlete can attest to the difficulty of a multi-hour training run/ride/or ski uphill vs. gravitational pull.

Recent ski movies, including Warren Miller films, show the glory and not the grit of downhill skiing. Heli drops and unattainable terrain are nice to see, but what is really inspiring to this amateur is watching someone who works for their glory.

Aspen’s Chris Davenport honors his sport of skiing more openly than any professional athlete I can think of.  For his quest to ski all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks, which he documented in a well-photographed book, Davenport not only climbs more than 200,000 vertical feet in every possible weather combination, but he also pays homage to the skiers and mountaineers who came before him as well as excitedly talks about the protégés he’s brought along on his adventure.

Davenport seems to realize that he’s another rung in the ladder of his sport. He acknowledges everything skiing has given him; it’s more than a hobby, more than a job. Shaun White may be the epitome of snowboarding now, but Kevin Pearce – who was supposed to challenge White in the 2010 Olympics – can no longer competitively snowboard. Pearce suffered brain damage on the same half-pipe that killed Sarah Burke; another concussion would kill him. Yet he remains a fan, showing up at the X-games to watch and cheer, tweeting about his first ride on a snowboard in two years, inviting everyone to join him.

Even the avalanche deaths this year remind us recreational skiers of the inherent danger of our sport. Sick lines and sweet turns are great to brag about, but the mountain remains most powerful. It’s not about bragging rights (and careful about boasting, you never know which world class skier or mountain biker, boater or climber is sitting next to you at the bar, shaking his or her head at your novice ignorance). Bragging is for proving something, when what matters is finding peace at the top of a mountain or the bottom of a river canyon.

Durango is a community of athletes, we thrive on challenges. Although I can’t help having a little condescension slip into my voice when I tell the two California guys that, believe it or not, backcountry means skinning up hills, not riding a snowmobile or ski cat, I do love giving advice to tourists about bike trails or peaks to hike. It catches them off guard coming from their bartender.

Honor the sport doesn’t just mean training hard or logging hours, it means appreciating a lifestyle – and taking as much pleasure in a hard training session as a nice stroll through the Falls Creek meadow on skinny skis with novice friends. It means raft trips with friends, and hikes with dogs. We get to live here, it would be a dishonor not to take advantage of it.

– Maggie Casey