I was great at sports as a boy. Or, would have been if I’d had more athletic ability. Some athletic ability.
Case in point: grade 7 ski lessons.
In February of 1974, our school packed all of us onto a bus headed for Calgary’s winter sports mecca, Canada Olympic Park. This is the very venue that hosted many of the now-legendary athletes at the 1988 Winter Olympics, including ski jumping great Matti Nykänen, the perhaps more famous but certainly less talented Eddie the Eagle, and of course the beloved Jamaican bobsled team. (Full disclosure: in 1974, it had not yet become Canada Olympic Park, but was still in its pre-epic incarnation, which is to say a bunny hill named Paskapoo. I generally do not mention this when I tell this story.)
It was Day 1 but I was no raw rookie, having taken the beginner course in grade 6. Back then they had taught us critical skills such as how to put on our equipment, how to fall (I was good at that), how to get up again (not as good), and how to do other stuff like snowplow and turn and stop. On the last day we had even skied all the way down the bunny run. From the very top!
So naturally I was feeling pretty good about myself as I clomped away from the lodge to meet my group at the bottom of the hill. As a seasoned professional, I was ready for anything. Heck, I had even put on my boots all by myself. No challenge would be too great.
Then my instructor showed up. He was a tall, blond skier dude, coolness oozing from every pore (I can only assume this as his pores were well concealed beneath his ultra chic ski jacket). The girls swooned. The guys shifted subtly in order to emulate his suave-but-I-neither-know-nor-care posture. When he spoke, we all knew that we would gladly go wherever he asked us to go, even at the cost of our very lives.
“Dudes,” he began, of course (think Crush from Finding Nemo), “let’s go!”
Everyone followed, naturally. By all appearances no one was even slightly concerned that our destination appeared to be the chairlift. This was alarming for two reasons: One, riding the ski lift is hands down the most difficult skill for a young skier to master. I mean the sitting part is easy enough, but the mounting and dismounting bits? Not so much. Part of the problem is how simple it looks. When you fail—and there is no subtle way to fall either onto or off of a chairlift—you look like a complete idiot. And no middle schooler likes to look like an idiot.
The second and perhaps greater concern was where the ski-lift terminated. For if you wanted to go part way up the hill, the tow rope was for you, but the chair lift? It only stopped in one place—the top of the hill.
I wondered whether he was aware that, in our beginners’ class, we had only actually summited once, on our final day, one full year ago? I mean, surely he would take us through a little bit of review first; falling, snowplowing, turning (getting on and off the lift!). Just for the sake of those who may have forgotten, you understand. Those who might, say, be feeling a little terrified.
Since no one seemed to be willing to broach the topic (or even notice?) I decided to be the one to step up and enquire (for the sake of the group). But cooly. Like I didn’t really care.
“So,” I began casually as we came perilously close to the front of the lift line, “uh . . . Mr. Dude, sir . . . where are we . . . like . . . going? Dude.”
“To the top, bro!”
Well, there. It had been said aloud. Now everyone would realize the imminent danger, come to their senses and demand a thorough review of last year’s lesson (whoa, was I a teacher in the making, or what?). But of course, no one objected. Because if they had, I wouldn’t be writing this, would I? There’s absolutely no fun in a story about a thoroughly successful ski lesson, sans bodily harm or public humiliation.
So, in spite of a few more low-key, lighthearted and wholly ineffectual attempts on my part to redirect our cool-but-clueless leader, up the hill we went. Oh well, I thought. Perhaps he’ll run through the basics at the top of the hill.
He did not. Unless, “See you at the bottom, dudes!” counts.
I watched, mouth agape, as one by one my comrades joyfully followed him to their certain deaths. Were they out of their minds? So smitten by the aura of Skier-boy that they could not see the obvious and inevitably fatal outcome? Some of them even seemed almost enthusiastic—like they actually wanted to ski down that hill (many years later I recognized this for what it was, namely a confidence born of competence; no wonder it seemed odd to me at the time!).
Eventually—and I remember this moment oh so clearly—it was just me left alone at the top of the hill. In that moment I experienced 6 of the 7 stages of grief: disbelief, denial, bargaining (frantic last-minute negotiations with the Almighty), guilt, anger and depression; acceptance eluded me.
I edged closer to the brink until the tips of my skis poked out over the lip of the (bunny hill) precipice. I don’t know how long I remained there wrestling with my preteen angst, remembering my childhood with fondness, wondering whether it would be best to die of starvation and exposure alone on a mountain’s summit, or to end it all in one last blaze of glory that would be recounted for years by my soon-to-be-former peers (remember that doofus Pawlak, they would begin . . . ). Neither option sounded particularly appealing, but I eventually came to the realization that the only way I was ever going to get down the hill with any measure of dignity at all would be to ski down (imagine that!). So I planted my poles and pushed off.
Several things occurred in quick succession. One, given that my skis were fully parallel and pointed directly at the bottom of the hill, I began to accelerate at an astonishing rate. Two, I panicked. And three, I forgot absolutely everything I had ever been taught about skiing. Finally, having accomplished all of this, I simply repeated steps one through three.
This had alarming results. Even on a bunny hill, parallel skiing straight down the slope will create significant speed. I compare the experience to that of an astronaut upon take-off: vibrations jarring every bone in my body as they work their way up from my legs to my teeth, G-forces thrusting my already rattled internal organs to the rearmost part of my bodily cavities, and my cheeks peeled back so that my teeth and eyeballs were left alone to lead the way into the great unknown.
