It was tough. No, I am not talking about the intense training sessions, the grueling setbacks, or the painful crashes. I am talking about a situation I was in a little more than a year ago. It was then that I faced one of the hardest decisions of my life. After ten years as a professional ski racer, I decided to say goodbye – goodbye to something that dominated every moment of my life, goodbye to a sport that fulfilled me, and goodbye to ski racing as an active athlete. Without a doubt, I was a fanatic and dedicated. Some would even say I was obsessed. I woke up every morning thinking about how to get better and went to bed reflecting on if I did. Yes, that decision was tough. But in the end, it felt right for me. And it still does.
Since then, my life has changed. New challenges arose, and new opportunities opened. Indeed, I sometimes miss ski racing. But guess what? I also discovered that there is a life beyond this admirable sport. During the last year, I had time to reflect and look back from an outsider’s perspective. And I can now say ski racing was an unforgettable part of my life as well as an outstanding teacher.
Dream big, work hard
World Cup Winner. Olympic Champion. Greatest of all time. Dreaming of success can be inspiring but does not affect change. Setting goals was one of the first things I learned as a ski racer. What are my objectives for the upcoming races? What do I want to achieve next season? And where do I want to be at the end of my career? Goals always had a significant impact on my motivation. They refined my focus and helped me bring structure to my planning – all aspects that are crucial to succeeding in my post-racing life. I see that very clearly now
Yes, goals are fundamental for success. And yes, no doubt, success is important. But is ski racing solely about points, wins, titles and medals?
What it’s really about
I was sure I would never miss those stormy, rainy, cold training days, those exhausting sessions in the gym and those endless hours in the tuning room. I often cursed my alarm when it went off at five in the morning and I wouldn’t say I liked the fighting in the lift queues to get up to the glacier in the first gondola. Yet not once did I ask myself why I was doing it all when I stood in the finish area, disappointed and devastated after a bad result.
Ski racing isn’t full of joy and pure pleasure every day. That’s wishful thinking. However, even if the challenging, undesirable moments made up a significant part of my time as a racer, those are not the situations I remember when I think back.
The time I spent with people sharing my passion, values and interests comes to mind. I cherish the profound friendships, relationships and experiences. I will never forget the incredibly intense feelings of pure satisfaction, gratitude and freedom when I succeeded.
As a ski racer, I lived in the fresh air, outside in nature almost every day. I traveled the world and saw a lot of beautiful places. I also ripped millions of turns that were so much fun and gave me joy and fulfillment. Those are my fondest memories.
Outside the comfort zone
But life can also offer wonderful experiences outside of the sport, right? So why would someone go through all the effort of a ski racing career?
A good friend hit the nail on the head: “It’s not that ski racing is different from a normal job. What makes it so different and intense is that the emotions you feel get amplified many times in professional sports.” A ski racer’s life happens outside of their comfort zone. Some dislike that fact, but I loved it. It was those emotional peaks that made ski racing so special to me. And that’s probably what I miss most about ski racing.
Up and down
As an athlete, I was constantly confronted with highs and lows, ups and downs, victories and setbacks. Believe me when I say the lows made up a large share of my experience. It’s often said you learn more from your setbacks than your victories. I got sick of hearing that so many times. But I now fully agree. By going through all those situations, ski racing shaped my personality. I learned how to deal with a challenge and perform under pressure, how to handle setbacks, and that it is essential to appreciate the small victories as much as the big ones.
Ski racing taught me endurance, persistence, determination and many other fundamental characteristics that can’t be taught in any school but are developed only through real-life experiences. Over the years, these attitudes have benefitted all facets of my life, and that’s something I’m grateful for.
Listen to your body…
Now let’s talk about the physical lessons you learn from sport. A perfect beach body is something athletes can develop through training, but nothing ski racing can promise. Without a doubt, after all the years as a professional athlete, I have acquired an in-depth understanding of what’s good for my body. I educated myself on nutrition and searched for ways to increase my sleep quality and improve my regeneration. I needed to understand what measures I could take to get and stay healthy and competitive.
