Advising: Beyond Concrete Walls

The snow crunches beneath my wool, Polish boots adding audible punctuation to the crispness of the night. It is nearly midnight as I walk along the Nordic ski trails of Black Mountain, Maine. My eyes travel upward from the dark, leather outline of my boots on the moonlit snow to the naked branches of the maple trees that seem to reach up to the starlit sky. The crisp air is, to me, at odds with the location as I find the beauty of Maine to be generally softer, more attenuated than the sharp, striking beauty of the Rocky Mountains. But tonight is different. The stars form bright points of light and the air is un-weighted by the heaviness of the atmosphere.

It seems almost surreal that only twelve hours earlier my skiers sped along these trails in their final race of the week, the men’s and women’s teams both defending their National Titles. The power of their presence on the trails passes through me and in almost a ghost-like form I feel their energy. But, in the hours that have passed since my skiers raced by this very point, the snowflakes have transformed loosing entirely their sharp edges and rounding over to wet balls of slush and then, with the fall of night, freezing into hard ridges that now hold the fossilized impressions of their skis.

As if awaking from a dream I sense the presence of my two co-coaches, Christi and Ashley walking quietly beside me[1]. And as is always true when waking, the sense of sound returns more slowly than do the other senses; I begin to hear the conversation of my two athletes walking in front of me. When we dropped a majority of the team off at the post-banquet party a few blocks from the Nordic center, Willie – a non-party lover- and Devin – an introvert- had opted to accompany us in our stargazing. The two athletes walk slowly, the fatigue and soreness of a week’s worth of races transparent in their gate.

I am struck first by Willie’s staccato. “It’s crazy to think that we see light from stars that are actually dead now.”

Devin answers in his monotone, “Yeah, and that distance makes all that much difference, so like comparing them to the sun, their appearance I mean, and yet compositional equivalence, I mean like elements and everything.”

“Yeah, that’s even crazier when you think about the major differences in historical philosophical interpretation. Socrates saw the sun as that whose light causes our sight and allows visible things to be seen. He saw the night as gloom, and the absence of the sun as disabling our clear vision. I mean that’s crazy when you think that the sun is a star, right?”

“Shut up Willie.” Devin says playfully. His retort, though abrupt, brings a smile to my lips as I appreciate anew the interaction between the two. Willie, an Honor’s student with a perfect GPA benefits from Devin’s analytical realism, Just as Devin, a geology major gains widened perspective from Willie’s philosophical view of the world.

Now further removed from my earlier reminiscence, I chime into the conversation, “Historical views of the stars vary culturally. The ancient Chinese viewed the cosmos, just as they viewed time, as cyclic. They had a cyclical calendar.”

“That’s like the Hindu culture, they view time as cyclical too.” Willie adds

Christi, always grounded, calls our attention back to the trail and despite the dark leads us around the appropriate corner and backward along the racecourse. We climb a short hill and begin to descend what was the largest uphill in every race. Technically called High School Hill, our athletes found this a lame description of such a soul-sucking climb and instead dubbed it “Gigantor”.

Willie says, “It looked longer going up.”

Ashley has been quiet until now, but as is always true her thoughts are so overwhelming, so comprehensive and so enlightening that I can always nearly hear them. They are like a quiet, comforting hum in the back of my subconscious. She says, “In 2005 there was a study done at the University of Virginia that showed that people’s perception of distance is colored by the terrain. So, that is to say that people overestimated the distance of hills as compared to flat terrain.”

“That makes me feel better.” Willie says, somewhat sardonically

Basically an extension of my heart, soul and body, I know what Christi will say next before her lips even part. Her words land softly and quickly like snowflakes, “That’s kind of like the study that showed that V-2 is faster than V-1, but requires more energy[2].”

We all look at one another and in concert chime, “duh!”.

Trails of our laughter tinkle on the crusted snow and silence falls over us. I find myself refocusing on the crunch beneath my boots. We descend the steepest part of “Gigantor” and are enveloped by moss-covered cedars. I feel, again the presence left behind by the athletes as they pushed beyond their physical and psychological limits in order to ready for the climb.