I recall a few of the impressions that flitted through my mind at the time. It occurred to me that I ought to stop, or perhaps turn at least. But I was fairly certain that I would be unable to execute either maneuver at this (or any) velocity. At the same time I was also quite aware that if I carried on without altering course in some manner, it would not end well. So then it became a question of whether to attempt something bold, and immediately crash painfully, or to simply continue with the status quo and crash painfully later. In the moment, option number two seemed the least offensive.
I also recollect screaming, “Hellllp!” at the top of my lungs. No joke; about a third of the way down the hill, I actually did this! And in spite of the utter sincerity of my desperate cry, I also recall a certain sense of whimsy. I hollered because I was genuinely afraid, but also a little bit because it I was aware that a person careening down a ski hill out of control calling loudly for help seemed cartoonishly funny. I am actually quite proud of my twelve-year-old self for this.
Well, all good things must come to an end. Not long after my brush with comedy—and after having inadvertently invited everyone within earshot to watch what was about to happen—I hit a mogul. Yes, hit. Body rigid, knees locked; at high speed and right angles, hit.
What happened then would perhaps best be described as an explosion. Boom! Instant elevation, all four limbs immediately and fully extended, equipment (poles and skis) forcefully jettisoned into the atmosphere. Houston, we have lift off.
I then had one of those everything-moving-in-slow-motion-moments. It was like passing into the eye of the storm; gliding weightless through the air, vaguely aware that this was not a normal experience, but more curious than afraid. Hmmm. I wonder what landing will feel like?
My question was answered soon thereafter, and I was surprised by the result. One would expect to meet the earth with a thud, but this was not the case. What I had failed to take into account was that Paskapoo was, as was its general tendency, very icy that day. I touched down, and like an aircraft on a slippery runway, slid. And slid. And slid some more. Again, I recall, in the moment, wondering when it might end and what it might be like when it did. I was a very curious child (curious in this case meaning both eager to know or learn and strange or unusual).
When the dust (or rather, snow) settled, I found myself looking up at a grey winter sky. Soon, two heads appeared within my view, one on either side. Pretty teenage girls. Perfect.
“Are you okay?” one asked.
I considered her question. Are you freaking kidding me! I thought. Did you see what just happened? I hit a frickin mogul at 537 miles an hour, was tossed high into the air and slammed down like a rag doll onto a sheet of sheer ice, and you’re asking me if I’m okay?
I said none of this aloud. My response was rather more concise. “No.”
“No?” She wasn’t quite sure what to do with that. “Um . . . we’ll, um. . . go get someone . . . I guess?”
Help arrived before long. Tall, tan, buff and heroic, Captain Ski-patrol swooshed dramatically to a stop, dropped to one knee, and just as ridiculously as the aforementioned pretty girls, inquired as to my condition. My answer was apparently inconsequential, as within seconds he had come up with a diagnosis: I was fine.
Helping me up, he noted astutely that I was not putting any weight on my left leg. He encouraged me to do so, but I declined. “Come on, just give it a try,” he urged.
“Nope,” I replied. I was a lad of few words.
“Just a little. It’ll be okay.”
“No, it’s broken,” I stated matter of factly.
He was unconvinced. To be fair, I was calm, not in any apparent pain, and my leg looked perfectly fine. But I knew that it was not. It didn’t hurt, but it just kind of felt weird, like it wasn’t properly attached or something.
Since I so stubbornly refused to dance for him, Ski-patrol Man was forced to treat me for a broken ankle. First he got out the leg splint. This, in the 1970s, was a great three-sided rectangular wooden box with foam padding inside that would brace my leg for the journey to the hospital. It was also bright yellow, presumably to insure that anyone who had not by now noticed my plight would immediately be alerted to the situation. I was relieved to know that none of my peers would be left out.
Once thus secured, it was time for me to be transported down the hill. This, at least, would be fun. I had on more than one occasion seen the skiing wounded laid upon a sled and towed away behind a snowmobile, afforded the luxury of both motorized transportation and the glorious tribute due a fallen hero. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I observed that my rescuer had neglected to bring along any form of vehicular conveyance.
“Um,” I ventured uneasily, “someone coming with the snowmobile?”
“No, no,” said my gallant friend. “We won’t need that!” He then proceeded to scoop me up in his arms and slalom gracefully down the hill with me held snugly against his manly chest, all my classmates looking on curiously as we glided by them. Looking back on my youth, I would have to count this as one of my least impressive moments (top 5, probably). I’m not sure how, at the age of 12, one ever recovers socially from a situation of this nature. I can only assume that in later years when I asked one of the girls at school to go out with me and she said no, it was because she could not erase this particular picture of me from her mind. Yes, I’m sure now that was the sole reason.
Upon examination at the hospital, X-rays confirmed that I had indeed broken my leg (Ha! Take that, Ski-boy!). I was sentenced to 6 weeks on crutches with a cast from mid-thigh to toes. I missed the hockey playoffs that year which, as my team’s only goalie, was met with great disappointment from my coaches and teammates alike (it meant that someone else would be stuck in net). I like to think that had it not been for that fateful mishap, I would have been the star of the playoffs, leading my team to the championship against all odds (we had not won a single game that year). It would have been talked about for years, I’m sure. “That Robin Pawlak!” they would marvel. “He was some amazing athlete!”