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memoir: snowboarding as therapy


things I learned in a Whistler winter


I was twenty-three when I moved to Whistler in British Columbia, Canada. I moved on little more than a whim and a vague sense of the urgency to change what had become dangerously apathetic circumstances. My younger brothers had both spent time in that part of the world and encouraged me to check it out. I went there with plans for a six-month holiday. I stayed for three years. I have to say, it was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. I learned to snowboard.

Plenty of friends and family were surprised and perhaps a little amused that I’m now such a snowboarding enthusiast. I’ve never been one for sport. As a woman, compounded years of not feeling that I physically measured up meant I kept my own body at length, a part of my existence to deal with, rather than live in and love. I’d always been aware of how much space to take up in the world, and just what degree of apology and awkward physicality I was able to call my own. How unhappily I avoided anything which would make me sweaty and red-faced. How careful I had been to steer around things with minimal bumps to my lady-shaped person. Tentative. Careful.

Learning to snowboard was a revelation. For starters, as I learned, I fell over more times in the most undignified ways than you care to imagine. I was black and blue. Parts of me hurt that I hadn’t known existed; so I began to know my body again.

Some of the best lessons of my life came from learning this sport. For example, the fact that wherever you’re looking, that’s where you’ll go; I learned not to focus on bumps, ditches, trees, other snowboarders. I learned by running into them.

The pain of learning something new passes. On my third day on the mountain, I had a lesson from a friend who bluntly told me that if I didn’t start being brave I’d never learn, and I’d hate my entire winter season. A damning possibility, considering I’d shelled out for a $1400 ski pass. I lay in a hot bath after a day of falls and indignities and instead of crying like I wanted to, I gave myself my favourite pep-talk to date. Listen, self, I said. You have no excuse, other than fear of failure. Don’t fail. Don’t hate your entire winter season. Stop being so damn scared of hurting yourself. You’re going to fall. That’s okay.

It’s a motivational tale, folks: the next day, I made my first turn on a board (the hardest part), my little brother told me I wasn’t as bad as he’d thought I was going to be (the highest of praises), and I suddenly understood why everyone loved this sport so much. And going fast was fun, it was the best bit.

Once I’d beat that hurdle I was pretty much unstoppable. My learning curve was steep. The pride of mastering the thing far outweighed any further fear I had (mostly: I still wouldn’t say I’m completely comfortable being airborne). And as the season unfolded, I learned something: my body was amazing.

I used it, every bit of it, to throw myself into a beautiful turn on a fresh-groomed run. To lean back and take in some of the wonderful powder days that Whistler has to offer, where twenty centimetres of fresh snow falls overnight and everything is soft and quiet; you float peacefully through trees on your board while snowflakes continue to fall. I learned that getting hot and sweaty pulling yourself up from a fall was exactly what everyone else was doing; I discovered that there were ‘sniffle stations’ at the chairlifts with tissues to wipe away the same snot-icicles that everyone else was dealing with (I paint a glamorous picture, I know). I learned that when everyone was rugged up for a day on the mountain, we all looked pretty much the same: warm and waterproof.

The coolest thing? The girls were just as awesome as the boys. Everyone encouraged each other, and I finally got to experience being part of a sport in a way that didn’t make me feel inadequate, or like I didn’t belong. I could ride the same places as everybody else: I followed my friend Phill into unknown territory simply because it never occurred to me that I couldn’t, and when we both got caught out in early season not-quite snow cover, we both looked as silly as each other trying to get out of there. If I’d successfully pulled something off, I was praised in the same way I would praise others for their achievements, be they bigger or smaller than mine.

Obviously, snowboarding is also a competitive sport, but it was nothing like that for me. It was all-inclusive, and alongside it tumbled a great group of people who cared very little for what we all looked like at the end of the day. Finally, for me, a reason to be proud of my body, for the pure joy it could give me just by being mine, and I was in control of it. I took up as much space as I wanted, and at the end of the day I took my sweaty, pink-cheeked overjoyed self to the bar for a pint of beer, sat with my friends and just felt incredibly happy to be me.

And it was a turning point. I’m back in Australia now, but I’ve noticed a difference. I inhabit my body. I care about it, and so I take better care of it. It’s done amazing things with me; I’ve stood at the top of ski hills either exhilarated by the snow-capped peaks surrounding me, or filled with the adrenalin rush right before pointing my board down a slope I’d never tried before. I’m finally present in my body, and I know we’ve got a lot of adventures ahead of us yet!

(Image credit)

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3 thoughts on “memoir: snowboarding as therapy

  1. OK, I admit it. I was in the “amused” camp but now I understand a little bit more what mastering snow boarding meant to you. Great article, Helen.

  2. Wow Helen. Inspiring story. Sounds like you had an amazing time over there in Canada. I think you should go back!!!!!!

  3. Hi Hellen

    I’m in my third year of struggling with a very ugly divorce and desperately need a break to find myself and my body. I have started to think that a season of snowboarding might do the trick. There is a number of issues holding me back: Mortgage, children, people around me finding it ridicoluos… Your article is a great motivation. Thank You

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