Morgan’s face flickers into my mind. A sophomore, she has been dealt more than her fair share of difficulties to overcome. Asthma literally left her staggering on this hill in the classic race earlier this week. Compartment syndrome in the posterior compartment, though rare in the general population, is common in Nordic skiers and Morgan has struggled for several years now with the symptoms. Pain and loss of motion are common and upon crossing the finish line, severe shaking racks her body. Just earlier today, I had run to the finish line where she collapsed in my lap and shook until I could massage the tension away from her soleus. Funny, that as she shook there, the emotion that consumed me was pride. Most Nordic skiers resort to surgery to correct this affliction and while this provides temporary relief most are back on the operating table again and again. With massage, Yoga and time Morgan has worked to lessen the symptoms to a few shakes post race and has managed an incredibly productive race career away from the operating room.

But while my pride stems partly from Morgan’s training tenacity, I realized as she shook in my lap, that it comes more from her tenacity in the classroom. Only weeks earlier I sat at my office desk slogging through course preparations when Morgan called my cell phone, “I get it coach!, I finally get it. Today in Biology, we were talking about metabolism and all that stuff and ox. phos. and everything and suddenly it just was there, like you said, why we can’t use fats anaerobically. Acetyl-CoA has to enter in the TCA cycle. Oh my gosh, I am so stoked. I just want to go do some LSD (long, slow, distance) right now so that I can picture my body becoming more efficient with fat catabolism.”

It is unlikely that Morgan knew that after I shared her enthusiasm over the phone, I held my head in my hands and cried, tears dripping onto my computer keyboard. Of course these were tears not of sadness, but of pride as I realized what a beautiful young scholar Morgan was becoming.

I am so lost in thought that I am barely aware that my boots have begun to slip on the icy snow. Christi, almost by habit, grabs my arm and steadies me. I realize that we have now walked out of the darkness of the cedars and are looping behind the small Alpine ski lodge. It seems almost eerie now, evacuated and lightless. We pass under the footbridge that allows pedestrian traffic to cross over the Nordic trails and onto the alpine slopes.

As I gaze up to the bridge, shadows play on the rails and I can almost see the UW flag with the bucking horse that had flown there earlier that day. And with the flap of the envisioned flag in my mind, the stress that only a coach can feel returns. Even in memory it is almost as acute as it had been on each day of the prior week. It is a gnawing at the base of my stomach that seems to wear away at the already raw flesh. My mind returns to the moments just prior to the men’s classic race as we madly applied klister to the base of each of our racers’ skis. The tick of the clock, infuriating, reminded me that only seconds remained until the start of the race. Breathing and somehow remaining poised, we applied Rode multigrade mixed with Swix KR-50 and covered by Star Black Magic. As the last racer grabbed his skis and ran to the start line so nervous was I that the wax would not be the perfect race combination, that I had doubled over in the snow, dry heaves racking my body. Through choked sobs I had told myself out loud not to pass out for our racers would loop through the stadium at any moment. And they did, and the wax was perfect. And there they were, white lycra adorned with bucking horses, leading the pack. With each lap, our cowboys gained strength and when they crested this very hill that I now walk down, for their last time, Zhenya held the lead with Eliah a very close third.

My dash to congratulate them in the finishing shoot had been accompanied by an excitement that was equal in magnitude to the stress I had earlier felt. Zhenya, our huge Russian bear was getting interviewed by the press while Eliah still lay, entirely spent, like a rag doll on the snow. And even as I arrived in the finishing shoot, I looked up to see more brown and gold cross the line. Dan had skied into seventh position and John ninth. I looked around at them, beaming with pride and I heard Zhenya say, “Coach, now I will show my brother what gold looks like!” With this comment we all giggled for Zhenya’s brother had recently won the silver medal in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

What I had been unable to say at the moment, and what went unsaid until nearly six months later was that I believe that what Zhenya has accomplished in his life is more heroic than the winning of any Olympic medal. A PhD student in the Molecular and Cellular Life Sciences program, Zhenya adds endless hours of study and lab work to his also demanding training program. Van rides to races are frequently colored by our discourse as we reflect on molecular adaptations to training, studies in mice models showing increased lympohocyte count in response to level 1 training and even the possibilities of genetic engineering in pine beetles to curve the spread of tree kill.

