When I was 23, I was on top of the world. It was 10 years ago, and I had qualified to represent Team USA in my first Olympic Games in aerial skiing. When I put on my first U.S. Olympic team jacket I felt like I had reached the most incredible accomplishment life could offer. At the time, it felt like the planet would stand still forever, allowing me to bask in the glory of a dream come true.
As a young girl I was taught by my father and those close to me that if you work hard and believe, anything is possible. So, when I discovered my love for aerial skiing -- flipping and twisting through the air on skis -- I did just that. I worked hard and with all my heart. I believed every day. At age 12, I set the goal to be a member of my first U.S. Olympic team. I set my sights on Salt Lake City, Utah, where I had moved to train with the best in the world and where the 2002 Olympics would be held. For years I confidently followed the path directed by my coaches.
When success knocked, with an Olympic trials win on New Year's Eve of 2002, my heart soared. I cried tears of joy, fireworks exploded overhead and I imagined myself walking into the opening ceremonies hand in hand with my Olympic teammates.
But two weeks later, while performing a training jump in Lake Placid, N.Y., I landed wrong, hitting the flat part of the hill, rather than the steep landing. When my skis hit the ground, I heard a deafening crack. The noise was the sound of both of my feet shattering, along with my Olympic dreams. A few days later and just hours after surgery, I watched the 2002 opening ceremonies from a wheelchair in the stands. It goes without saying that the tears on my cheeks were not of joy, but of heartache and deep desire to be with my teammates in the stadium below.
In the 10 years since the 2002 Olympics, I have encountered those who believed and those who did not. Though many disagreed with my desire to return to the sport I loved, I found doctors, physical therapists and supporters who spent the next three years helping me reconstruct my broken feet and heart. I tentatively regained strength and the youthful confidence that had once flooded my thoughts, and returned to aerials just before the 2006 Olympic season. Though doubt occasionally invaded my thoughts, I was blessed by the support of some very special people; those people believed, and expected me to do the same.
Four years after my first Olympic trial win, I qualified for my second Olympic Games, and this time had the opportunity to represent my country in Italy. Though my competition result (19th place) was disappointing, it paled in comparison to the lasting feeling of pride in being at the Games after such a long journey.
I followed my 2006 Olympic experience with seasons of World Cup podiums, national championship titles and an appearance in the finals of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games. After Vancouver, I had planned on retiring from the sport and moving on to the next adventure. That is, after one last season just for fun.
But my plans for a new beginning took an unexpected turn.
During the 2011 season, I discovered a new passion for my sport. After leading the aerial team to years of success, my longtime coach Matt Christensen chose a new path, leaving us with an opportunity to bring fresh direction to the team. Our new coach, Todd Ossian, brought a different experience, technique and perspective, and I began to improve in new and exciting ways. I found new satisfaction in the fundamentals of each movement and the meditative minute-by-minute process of training. I also found myself back on top of the podium, and once again believing in my ability to improve dramatically, while thriving in the process of the daily grind. A fellow competitor literally said to me, "I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks." I took it as a compliment.
Instead of retiring from aerials, I chose the goal of bringing home an Olympic medal from Sochi in 2014.
And now, here I am, back once again in the fall training period of aerial skiing. I've been here many times before, waiting for snow as we navigate the period of time between our water ramp season (where we perform our tricks off plastic-covered jumps into a pool) and the eagerly awaited competition season. Fall training is like the movie "Groundhog Day," a repetitive process that has become routine: sleep, eat, train, repeat.
We start with a dynamic warm-up of running and active stretching, followed by a two-hour trampoline session. Coaches stand by as we practice versions of the jumps we will perform on snow. With slow-motion video on hand for instant review, we pick apart each portion of our performance in a safe and contained environment so that when the time comes to take each skill to snow, we are able to perform the trick on skis, 40-60 feet in the air, safely and successfully.
After trampoline, we go to the gym to work out with our strength and conditioning coach. An hour of cardio, followed by two hours of lifting weights, plyometrics and core strength is typical. The challenge is to build a body with the perfect balance of agility and raw strength in order to manage graceful jumps, long training sessions and, sometimes, 50-foot crashes. After workout we grab a snack and return for another two-hour trampoline session before cooling down, stretching and preparing for another day.
Today, 10 years after qualifying for my first Olympics, I find myself surrounded by a team half my age. I often miss those I used to train with, but this team continues to remind me of the energy and excitement I felt when I first put on an Olympic jacket or stepped onto a World Cup podium. On long days when fatigue threatens to take over and my motivation wanes, I remember the belief in myself I had back then, and it helps me to, once again, point my skis in the direction of Sochi.