What makes a champion

By Brennan Rubie

During the last couple of months I’ve been trying to come up with some inspiration for the next public narration of the chaotic thoughts in my head. My last post was about the passing of Ronnie and Bryce. After writing about a tragedy that affected so many people in such a personal way, it was hard to move on to another subject with serious devotion. They are never far from the surface of my conscious thoughts. Hard to believe that it’s been a year.

The subject I came to was the “What Makes a Champion” series of articles published by USSA, that was eventually organized into a contest in conjunction with Nastar and USSA’s team naming. The idea was the brainchild of USSA’s alpine media lady – coordinator – person – thing. I’m not sure her official title (Sry Megan…)(And sry everyone else for abbreviating a five letter word) but it should be known, that she is one of the most enthusiastically energetic people you will ever meet. (#Alliteration for like.) Her creativity sparked what, to me, seemed like a genuinely honest forum for a discussion about what it means to compete, what it means to be an athlete, and about the heart of our sport.

Champion – A person who has surpassed all rivals in a sporting contest or other competition.

As I tried to come up with my own definition for what makes a champion, it was easy to call upon the images of champions like Bode Miller, Lindsey Vonn, Marcel Hirsher, Ted Ligety, and Mikaela Shiffrin. What was it that made them champions? What was it that everyone else saw? What did I see? Obviously, their success on the world cup, at world championships, or at the Olympics had distinguished them apart from the competition. More importantly though to this conversation, what was it about their personality, or about the way they conducted their daily lives that allowed them to be champions.

Now I had more questions then answers. So, in order to help quantify my thoughts, I looked through some of the opinions of my teammates as they fought to assemble their own definitions of what makes a champion. I invite you to check the ones I could find out here for a little context.

Mikaela Shiffrin – https://www.instagram.com/p/9Lzd76smTq/?taken-by=mikaelashiffrin

Lila Lapanja – http://alpine.usskiteam.com/news/lila-lapanja-what-makes-champion-1

Ted Ligety – http://alpine.usskiteam.com/news/win-trip-copper-mountain-whatmakesachamp

Bryce Bennett – http://alpine.usskiteam.com/news/bryce-bennett-us-ski-team-yeti-whatmakesachamp

Leanne, Stacey, Jackie – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQbN2wYbuO8

In reading each of their thoughts, there was one common underlying theme that stuck out to me. They all suggested that this quest for greatness, this… pursuit of perfection… was no more than a quest for self-satisfaction, fulfillment, or maybe even enlightenment. Zero people suggested that to be a champion required a medal, or a win, or to be the best at anything. Certainly, it seems the desire to be the best was common amongst the group. But to be a champion, favored above best-in-the-world, was best-of-your-self.

This mentality is best highlighted by a metaphor Bryce Bennett uses to describe what a champion is to him.

“I envision a “champion” like a master craftsman… he is never scared to fail, because failure is a chance to learn, to grow, and to become better at his craft”.

The shoe/luggage repairman who works down the street from me is a palpable example of this champion. His nimble fingers are a saturated shiny black from years hunched over black rubber soles. I once brought him a pair of boot liners to customize and I think he charged me SIX DOLLARS. Six bucks won’t get you far these days. Anyone who will use their lifetime’s worth of knowledge to create something totally original for 6 bucks… is a champion to me.

At first glance, Bryce’s version of a champion is in stark contrast to the one Mikaela envisions.

“Every time I win a race, [or] set a personal best… I feel like a champion. But that feeling only lasts for a moment – because there is always more. In my eyes, the greatest champions are the people who… appreciate and enjoy their victories… but… who keep moving forward – who never stop to revel in what they’ve accomplished because they are never satisfied.”

There are no metaphors in Mikaela’s Champion. She speaks plainly about her desire to conquer and to achieve. This makes sense given that she is the most competitive person I have ever met and might ever meet. But again nowhere is there a mention of a desire to be considered the best or to beat others. She suggests that satisfaction from any victory, whether it’s learning a song on the guitar or setting Olympic records, comes from chasing her goals, achieving them, and then moving on.

This theme is apparent in everyone’s definition of a champion. Ted – “Doing your best, whether it’s winning or losing”. Lila – “someone who really takes ownership of [his or her] career”. Leanne – “Someone who can overcome adversity in any situation… and how to conquer anything put if front of them”.

As I reflect on what I think makes a champion, I don’t know that the answer has become any easier to define. The opinions given by my peers suggest that a champion is someone who does what they need to be the best they can be. For me, until maybe a couple months ago, that was a tough concept to grasp. Not that I didn’t understand the words. But after years ski racing – goals, expectations, performing, traveling, winning, losing, breaking, and healing – I wasn’t the best I could be. I still worked hard, focused while I trained and managed my energy, body, and mind the best I could. But I couldn’t accept my failures. I was and still am afraid somewhere under the surface of deep that I wasn’t in control of my successes and thus might never live up to the expectations myself and others had for me. In other words, fear was keeping me from being my own champion.

It wasn’t until recently that I grasped how this mostly subconscious mindset had hindered my well-being and performance. It was the last two slaloms of what had been a tough series. I traveled from the Europa Cups in Norway, halfway around the globe to compete in the two Nor-Am GS races and a Super-G in Panorama, Canada. But as fortune would have it, the Super-G was cancelled, and I caught a nasty little head cold for the GS that left me racing in a fog on a sunny day. I was left with a hunger to compete, and only the slaloms to quench it with.

It would be a unique opportunity for me – to race an event I had no expectations or inhibitions about, filled with a thirst to compete – I’d be starting 121, but even that didn’t bother me because the results didn’t matter. This race was for me to ski for the sake of skiing. The first day I crossed my tips 5 gates from the finish on my way to making the flip. But the second day, I ended up moving from 121st to 20th first run. And second run moving from 20th to 6th.

If I am truthful, open and honest with myself, that was the first time I have felt like a champion in… three years. I was thrilled with the result… yes, but most importantly was the way I felt as I pushed out of the gate and on the course. I was excited and eager. I made mistakes, but instead of dreading the results I might not achieve, I fought to make another turn, and another recovery. I did what I could because I was alive. And as I crossed the line… I was smiling. From what exactly, I can’t quite describe.

So makes a champion? I think a champion is a state of mind. It someone brave enough to allow themselves to be true to their own aspirations and the things they need to do in order to realize them. For me, I believe that means letting go of the things I can’t control, and treating every moment like I did in the start of those slaloms. If I can do that, I will be the champion of myself. And someday, perhaps, I can be the champion we all dream to be.