But on that day as the men’s team crossed the finish line, my conversations with Zhenya were lost in a sea of pride that spread wider than the nearby ocean and encompassed all of our athletes. I moved to Eliah who had now managed to scoop himself up off the snow. With his lopsided grin and his sparkly eyes I recalled at once why Christi and I had dubbed him, “Little Bucket.” I smiled as we embraced and I felt the broad pride that only one who is both teacher and coach can feel. For Eliah is at the same time taking my General Microbiology course. In fact, not twenty-four hours earlier I had returned to “The Farm”, our quaint living accommodation, that was rich in both character and comfort. Eliah had apparently been watching Microbiology vodcasts and excitedly ran up to me, “Coach, I wrote a wrap about alcoholic fermentation, want to hear it?” As Eliah’s voice proceeded in rhythmic tones about regeneration of NAD+ and the fate of pyruvate, I was as proud of him as I was when he crossed the finish line in third position.

My embrace of Eliah had been cut short when subconsciously I sensed Dan’s sadness. Last year’s overall champion and literally undefeated, seventh, though a strong finish could not compare. I looked up and found Dan, our eyes met and to this day I believe that I am the only person who saw the sparkle of a tear in his eye. Our embrace that followed, however,  must not have gone unnoticed for it was somehow caught on camera. A single look at the photograph portrays so many emotions. As the club’s president, the weight of leadership is etched on his face. Like so many that have preceded him, Dan’s willingness to be team ambassador left him exhausted and not able to accomplish as much on the ski trails. However, the emotion that even more notably transcends the photograph is strength, poise, compassion and character. For in taking this leadership role, Dan left Nationals with something far more valuable than a gold medal.

I am jerked from this long reminiscence by the shouts of Willie and Devin who have ascended a few meters on the alpine hill and now playfully throw snowballs at one another. I realize that I am standing with Christi and Ashley in front of the trailer in which we literally spent our nights and days during the last week. This trailer provides the wax room for each team and because wax can literally make or break a skiers race, coaches spend night and day pursuing the magical combinations. In fact, I realize, of the seventy-two hours prior to the final race, Christi and I spent more than sixty of them in the wax room. A fleeting sense of irony spreads outward from my stomach as I recall coworkers wishing me a happy ski vacation before I left. If only there were some way for me to explain the one line on my curriculum vitae that says: Faculty advisor and Volunteer Ski Coach for the UW Nordic Ski Team. It seems a hallow way to summarize all the magic that happens here.

I press my hand against the window of the now empty trailer. Though it is surely cold, I feel warmth spread into my heart to encompass my entire being. And with this inrushing warmth I close my eyes and allow myself a final reminiscence. I am whirled back to the moments that followed the completion of the skate race. A rough day for many on our men’s team, John had come through with a phenomenal performance. Running to the waxing trailer, he picked me up, and swirled me around in joy. Perhaps one of the most continuously successful athletes to ever graduate from our program, John has earned fifteen All-American honors. But as John whirled me in his arms, I thought not of all of his ski honors, of his athletic prowess but instead of the indescribable life journey of this young man.

Marginalized throughout High School, pushed to the edges, John found himself on the street before he was even sixteen. A brilliant musician, he clung to this and somehow made his way to college. As a freshman coursework was a struggle; John sometimes teetered. But each year, skiing gave him something to which to return. With time, Christi and I tried to help as both coaches and advisors and John realized that he could become the teacher that he never had in High School, the mentor who would see past learning disabilities and outside struggles. John came to truly understand that of which I tried to remind him each day: A hot body is nothing without a correspondingly sexy mind! One hour in the library turned into many and John’s GPA rose just as steadily. He was accepted into the Physical Education Program and with these accolades came other changes. John stepped up as a leader on the team and whenever there was a job to be done, John was there.

My eyes gain some clarity and I perceive the outline of my hand against the window. I follow my fingertips that point up like rays of sunshine to the star-lit sky. I think back to one year prior when I looked at John and told him just how proud of him I was. He looked at me with wet eyes and said, “Coach, there would be nothing without you, you have been my guiding star.” And now in my tears, the brightest stars in the Maine sky begin to blur. I realize that Ashley, Christi, Devin and Willie have headed back towards the cars. The stargazing loop is finished; the night is young and before 5 am, we must pick up the athletes, drive to Portland, return the rental vehicles and somehow get seventeen exhausted college students checked in and onto our flight home.


[1] Rachel Watson (author) is an academic professional in the Molecular Biology Department and has co-coached the Nordic ski team for more than twelve years along with Christi Boggs. Christi is an instructional designer and faculty for Outreach Credit Programs. Ashley Driscoll is a doctoral student in biochemical engineering. 

[2] V-2 is a technique in which the skier poles on both sides, compressing the core abdominals with each step. In V-1, the skier poles on only one side, compressing with every-other stroke.