Sacrificing for the Win
When I was 18 years old I was dropped by the US Ski team at the peak of my young career. “Un-coachable” was the word that came down from up top. A long story for another day. This is a story about what came after….
Off to the University of Colorado in Boulder on a ski racing scholarship, angry about being denied the opportunity for a slot on the Olympic team, a huge chip on my shoulder and a bad attitude. I was brash, outspoken, independent, selfish and a rebel. By my sophomore year I managed to stage a walk-off, dragging my teammates with me, getting our coach fired. We became a ship without a captain, floundering our way through the season with no one to hold us together. A group of very talented ski racers with no leadership set us up to be the worst college team in the country — and that we were.
We were given a budget to hire our own coach and I went into my junior year with a fellow student/coach/friend/manager who agreed to take us on with our meager funding. For the first time in my life I realized I was in charge of my future. I needed to make this work. I wanted to make it work. I respected my coach and my teammates and I wanted to win.
Ski racing in college is a team sport. Men, women, alpine and cross-country combine scores in 8 races to win National championships. You are only as good as your team and for the first time in my life I learned that if I wanted to win I needed to change my behavior.
My strongest discipline was slalom, which is a combined time of two runs each about 50 seconds long. Slalom is a sprint; the gates are very close together, lots of turns and a very low margin for error. My attitude had always been: fall or win. Go 110% every time, all out, everything you’ve got. Second place wasn’t an option.
Because of this attitude I often won but almost as often, I didn’t make it to the finish line. My first two years in college I didn’t care. But by year three everything had changed. We had pulled ourselves out of the gutter. . We, our coach and team, had come together to be better. I now had a vested interest in my team, I could no longer be selfish, and I was no longer just racing for myself. My results affected my team’s standing. Finding the finish line and scoring points was more important than my own individual win.
Along with the change in attitude about my racing behavior, I began to change as a human. I started to care about my teammates. I was learning that by caring for others we were stronger. I was a natural leader and by choosing to be a positive leader, by giving back, I could help my teammates rise to an even higher level.
The NCAA National Championships were in Stowe Vermont. The Colorado men had clinched their portion of the title and the women’s Cross Country team had finished well. The National Title was within our grasp as we entered the last event: slalom. If we skied well we could win the overall title; mistakes were not an option.
In Nationals a team of four competes in each discipline. Three results count for the team’s total points allowing one person to have a bad run or fall. After the first run I was sitting in first place. I could taste the victory and wanted to be National Champion. But looming in the background was the knowledge that if I went for the win I could blow it. If I skied 110%, everyone would know, including myself, that there was a 50% chance I would fall. If I didn’t score there would be added pressure on my teammates to finish. But if I just made it to the finish line, I would score, giving the three remaining skiers the confidence they might need to push themselves harder. You don’t win without taking chances, but strategy and teamwork set you up for victory.
In between the two runs I was in turmoil. I knew what I wanted and I knew what was right. I made the decision to ski at 80% and get to the finish. To give my teammates the confidence they needed to ski 100%. This was the way to win the Nationals. “For once in your life Reichhelm, don’t be selfish. Take the hit, do the right thing” and that’s what I did.
I could hear my teammates cheering as I crossed the finish line. Not because I was fastest but because I made it. The rest of the girls stepped up to the plate and one of my teammates skied the best slalom run of her life and took the win. I ended up in fourth place, but the team effort gave us the title. NCAA National Champions. In one year we had gone from being the worst team in the NCAA to winning the Nationals.
At first it was a bittersweet feeling. I struggled with my decision. It was the first time in my life I had compromised my own result for the sake of others. But as the feeling soaked in, as I absorbed the victory with my team, I became more comfortable with the idea that my sacrifice was a major contributor to the victory. The joy and sense of accomplishment within my team was overwhelming. They made it clear to me they appreciated what I had done and our bond grew. But I had no idea how this one simple sacrifice would change me forever.
As time went by and we reveled in the glory of victory a closeness and camaraderie grew between us. The incredible sense of reward made our bond stronger. As this feeling grew over the next few months I realized I had never felt this good about anything I had done in my life. I felt an overwhelming sense of pride, so much greater than any race or single accomplishment. For the first time — I recognized that I was so much more than just I. Giving was so much better then getting and by giving I was better.
This is one of many life-changing stories that shaped me into the woman I am today.
Those of you who have skied with me know I love what I do. Sharing the mountains, my experience and my passion with others is what turns me on. Creating great experiences is what I do, not because it’s my job but because it’s what makes me happy.