My point is that the important thing about this experience is what I discovered for myself. It meant something to me, just as a recreation skier's ideal day on the slopes means something to him because he has found it himself. I do not mean that it was important because it helped me discover how to win. In fact, it didn't. I have lost so many more races than I have won that it is pathetic—there were hundreds lost before I won any. I lost this race at Lake Placid. But I was so pleased with myself for having solved the problem that I waved to my mother as I skied past her.
The new theory of psychological training for downhill racing is now explicit. It says that "A racer must just continue to run nonstop downhill until he has conquered the course mentally through sheer repetition and familiarity." But I wonder about this. No one is ever going to know everything in a ski race so well that the unexpected is not going to happen. Developing the reflexes to meet those variables gives ski racing its unique quality. Even in the most familiar downhill event, where you have to learn by rote to a certain extent—you have to acquaint yourself with the speed of the trail and snow conditions and so on—you are always going to face unknowns, and the question is how alertly you can meet them. Familiarity breeds contempt. If I feel I have gotten to know something too well, it means I have lost my freshness of feeling about it, and my anticipation of what is to come. And that freshness of feeling and sense of anticipation help to nerve one to meet the unexpected when it arrives.
Did I have a good competitive attitude? Well, maybe not by today's standards. But I enjoy remembering scooting down the Taft Trail in the 1946 U.S. Championships at Franconia, giving it everything I had with a sort of happy foolishness combined with the elemental seriousness of a great occasion in my life. My attitude toward racing, apart from the joy of competing, was simply a desire to do as well as possible. It was a natural and uncomplicated desire, and the physical effort was not a conscious one. This attitude took me through countless races and three Olympics.
Finally, setbacks and disappointments have their own contribution to make toward rounding a young skier's personality, and they do make a contribution if they are not submerged in so much psychological shock at defeat that they cannot be properly appreciated. One of the most memorable events of my life was the downhill race in the 1948 Olympics in St. Moritz. The course was wonderful, fine rolling terrain with wide turns and no trees. I was doing well as I approached the finish, where you had to make a turn at the bottom of a little gully, then scurry around and come back up at an angle to a side-hill traverse before pitching down toward the finish line. When I hit the pitch I was going at a speed faster than anyone with any brains would have maintained, and I flew off into the horizon, rolling and rolling into great banks of snow. By the time I picked myself up and got back on the course I was, if not last, the next thing to it. I was not hurt, though I felt a little foolish. And, in fact, despite the record that stands there imperishably in the books—I finished 35th—it was also great fun and I had a fine time doing it. My time before the catastrophe would probably have put me in first place—the winner of a gold medal. But, at 15, I should not have had a gold medal. I was too young, and I did not know enough. I would not have been able to cope with what I had done, or even known why I could not cope. It was, in the last analysis, a good thing that I fell.
In short, that fraction of a second that is decisive in determining whether or not you win an Olympic medal is too brief a period to shape all one's skiing experience. The medal winners are going to be few, no matter what philosophy of competition is followed. What I urge is that we be mindful of the hazards of the hard sell, that we be sure that in placing all the emphasis on winning we do not lose something more important—the endless interest and variety and pleasure of sport. I would beseech the parents of today's thousands of young skiers to understand that the experience of skiing does not end at the finish line. We must not follow a philosophy of sport—or of anything else—that prepares us for winning but leaves us unprepared for all the rest of life.