More than three decades ago, long before I had even thought about becoming a parent, I made a brief presentation before the 1985 graduation class of Triton Regional High School in Newbury, Massachusetts. I was a young reporter, just two years out of college, and was giving out an award on behalf of the newspaper I worked for.
Sitting on the stage, waiting my turn, my eyes took in a group of kids who looked “so much” younger, even though I was, at most, only six or seven years older. At the appropriate time, I dutifully stood up, introduced the award winner — a bright, smiling young woman — and then promptly sat back down without any extraneous commentary.
Truth was, I wanted to say so much more. Looking out at those fresh-faced seniors, I felt the same sense of indestructibility that I knew all too well. I was there myself just a few years earlier. I dodged many collegiate bullets. I made mistakes, and was lucky enough to emerge relatively unscathed, but only due to dumb luck.
When I got back to the newsroom, I couldn’t shake a feeling that I missed an opportunity. Eventually, I wrote a column for the paper, pleading with these teenagers — every teenager, actually — to exercise some sense of restraint, or caution, as they headed out into the summer’s party season. Although I’d only been working as a reporter for 52 months at that point, I’d already covered my share of horrible accidents involving underage drinking, or simply youthful risk-taking. I didn’t need any more.
Generally speaking, I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing my emotions (a necessary trait if you’re going to be a newspaper reporter), but the one phone call that would bring me to my knees was to the surviving parents of a child killed under tragic circumstances. It was absolutely gut-wrenching, every time. Some of those conversations haunt me to this day. The goal of my column all those years ago was to at least plant an idea in the minds of those seniors, reminding them to think beyond themselves, beyond the moment.
Fast forward 33 years, and I found myself on the slopes with my wife and a pair of teenage daughters. Maddi, my eldest, always has been a strong, sturdy child, and her skiing technique reflects that. She’s rock solid, coming down the hill in measured, nicely carved turns. Brynne, two years her junior, has gone through a metamorphosis. As a grade-schooler, she was overly cautious, constantly turning her skis to check her speed as she zig-zagged down the hill. She was almost painfully slow. That was before Brynne started playing hockey.
Once she got accustomed to skating, and the speed that came with it, Brynne’s skiing changed dramatically. She’s now far more comfortable with going fast. Combined with my hip replacements, Brynne’s newfound bravado had her blasting past me on the trails. I simply couldn’t keep pace. Now, normally, that would be a point of pride for me. But I was concerned, because Brynne’s technique didn’t quite match her acceleration. There were times when I thought, if she’s in control, it’s borderline at best. And we would talk about it on the chairlifts back up the mountain.
“Don’t worry, I’m good, Dad,” she would say. “I know what I’m doing.”
My 40 years of skiing led me to believe otherwise. I didn’t see the requisite edge control that should accompany that kind of speed. So I kept reminding Brynne, “Stay within yourself. Know your limits.” I hoped, through the sheer blunt force of repetition, that the message would resonate. Then, last March, we got the phone call.
Brynne, now a freshman attending college in upstate New York, was crying, almost inconsolably. A senior, an upperclassman advisor who had taken Brynne under his wing to help ease the turbulence that often comes with the first few months of the collegiate experience, had been killed while skiing at Whiteface Mountain. By all accounts, Matt (not his real name) was an exceptional young man who won near-universal admiration at Brynne’s school. My daughter was devastated. So too were many of Matt’s friends and professors.
“(Matt) was known all over campus for his outstanding academic record and his diverse circle of friends,” wrote the school president. “His outstanding (school) résumé is, of course, a much smaller measure than the wonderful person he was to so many of us on campus. He touched us with the flame and light of a beautiful heart.
“These will be hard days for many of us in remembering (Matt), thinking about his boundless energy, genuine openness and developing talent,” he wrote. “And yet, (his) family and his close friends, particularly his cherished classmates, will also need our strength and prayers. It’s important for us to look out for each other.”
That’s my motivation of this column. My wife, who attended the same school, has friends who knew the young man who was skiing with Matt that fateful day, and reached out to them. By all accounts, Matt, an accomplished skier, was taking the proper precautions. He was wearing a helmet. But in one awful, fleeting moment, he lost control, went careening off the trail, and struck a tree. He died in his friend’s arms.
I cannot fathom any greater heartache for a parent than to lose a child, especially one so full of promise (which is one of the reasons I’ve declined to use Matt’s real name; his family has suffered enough). But, much like that day at Triton Regional High School 33 years ago, and all those subtle slopeside discussions with Brynne, I feel compelled to talk about it. Life is full of risks, from driving our cars to riding our bikes. Skiing and snowboarding are no different. As a journalist who writes about these sports, it would be irresponsible to not recognize that fact.
Much like driving or riding a bike, skiing and snowboarding require a keen sense of responsibility, and self-awareness. You have to respect Mother Nature, the trail conditions and your own abilities. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your limitations. That’s one of the great things about the sport — recognizing limitations, and learning how to expand them so you can ski more challenging terrain.
Just as important, though, is acknowledging that reality doesn’t always suffer mistakes kindly. Push the envelope, but push it wisely, with measured steps. Don’t take unnecessary risks. Know your gear, and your surroundings (even famed “extreme” skier John Egan doesn’t rip a backcountry line without checking it out throughly beforehand).
Remember, caution, in the right dose, isn’t a bad thing. Have fun, but be safe. Please.