The Cowardly Lion’s Guide to Courage
By Bill McCollom
I’m standing in the starting gate looking through the tips of my lengthy super G skies at the course below. It’s only the training run, but my knees are knocking, my heart is beating like a Buddy Rich drum solo, and beads of sweat are dripping onto the inside of my goggles. If I had a tail similar to the Cowardly Lion, I’d be chewing on it, and right now I’m ready to leap in to the arms of the starter to avoid my fate.
We don’t get to run much in the way of speed events here in the East. The trails are narrow and the umpteen miles of B-netting required for safety can be as cumbersome to erect as “border protection” running the length of southern Arizona.
But the absence of speed racing in the East also has cultural roots. We have trouble letting go, taking risks, stepping outside our rapidly shrinking comfort zones. The technical events are just so much more tidy, predictable, and most importantly – controlled. After living in this environment for any length of time, even those with a penchant for speed will soon succumb to cultural pressures and trade in their long skis for those that fit in the overhead baggage compartment. Enough time in New England and even Michael Schumacher would swap his Formula I racing car for a Toyota Prius.
“What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the musty mist or dusky dusk? Courage!”
As a result of the infrequency of racing speed, the expiration date on whatever skills I might have acquired in my younger days has long since passed. I may be able to revive the physical skills (making more than a few adjustment for age), but my mental capabilities now resemble a package of wilted lettuce or a carton of moldy yogurt. As a result, I’m in the start of the New England Masters annual speed event, desperately seeking a heart and brain, as well as courage.
I think of what sports psychologist Jim Taylor said in a recent story in Ski Racing. “The back of your brain is telling you to ski safe, while the front is saying, ‘I want to kick some ass.’ The front of your mind has to win this argument.”
With seconds to go before the start of my training run, I begin reciting my mantra, “I am Franz Klammer, a kick-a** speed skier, I am Franz Klammer, a kick-a** speed skier,” and then launch myself onto the course. Despite my exhortations to go faster (“I am Klammer, I am Klammer”), as the speedometer starts to climb to 40, then 50 miles per hour, the back of my brain suddenly interjects, “Excuse me, excuuuse me,” it says in a clipped British accent. “Aren’t we traveling a bit too fast? If we ever caught an edge, we’d probably roll down this entire pitch and into the woods. That would make a big mess now, wouldn’t it?”
“What makes the muskrat guard his musk? Courage!”
Immediately I start tapping the brakes – knees come together, hands go out to the side and I stand up out of my tuck. I’m fully aware that this is about as tame a super G as could be set, and one that most 12 year olds could ski in twin-tips, yet the warning alarm has come on and I can’t find the switch to turn it off.
The Cowardly Lion goes on a quest to find his courage, and I have to resort to dramatic action, as well. At the start of my race run, I put a virtual 32-ounce Louisville Slugger to good use to demolish all my internal cautionary warning systems that nature has spent a millennium installing, and I then stuff a sock in the mouth of that meddlesome Brit hiding in the back of my brain. Finally, I’m able to focus on the task at hand.
Upon kicking out of the start, I allow myself to embrace the speed, to welcome the acceleration, to take as direct a line as possible, even if it means risking flying off a berm and blowing up like a clay pigeon hit with a load of buckshot. The onrush of air feels as if my head is protruding from the window of a 747, and with my caution light now spewing sparks and smoke, and the back of my brain thoroughly muzzled, I keep my foot glued to the gas pedal.
“What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the ‘ape’ in ‘ape-ricot?”
Upon crossing the finish line in one piece, I breathe a huge sigh of relief and I’m engulfed in a wave of exhilaration. Sure, my time confirms that I really am no Franz Klammer, and I might have to find a more permanent solution to stifle the back of my brain, but still, as I stand there gasping, I wonder how having this much fun could possibly be legal.
“Whatta they got that I don’t got? Courage!”
Of course, there are no guarantees that we’ll become “kings out of slaves,” even if we do have the courage to put aside all fears of failure, but we can be assured that we’ll never discover “what makes the Hottentot so hot,” if we don’t try. Sure, I could put all my newfound courage to more productive uses, from trying a new brand of cereal to winning another Nobel Peace Prize, but I’ll pass on that for now. I’ll need all the courage I can muster for next year’s annual speed event.
(This “Finish Line” column originally appeared in Ski Racing in 2008. For more of Bill McCollom’s views, find “The View From the Finish Line” on amazon.com. For more exclusive insights on courage and other athletic attributes, visit the Premium section of SkiRacing.com.)