Former ski racer: If not for concussions, I might not have found my true calling

Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Concussions forced Anik Demers, second from left in orange, to retire from skicross in 2010.

Standing at the top of a skicross course is intimidating. The jumps are huge, and at most races, the men and women share the same takeoffs and landings. At each race, someone has to be the first woman to drop in and test those massive jumps. In my 10-year racing career, that woman was usually me.

While my competitors stood in the start gate biting their nails, I knew I could get over the jumps without much fear. I would look at the other women and say, "Follow me. If I can clear the jumps, you can clear them, too."

I could've let my competitors stand there in doubt or use my confidence to psych them out, but I wanted to show them how to conquer their fears. More often than not, those women beat me during the race; although I had a career I'm proud of and even won the winter X Games in my rookie debut in 2000, I wasn't the most successful woman in my sport.

So why did I help my competitors? That's something I've thought about a lot since retiring from ski racing in 2009. Why didn't I use my mental toughness to my advantage, instead of sharing it with my peers? What I've come to realize is that, although I love competing and pushing myself to my threshold and beyond, empowering other women to push themselves to greatness is my true calling.

Many professional athletes struggle after retiring to find a new purpose and passion, but mine found me pretty quickly after head injuries forced me to retire earlier than I'd planned. But looking back, if not for those injuries and a willingness to change my lifestyle in order to protect my brain and my future, I might never have found my true calling.

***

At the start of what would become my final season in skicross, my focus was set on one goal: competing for Canada in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where my sport would make its debut. But at the X Games in Aspen that January, I suffered a concussion during a practice run and had to pull out of the event. It was one in a long list of concussions, but this time, the post-head injury symptoms stuck around.

When I attempted to race again in March of that year, I was still struggling and unable to make it to the start gate. In May, I went for a mountain bike ride, and after 15 minutes, I was so dizzy and nauseous that I had to leave my bike on the side of the road and walk home. Although I wanted more than anything to represent my country in the Olympics, I realized I needed to call it a career. I wanted to be a mother some day. I wanted to live a long, healthy life. So I hung up my skis for good.

To this day, I still suffer repercussions from my head injuries. If I ski or ride my mountain bike for even a few hours, I become extremely fatigued and need to lie down for several hours. When I'm stressed or tired, I get severe vertigo and feel dizzy and nauseous; sometimes it lasts for months at a time. I deal with depression, something I never thought I'd say, but when it hits, I remind myself that I hit my head many times throughout my career. Even simple tasks require a high level of peace and concentration, and I often forget names of people I've known for years. I tell myself that depression is a normal side effect and it won't last forever.

Then I go outside, take a yoga class or do a CrossFit workout and slowly I begin to feel like myself again.

Most importantly, I've learned to take a step back from the hard-charging life of a professional ski racer and slow down, enjoy each day and find balance in my life. Today, I have a more holistic view of life. I've become curious about nutrition, essential oils and leading a well-rounded, mindful life. And I'm passionate about sharing what I've learned with others.

I also rekindled my love for paddling, something I've done since I was a kid growing up in Lac-Beauport, Quebec. When I returned to paddling in 2009, stand-up paddleboard (SUP) racing had become popular in Tahoe, where I live with my husband, Jay, and our 5-year-old son, Jaxie. SUP racing gave me an opportunity to satisfy my competitive side, while also protecting my head. These days, when I fall, I land in the water. I was immediately hooked on the sport and continue to race to this day.

Courtesy Anik Demers

Anik Demers lives in Tahoe with her husband and her son, Jaxie.

The 2017 season starts with the Tahoe Cup at Donner Lake on May 27, but my sights are set on the Pacific Paddle Games in Dana Point, California, in late September. Once a racer ...

In 2010, my husband and I took over a SUP store on the west shore of Tahoe. We later opened up a lakefront cafe and paddle shop. Through that venture, I've found a new way to help women conquer their fears -- by taking them paddling. At the start of each session, I present each woman in my class with a challenge. I ask them to lie prone on their paddleboard and paddle through a course I know will be difficult for them, but that they'll be able to finish.

Oftentimes, the first thing I hear is reasons why each woman can't do it. She can't get her hair wet or the water's too cold or she's not strong enough or competitive enough. I tell each woman she's not in my class simply to learn to paddleboard, but also to learn to push through her barriers, to learn to step up not only in sport, but in their lives. Then I tell the women to follow me through the course.

After the women finish the challenge -- and everyone always finishes -- the laughter and chatter and energy level rises 500 percent. The experience does something to their confidence, their adrenaline. They feel alive. And so do I. My role as a coach is to create a structure for success by teaching them to make micro-changes and take small steps toward bravery and badass-ery.

But I'm not only teaching them a new sport; I'm helping them to explore the competitive mindset of a professional athlete. That's what I want to dedicate the rest of my life to, helping women gain resiliency, take on challenges and crawl outside of their shells. I want to give them the tools I gained during my years as a professional athlete and encourage them to push themselves in business, in their relationships and even in the meals they cook for themselves and their families each night.

Each day, I live my past with a lot of pride. But I also have learned so much from it that I am thankful to share with the world.

Anik Demers and her husband own Watermans Landing beach cafe and paddle shop. She's also involved in the Lake Tahoe Waterman Association, a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve Lake Tahoe and support paddle sports. Through the organization, Demers has the opportunity to work with young athletes, whom she encourages to talk openly about head injuries.

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