Anchorage AK, Team AK
My daughter Jamay is standing at the top of the 20-meter ski jump, her eyes swimming with tears of betrayal. She’s staring at me incredulously, and though I’ve already forgotten exactly what I just said in the heat of the moment, this look on her face will be etched in my memory forever.
For over a year her jumping coaches have been telling her she’s ready to try the 20, and for over a year she’s been hiking up to this platform and psyching herself out, repeatedly, sometimes in dramas that dragged on for over 20 minutes. Or so I’ve heard. My husband Ken has been the primary support crew for ski jumping, while I handle other endeavors. For the past year, we’ve been saying Jamay could jump the 20 whenever she’s ready, or not, but it has started to feel like the fear drama is the extracurricular, not the ski jumping. Today I’m basically the pinch hitter who’s been brought in as a last resort.
We’ve arranged a special practice time while the older kids are on the 40 and 65, so the peer pressure is gone. It’s a lovely June day with the lightest of breezes, a perfection that sometimes happens only a few times all summer in Alaska, and I’m standing around trying to talk sense to a child who has transformed into a recalcitrant bear cub in a jumping suit. We’ve been up here awhile, long enough to feel like we’re in a repetitive time loop, but I know the clock is ticking on this special session and we won’t get another chance like today. The tips of Jamay’s skis are hanging over the tracks but her jaw is set in stubborn determination and her hands are firmly braced against the gate, in case gravity gets any sudden ideas.
I try every trick I know. I explain calmly and rationally why the time to jump is now (or 15 minutes ago, or any time in the last year, but whatever). Jamay just grunts and looks nonplussed, like a bear cub lying in the middle of the road. I reiterate the promise of a manicure and pedicure, the reward she picked for herself. “Grunt”. I remind her of our earlier talks about the importance of facing things in life that seem insurmountable. “Grunt”, plus an exaggerated eye roll. I even tell her she can quit ski jumping after she conquers this jump, an option that is becoming more attractive the longer I think about it. “Grunt”.
Then Jamay finally breaks her obdurate monosyllabic responses by summing up her view of the situation: that we might as well let her quit now, same difference, and she knows we’ll still love her, blah, blah, blah, so what’s the point, let’s go home.
Suddenly there are two virtual bears on that platform. My mama bear instincts kick in as I realize my daughter is in danger of succumbing to the Fear bearing down on her like a truck, the Fear that’s about to win. I’ve always preferred the role of comforting nurturer, but it’s not what’s needed now, so I drop the facade and let her see, for once, what it’s built on. I say something like, “Yes, I will always love you, though I won’t love this decision you’re making”, but I doubt she hears the words at all because I deliver them as if I’m six feet tall, covered in fur, and equipped with both claws and fangs. Now my daughter is staring at me with betrayal and disbelief, a look that would break my heart if I weren’t overwhelmed with defensiveness and determination. Jamay and I look at each other silently, a stare-down of wills over a sea of emotions, before she finally turns around slowly, tips her skis over the edge, and let’s go.
I hear the zipper sound of her skis hitting metal tracks for the first time, a few nanoseconds of silence as she flops off the end of the jump, then the slightly percussive sound of her landing in the outrun with the same form as a bug hitting a windshield. She calls out, “I’m never doing that again!” her words echoing off the slopes of the neighboring ski hill.
I rush down the stairs to Jamay, “Just one more time,” I say breathlessly, and then more words including the predictable analogy about the importance of getting back on the horse when you fall. I’ve got a stockpile of words about life lessons lined up, ready to be spewed, when Ken turns to Jamay and says, “If you jump one more time, I’ll get a mani-pedi too.”
I feel the wind on my cheek as Jamay rushes past to dash up the stairs, taking them two at a time and humming. She straps on her skis, slides down the tracks, actually gets air this time, and sticks the landing, all before I’ve recovered from the sudden long jam of words in my brain. “I did it!” she exclaims euphorically, before heading up to jump again. She jumps numerous times before it’s time to go, with no hesitation on that day or any of the following days. Or any of the following years, thus far.
I wish I could end there, but it wouldn’t be fully honest. Two years after that June day, I bring Jamay to Springer Camp in Park City UT so we can learn more about this sport she’s apparently sticking with. She quickly adjusts to the jumps and exults in meeting other ski jumpers while I lurk around the outrun, asking other parents a litany of questions. On the last night, I attend the parent reception at the top of the 120-meter jump and as I’m standing looking at the horizon, whiskey in one hand and canapé in the other, I make the mistake of looking down at the jump, and a revelation sears across my brain: this sport, this entire shebang, is clearly an Absolutely Terrible Idea.
Debatably, I should have realized where this was all headed much sooner, but it is only when I’m looking at the 120 face-to-face that I finally do the mental math on the differential between my petite daughter and this massive plastic-tracked death trap. I realize that if I could go back in time to that moment on the platform of the 20, I would skip the bear routine and say, “You’re right! Let’s go get ice cream and never speak of this again.”
I call Ken and tell him my revelation. He demurs, probably foreseeing a rumble and not wanting any part of it. That night I explain to Jamay that she’s now free to focus on her other interests. She doesn’t take it well. “But Mom!” she wails, “ski jumping feels like flying!” Yes, I think, exactly what I’m worried about. That which goes up must come down, a lesson I’ve personally had to learn the hard way, repeatedly, leaving me feeling lucky to still be upright. Then her tone changes and she says calmly but fiercely, “Mom, I love it.” I do a double-take because, for a moment there, I thought I saw fangs.
I lost that battle. Jamay leveled up to the 40 and then the 65 with a “Hey Mom, guess what I did today” nonchalance. We returned to Springer this summer after several years of Covid-induced hiatus, and she finally got to see the view from the top of the 120 that she had heard so much about. She reacted as if she was seeing buried treasure being brought into the light. “Oh, Mom”, she sighed, “it’s so beautiful!” That’s still not my reaction, but I am grateful for her passion, and for the sport that brought out her own inner bear. She’s now an avid jumper, and I’m the one with tears in my eyes every time she tries a new jump.