“I can do it myself,” I told my parents. “I can carry my own canoe.”
I was on an epic family canoe trip in Ontario, north of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Even though I was only twelve years old, average height for my age but gangly and scrawny, I was fiercely determined to portage one of our family’s canoes during our trip. Some kids my age wanted a new video game console or to go shopping at the mall. All I wanted was to be able to lift and carry a canoe by myself. What can I say? I was a weirdo.
The Boundary Waters is a large wilderness area in the most northeastern part of Minnesota that extends 150 miles along the U.S.–Canada border, where it becomes Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, with thousands of lakes and waterways linked by wooded trails. Campers travel by canoe across the pristine lakes and carry their canoes across these trails through the woods to the next lake. Portaging your own canoe is a quintessential Minnesotan activity, and even as a young kid I wanted in on the action.
We were so deep into the wilderness north of the Canadian border that we didn’t see a single other soul for the entire week. Which was amazing. I don’t think I realized how incredible it was to be out in the absolute middle of nowhere, totally immersed in nature, because my parents took us on these canoe trips so often! I learned how to catch and clean a fish and how to paddle properly so I could actually contribute physically to our daily voyages across the lakes. My younger sister, Mackenzie, and I would put life jackets on and float ourselves down gentle rapids when the water was high, and we thought this was just about the best vacation ever. It was like a sweet water park ride. We’d swim over to the shore near our campsite, run up the side of the river, and hop in again for ride after ride. My mom and dad would be looking on, ready to fish us out, but I was a strong swimmer and fiercely protective of my little sister, and we never got into trouble. But as cool as floating down the rapids was, nothing was cooler than watching my mom and dad carry the canoes over their heads.
“I can do it myself,” I repeated my favorite tagline. “I can carry the canoe.”
As a toddler, my favorite phrase was “I do it mineself!” I wanted to do everything alone, unassisted. I was energetic, extremely stubborn, and with some hindsight I now feel sorry for my parents. I wanted to know that I could do anything without help, even if I realistically had no chance of doing something without a little boost. This attitude persisted (OK, fine, it’s still there even now) as I got older. If an art teacher reached over to adjust my clay pot, I would get unreasonably annoyed. But now it’s not my work anymore! I’d think. Now it’s not something that was made by me. I’d rather have glaring mistakes and know it was my own work than have it be perfect and know it wasn’t mine. This attitude makes up a huge part of my racing ethos today when it comes to doping in sport; I’d rather get last place and know that it was all me out on the course, rather than win and know it wasn’t my effort and hard work alone that made it happen.
I also grew up alongside a lot of cousins who were around my age, all boys. I decided early on that anything they could do, I could do too. The more something was labeled a “boy thing” because of how tough or gross or physically draining it was, the more I wanted to do it. Clean a fish and get rid of all the fish guts? If boys do that sort of thing, then I will too. Split firewood and carry all the heaviest pieces? Duh. Get sweaty and tired shoveling snow and mowing the lawn? I don’t really feel like it, but I’m going to do it anyway because I’m a girl. To this day, I get involuntarily prickly when guys insist on taking all the heavy luggage and leave me with nothing to carry. Chivalry may not be dead . . . but my acceptance of it needs a little help.
But back to canoeing!
“All right,” my dad said after a few days of rapid-fire pestering. As we paddled our way across a lake, he looked over and said, “You can portage the canoe tomorrow at the next crossing. But first I’m going to teach you how to do it, because you don’t want to bang it around on the rocks.”
At our campsite, my dad taught me how to lift the Wenonah, the lightest of our two canoes. I still managed to make it look painful and awkward! My young age and small size didn’t matter to my dad though. He patiently showed me how to prop the canoe up, get underneath it, and lift it onto my shoulders using my legs. I learned how to get it up and how to take it down without damaging the canoe, and that was a big deal for me. And it was an even bigger relief for my parents, as we were out in the middle of nowhere!
I finally got my chance. The next day, we packed up our campsite, loaded the canoes, and paddled across the lake toward the next portage. Thirty minutes later, we pulled up to the far shore and unloaded our gear.
“I got it!” I exclaimed. “I can carry the canoe!” As though my parents would dare suggest that they might want to carry it across.