Those life habits have stayed with me. I mostly know what to do when my muscles or joints feel sore after sitting in the office all day. It might be a stretching, mobilization, or muscle toning session that helps me, an ice bath, sauna, or a good nap. When you gain extensive knowledge about your body, you also learn when you can treat yourself and when it’s time to see a physiotherapist or a doctor—a precious gift.
…And to your heart
Listening to your body is essential and listening to your heart is even more so. When I was successful, when I achieved the result I had worked towards for years, sometimes some of my friends didn’t experience the same success. I realized that the friends who were failing needed my support.
Without question ski racing has made me a better human being. Ski racing taught me empathy and compassion; those emotional tools allowed me to help those who were disappointed in themselves and struggling to succeed. On the flip side, when I was down, the support of my family and friends was invaluable.
For me, character development, body awareness, and social competence are the most valuable lesson. But what else did ski racing teach me?
It enhanced my tactical behavior, for example. I sometimes would have loved to yell at the decision-makers on the national team. I wanted to let them know what I thought. But over time, I learned to be diplomatic, not to take decisions personally, and better anticipate future consequences.
When you are not part of a national team, you have to become your own manager. That might sound cool in theory, but it’s pretty tough in reality. Knowing how to plan, organize, make crucial decisions, and finance your ski racing is vital and beneficial. You set up a budget, try to appeal to sponsors and negotiate contracts. Additionally, you have to get creative. When we recently covered “lean management” in my studies, I was reminded of some money-saving measures we regularly used as racers. A quick example: Pretending a 35kg backpack full of ski bindings is lightweight carry-on hand luggage. That alone actually financed our lift tickets during a New Zealand camp.
Success vs. humanity
To a certain extent, I even gained some manual dexterity through the daily ski tuning sessions. And as we often cooked for ourselves during training camps, we also improved our culinary skills. There are probably more points I can’t think of now, but there is one thing I didn’t learn in all the years of skiing.
Some say ski racing teaches you how to prioritize your duties. Picking up that skill would have probably brought me further as a ski racer, but for sure, not as a human. After his retirement, World Super-G champion Hannes Reichelt said, “I’d rather be remembered as a nice human than have another win on my resume.” I embrace his sentiment fully.
When Reichelt retired, he was 40. Athletes end their careers for different reasons: injuries, lack of success or motivation, missing perspectives, or – as in Reichelt’s case – his age. Despite the typical reasons, the mental attitudes of retired ski racers vary: those who are bitter and disappointed, those who feel blessed and are thankful for their journey, and those who can’t let go. I was sure I would become one of the athletes who couldn’t let go. That’s why I am even happier to now count myself as one of the thankful.
Would I do it again?
Yes! Without a doubt. But at the same time, I would ask myself what I would do differently.
If I could turn back time, I would probably try to take everything a little bit less seriously and enjoy every day more. Ski racing felt like the only thing in my life and there was hardly any space for anything else. That attitude cost me some hair and nerves. It also limited my development. My awareness of the importance of mental tools and attitude came too late. I would have worked more closely with coaches at an earlier age.
Other than that, there is hardly anything I would change. Wait… I also wouldn’t have worried so much about what to do after my ski racing career. Somewhere in my mind, I was always concerned about my future for no reason. As soon as I announced my retirement, I got offered several jobs, albeit without having studied at university and without any traditional work experience. But wise employers know that because of their work ethic and life experience, ski racers – and athletes in general – are excellent employees.
Keep on Racing
The values and expectations of our society have changed dramatically in the last century. You no longer have to graduate at age 25 and work until you retire. Nowadays, career paths are very individual. Today, there are unique opportunities around every corner. You only need to be ambitious.
That’s why I want to tell all racers who doubt and fear: If the fire burns inside you, keep racing. You won’t regret it. It’s worth it one hundred percent.