The Way We Were: Pam Fletcher On The 'Olympic Spirit'
My start number was 30. I had visualized myself skiing that World Cup Downhill course in Vail from start to finish, through every turn, and over every roll.
I had rehearsed the course so many times in my head that I could almost feel the G-forces on my body through the run. I could even smell the flowers on the victory stand.
When my turn came, I had the run of my life. Everything seemed so simple, almost as if I were moving in slow motion, even though I was traveling more than sixty miles an hour. Compressing myself into a tight ball, I would fly a hundred feet down the slope, ten feet off the ground, waiting to land like a cat, subtle, and smooth.
All through my run I kept saying to myself, “Look for speed! Stay aerodynamic!”
I thought: Concentrate! Anticipate the gates. Stay ahead of the course. My muscles were burning, legs pumping through the bumps like shock absorbers on a car cruising down a cobblestone street.
When I crossed the finish line, the stadium erupted in a chorus of cheers. I knew I had had a good run, but I couldn’t see the scoreboard and had to ask someone in the finish area how I did. It was an honest-to-goodness win at a World Cup! I was elated.
I had worked so hard. Finally, I found myself standing on the top platform above the best in the world. It was awesome.
The next day, the World Cup Super G was a different story.
I started forty-sixth. Usually after the first fifteen skiers, the race is over. Mid- way through my run, my time was only a couple of tenths behind the leader. Two gates from the finish, I was ahead of the competition. With the finish line in sight, I tried to straighten out my line but hooked a gate with my ski tip.
It was over. I had sprained ligaments in my ankle and was out for the season.
In a two-day period, I went from being the best in the world to being on crutches and sidelined for six months. Only my Olympic hopes and my parents’ words gave me reason to look ahead.
My father has always motivated me and encouraged me to look through my problems toward the future.
He ought to know. He runs one of the most volatile businesses there is, a ski area called Nashoba Valley in Massachusetts. Ski areas can be so drastically affected by the weather. Just one warm, snowless season, and the attendance and profits can be influenced negatively for years. I remember being blown away at how often he had to put up with fickle weather, unreliable labor, fluctuating energy costs, and other adversities.
In times of difficulty, Dad would comment that if we focused on the past, it would only set us back further. He would always encourage me to think positively and move forward. Dwelling on the negative, he would say, only puts you in reverse. Even when it rained all night one New Year’s Eve and the forecast showed no cold weather in sight, Dad had something positive to say. He said, “You can’t change the situation, so there is no sense dwelling on it.”
Then there was the famous Vince Lombardi quote: “The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back. That’s real glory. That’s the essence of it.”
I tested this theory, working my way back from injury to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. The media depicted me as the athlete with the best hope of winning a medal on the United States Olympic Alpine Ski Team. I credit much of this comeback to my father’s words.
I drew the number-one bib in the Olympic Downhill, one of the most coveted starting positions. It was great to be in the top fifteen in the world, and I was excited about my draw for this event. I felt confident on the morning of the race and my warm-up went without a hitch.
About an hour before the start of the Olympic Downhill, I took an additional run on the practice course to get used to the speed. At the bottom of the training hill, there was a narrow trail that provided access back to the main slope and the lift to the top. All of the athletes and coaches used this “cat track” to get from the training hill to the base of the mountain and the main lift.
As I entered the cat track, an Olympic volunteer course worker came into view heading up the hill, toward me. There was neither space nor time to slow down. I moved to my right and I saw him move to my right. I moved left, he moved left. I threw my skis sideways to stop and smack, we crashed.
Sadly, he was big, and I am not, even on my best day. What ripped my heart out was that the course worker collected himself and skated away, leaving me in a heap on the side of the trail, unable to get up. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, my coaches and Dr. Steadman arrived and with a positive attitude, they carefully helped me stand and try to put weight on my injured leg.
I felt the bones move and in that painful moment, my worst thoughts were confirmed: “The Agony of de Fibula”—a spiral fracture. My Olympic dream was over. I knew the situation was out of my control, but I was crushed when I saw my parents. I couldn’t hold back the tears. I felt like I had let them down. But thankfully my parents were there. They both asked me to hold onto the fact that I had made the Olympic Alpine Ski Team and reminded me of how hard I had worked to make that happen.
They were right. Being in Calgary to compete at the Winter Olympic Games was a dream in itself and a huge goal accomplished. My inability to be able to ski in the event did not make me less of a person. Winning a medal there would not make me a better skier. It would only prove how good I was to those who didn’t already know. The people whose opinions really mattered to me already knew and loved me for who I was.
Looking back, if I dwelled on my injury in the Super-G back in Vail, I would have never persevered to make the Olympic team as a medal favorite. I decided to make the best of it and push onward. I told the media the details of the accident, but stated emphatically that I held no one responsible, that accidents sometimes happen.
I could almost feel a sigh of relief from the Olympic officials who had roped off the “cat track” moments after the accident. There was also a sense of disappointment encircling the media when it became evident that there was not going to be an ongoing story about a pretty young American girl with tears in her eyes, surrounded by lawyers and taking depositions and threatening legal action.
I wanted to cheer on my teammates, so I chose to wait to go the Calgary Hospital until after the race. It was tough to watch the event I had worked so hard for take place without me.
I waited with anticipation at the bottom of the mountain for the Olympic Downhill to start. After just one competitor skied the course, the Downhill event was postponed due to high winds. Some days it just doesn’t pay to get out of bed.
The next day, on crutches, I went back to the mountain with my mom and dad to support my teammates in the Alpine events. I traded Olympic pins and went to as many hockey games as I could. I hung around the Olympic Athletes’ Village and met with many remarkable athletes from all over the world. With so much of my life invested in the Olympics, I was determined to have a positive memory of the Games.
Casting blame for our lack of success only diminishes our ability to take credit for our achievements. Sometimes the circumstances might be out of our control, but if we assess the situation and find that we did everything we could to achieve our goal, well, that’s all we can ask of ourselves. My accident at the Games was unavoidable. It was just bad luck.
Athletes hear the words “Good Luck” all the time. Certainly luck exists and we all want luck on our side, but, while bad luck can sideline achievement, I never felt my good results were a matter of good luck. We are the ones who truly make things happen.
Photo: Top: Pam Fletcher, American Ski Classic, Vail, 2009 (Vail Valley Foundation); Bottom: Pam Fletcher
This article appeared in Tips, Turns, and Tales, a book published by the Eastern Ski Writers Association (ESWA) in 2013 in honor of their 50th anniversary. The book celebrates skiing's history and milestones, along with fun memories from past and current members. The 330-page paperback (more than125 B/W photos) can be ordered by mailing a check (payable to ESWA) for $20 to: Pat Turner Kavanaugh, 935 Fernwood Ave., Plainfield, NJ 07062. Please include recipient's name and mailing address and allow 14 days for receipt of book.
Reprinted as part of SnoCountry.com’s “The Way We Were” series with permission from the authors and the Eastern Ski Writers Association.