Holly Flanders
by Holly Flanders

One of the tragedies of our sport is that far too many women who try skiing for the first time wind up not wanting to ski ever again because that first experience was intimidating, uncomfortable and frightening—in a phrase, downright horrible. And that’s a shame…

Skiing is the greatest sport in the world when you are involved in a positive learning situation. When the learning curve is climbing, you feel alive and powerful, you love the sensation of meeting and overcoming challenges. You feel in control of skis and body in a way you may never have experienced before; you meet gravity head on and conquer. It’s one of the purest “in the flow” experiences available to woman or man anywhere on the planet.

Photo courtesy VolklBut, sometimes the one who most wants you to learn or improve is also the one most in the way! Sometimes, in fact too often, I see guys leading girlfriends or wives down trails that are way over the woman’s heads. They are not necessarily being cruel, actually, the opposite is more often the case. The man is so enthusiastic about the thrill of the run, that he simply does not see, or understand, how his partner is really feeling. “Come on,” he may rant in frustration and impatience, “This is easy! You can do it!” All that really accomplishes to to make the situation even worse.

It’s time for you to take charge! And that often involves calling in the pros, understanding teachers who will not pressure you out of their own frustration or enthusiasm.

As an Olympic Downhill athlete and U.S. Team racer for 10 years, I regularly reached speeds of 80mph—faster speeds, I suspect, than the average boyfriend or husband has ever experienced. I skied under such extreme circumstances with confidence. But I didn’t just jump on my skis one day and start skiing that fast out of the blue. Rather my confidence at speed was built over years of careful training and superb coaching.

And that is the secret to success. You probably won’t be making as deep a commitment as I did when I began to race, but the principles involved in becoming an accomplished skier are exactly the same. Progress at a rational pace and refuse to be placed in dangerous or intensely uncomfortable situations.

I recall attending a downhill camp at Sugarloaf, Maine back when I was a burgeoning junior racer. The coaches had us ski a straight track at a comfortable pace a few times to get a taste for speed, without entering the fear zone. Slowly we got into progressively more aggressive tucks and slowly we built speed, allowing the comfort zone to progress at the same rate. Eventually we stripped to downhill suits to add even more speed. Finally, when we were ready, we entered an actual course and built to competition speeds. What I recall the most was being prepared and in control and therefore savoring, rather than fearing, the ever increasing thrill of speed.

On the flip side, years later, after my ski racing career had wound down, I took up mountain bike racing. The sport was new and I was green; I did not have the skills for it. One day, I was riding slowly down a washboard dirt road hill and thought to myself, with my old race head, “You Wimp! You’re going too slow! You’re supposed to be a hotshot ski racer and here you are crawling along like a timid snail!”

To make the story short, I poured in on, going faster and faster until finally…


I biffed right into the dirt!

Thereafter, I changed my tactics. I used what I had learned in race training those many years ago and gradually built ability to handle speed and rough terrain, one careful step at a time, just as we had done in ski racing. By building confidence and skill slowly and carefully, and resisting pressure—whether self-imposed or from someone else—I finally reached the point where my skills were equal to my desire for challenge.

I also became a better coach.