I picked up the end of the canoe, turned it over, scooched under it, and felt the middle bars dig into my shoulders. Then I bent my legs and hoisted the canoe up, steadying it as it rocked on my shoulders. My dad let me go first on the trail. I gripped the edges of the Wenonah tight and proudly marched my way down the rocky trail, teetering a little. But I steadied myself and kept moving forward, one wobbly step at a time. The euphoric look on my face told the whole story. I still have the photo of me under the canoe, knobby knees sticking out, face glowing as though I’d just won first place.
“Look!” I excitedly yelled back at my mom, dad, and Mackenzie as I made my first steps down the trail with the canoe on my shoulders. I beamed with pride. “I’m doing it!”
* * *
Technically, carrying a canoe in the middle of the summer had nothing to do with my future skiing career. But it also had everything to do with it. The same approach I took in portaging a canoe I would use in sports. If I wasn’t completely reckless, if I was smart about my strategy, if I worked really hard, and if I was brave enough to try and was allowed the freedom to go for it, then good things would happen. The results and winning weren’t the sole focus either. The process was just as important. It was the doing that gave me the rush of satisfaction, not the potential for a ribbon at the end. For me, the feeling of knowing I had accomplished something tough was always a huge reward.
I also had no way of knowing then how this same perseverance and sheer stubbornness would be called upon later in life—how hanging tough and working through the hard parts would become about so much more than lifting a canoe or grinding through a sweaty, brutal training session. It would become a fight for my own life and my self-confidence as I battled an eating disorder. While in recovery for bulimia, the absolute self-confidence I had on that portage at age twelve was nowhere to be found, and it would take a lot of digging to bring that brave little girl back to the surface.
But like anything worthwhile in life, while I always want to be able to do it “mineself,” the truth is . . . I don’t have to. I’m not alone. I’ve never been alone, even when I felt like it while trying to isolate myself. I have found so much satisfaction, happiness, and the feeling of being whole from being part of a team, more than I could have ever guessed. And each team that I’ve been one little piece of has left its mark on me. Finding my role within the team and developing my own style of leadership are processes that I’m still in the middle of and are ever evolving. I have realized that I don’t have to be perfect, as long as I keep working on it.
I have the most incredible team at my side, ready to provide guidance, lift me up, and show me how to navigate this crazy life. That team now includes my boyfriend, the incredible men and women on the national ski team and my club team, and my coaches and techs, but it all started with my family. It was my parents who first taught me how to be coachable, to be able to watch, listen, and learn new skills for myself. (Although I had boundless enthusiasm for lifting our canoe above my head, first someone had to teach me how to lift the darn thing!) They also instilled in me a love for the natural world and being active: through camping trips to countless places, winters spent cross-country skiing, and summer vacations to our family’s camp in Thunder Bay, Canada. I was suntanned and sweaty in the summer, and frosty and racing across the snow in the winter. I was forever bruised and scrappy, a kid perpetually in motion, whirling from one adventure to the next. That’s still who I am today, scrapes, bruises, and all. Being able to lean on my family for support, trusting that they’re always going to be there for me through thick and thin, has been the ultimate gift. Their support lifted me up as I jumped over my own hurdles.
Looking past a gold medal at the Olympics, I know my family’s support was just as crucial when I decided to become an advocate for The Emily Program, sharing my history with an eating disorder to help others make it through their own battles. Identifying what matters most to me and then being willing to fight for it didn’t come naturally or easily. But as I work with The Emily Program, and as I travel the globe watching the world lose its winters as the planet’s climate changes, I see how one can become passionate about many things without being an expert in the field. And help.
This book is the story of my life, or at least all the parts of it that I could fit into these pages. That doesn’t mean that it’s just the good parts. In fact, you’re about to get a glimpse into some of my worst experiences as well as my favorite ones. Why? Because even if you’re not an aspiring Olympic athlete, we all have a staggering amount in common. The strength of family and friends supporting you. Learning to love yourself, flaws and all. Finding something you believe in and being brave enough to fight for it, whether that’s advocacy work, the promotion you want at your job, or winning back a healthy relationship between yourself and your body. This is my story of pushing past limits and setting new goals . . . but it could easily be yours, too. If you see yourself reflected in these pages, know that at my core I’m an ordinary girl from the heart of the midwestern United States, and if I can battle through barriers here and there, you absolutely can too. And your hotdish will most certainly taste better than mine.