As part of an ongoing series, Yahoo Canada is profiling personal experiences in open letters. Our next entry profiles Dara Howell, the first freestyle skier to win a gold medal in slopestyle at the inaugural event at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. For more from our open letter series, click here. As told to Nisean Lorde.
The past four years have been one of growth for me as an athlete and a person. I came into the Pyeongchang winter games as the gold medalist in women’s freeski slopestyle from my win in Sochi.
A success story seems obvious. However, almost instantly, I questioned my win and all that came with it: how do I deal with instant fame, was my skiing strong enough to make the Olympic team in South Korea, was I worthy of my Sochi gold medal? To say the least, the past four years have been a journey of rediscovery.
I remember watching snowboard halfpipe at the 2010 Games in Vancouver and seeing Torah Bright win gold. I wanted her to win so badly. I was 15, and I was watching with my parents. Even though slopestyle wasn’t in the Olympics yet (for both skiing or snowboarding), it pushed me to want to go to the X Games and to have success.
Shortly after, my career kicked into high gear. I was invited to compete at X Games in 2012 where I was the youngest female competitor that year. Later that year, I took home my first bronze at X Games Tignes. Then I won silver at the FIS World Championships, and two more bronze medals at X Games in Aspen and Tignes the following year.
When I made the Sochi Olympic team, I was 19-years-old, at the top of my game and elated to represent my country in the first year ever of women’s freeski slopestyle at the Olympics. Then I won the gold. It was incredible. But in the back of my mind, I wondered – did I deserve that medal? Did I deserve to be here?
I came back home to Huntsville, ON., where my small town of 18,000 was waiting for me with a celebration that included a new town sign that read “Home of Dara Howell,” and Down with Webster. Instead of celebrating the doors that were opening for me and my sport, I retreated. I was so overwhelmed and full of doubt. I questioned where I went from there. What is after the Olympics?
As a result, I took a season off, I didn’t ski. I stopped doing what I’ve always done – let the mountains clear my mind and soul. It’s what I always did, but I simply retreated from it all.
Close family friends of ours — the Mattices — noticed I was struggling to find my passion and drive again and they wanted to help. Ten-year-old and Kyle and his mom Tami helped reignite my passion by trying to find ways to help me. Kyle’s passion was contagious, something that I was missing for so long. So instead of training with my Olympic coaches, I began training with his coaches, who were raw, equally passionate and gave me exactly what I needed. A challenge and the right focus.
It took me a while, but I started working on my skiing, and specifically the rails – my deficiency when it comes to Slopestyle – training both indoor and outdoor. They helped me reignite the fire that’s always been inside me. That crew, with the support of my Olympic coaches, teammates and family, helped secure a spot back on the Canadian Olympic team this year.
In Pyeongchang, during the Women’s Slopestyle Qualifiers, skiers had two runs and they take the best score from the two runs. The top 12 ladies moved on to finals. I fell in my first run – it became my throwaway run. On my second run, I was feeling so strong. My rails were solid, my jumps were as well. Then when I went to land my last jump – a switch left 720– I fell, my ski popped off and that essentially was the end of my Olympic competition in Pyeongchang.
I didn’t make the finals. While it was not the result I was hoping for, I felt really good about my skiing. I skied hard. I felt proud. I AM proud. I have zero regrets. I think it’s part of my journey and for that I’m forever grateful for my experience at these Olympics. I spent the rest of the Olympics cheering on my fellow skiers in the finals and my Canadian teammates at tons of events. I met athletes from all around the world and soaked in the full Olympic experience in South Korea.
I came back from falling out of love with skiing, to a place where I love it again. I know now that I earned my spots at the Olympics.
This journey of success and rediscovery would not have been possible without my family, coaches, friends and teammates. I am so grateful for them all.
Today, I know there is more competitive skiing in me and my sights are set on the Beijing Olympics in 2022 and everything else in between.
I want to show girls that failure is ok — and in fact necessary fuel to learn, grow and ultimately build confidence. I want to encourage girls everywhere to embrace failure and keep going #LikeAGirl.