LESSON NUMBER ONE: Athletics make life better

Throughout my entire life, Dad always impressed upon my family the importance of athletics. He would stress to us how sports – particularly his favorite ones, including skiing, biking and tennis – build strength, endurance and a positive attitude. He would often liken every milestone or success in life to an achievement in sports. When I graduated high school, I distinctly remember him comparing my accomplishments to the pride of finishing a challenging, but rewarding, ski slope:

“Lil, I’m so proud of you. You should feel as though you’ve conquered a double black diamond, or at the very least a mogul-studded run in the glades of Killington. Remember this high. Remember this feeling. And savor it.”

When I was about to enter college, he pushed me to sideline my anxiety and fear and inspired me to make the choice to think positively instead, like he always would as the lead coach of my travel soccer team growing up. When I was going to study abroad for the first time, and was heading to live with a family in Florence, Italy by myself, I was admittedly apprehensive as I had never travelled internationally alone before. The family I would be staying with did not speak a word of English either, and I would have to do the best I could to leverage the minimal knowledge I had from a year of Italian classes I had taken at college to get by. But, as always, my Dad’s motivational words encouraged me to shift my outlook. He instructed me to take the nervous energy and transform it into excitement. Within a week, through his positive reinforcement, I found my perspective had changed. I like to think of these kinds of conversations as some of the most defining and transformative discussions of my life.

Dad felt strongly that by being active – and it did not matter what sport we chose, just as long as we did one – our family would always have happiness. To him, athletics were a crucial part of life. No other outlet in life, in his eyes, could bring about a variety of positive emotions and good vibes: a smile, a laugh, guaranteed stress reduction, camaraderie, healthy competition.

For as far back as I can remember, skiing had been Dad’s number one passion when it came to sports. As I mentioned earlier, our family referred to him as the “Ski Nazi;” he was tireless in his quest to conquer every challenging mountain on the East and West coast. Of course, this meant that Mom, Charlie, Jack and I were all required to be excellent skiers. Dad was a ski snob like that, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. He wanted and needed his family to be amazing at the sport, because he always was, and there was nothing more important to him than making sure we all rose as close as possible to his level.

Growing up, I always loved to hear Dad talk about memories of taking mom skiing in Telluride when they were dating. These ski trips continued even once they were engaged to be married. Dad had made it abundantly clear to mom that she needed to go on several ski trips with him before they officially got hitched; I think it was his litmus test to gauge how much she was committed to him and his passions. Of course, mom was not an amazing skier like Dad was, and while she knew how to navigate blues and greens, she had little to no dexterity on the slopes when Dad took her on their first couples trip out west. Dad would recount stories of mom falling down on the bunny slopes while he had sped down to the bottom in record time. Mom never had a chance of being able to keep up with him, but she made it her mission to go on every ski trip he suggested to prove her love to him. No matter how many falls she had to endure, she knew Dad was the man she wanted to marry; there was nothing she wouldn’t do to show him that. Even if that meant a few scrapes and falls on icy ski trails during some chilly mornings in Vermont.

Mom and I have spoken a lot about her experiences skiing with Dad, prior to – and then throughout – their marriage. Every time I ask her to walk me through these memories, strong sentiments of admiration and nostalgia come through as she speaks. We recently had one of these conversations again, which was deeply moving and emotional for us both, as it was around the time of the third year anniversary of Dad’s passing. Mom began to recount the details of her trip to Vail, Colorado with Dad, a vacation that occurred about two months before their wedding:

“I remember the first time I skiied a black diamond with Dad on the steep slopes of Vail, like it was yesterday. We had just gotten off the gondola, and I was a nervous wreck. Larry had bought me ski clothes before we went on the trip that were supposed to be warm and comfortable, but I was in a cold sweat as we neared closer to the trail. As I followed Dad slowly towards the black diamond slope, I felt my stomach clench up with fear and anxiety.

We had skiied for nine hours each day over the past two days, and so by that time I should have been comfortable with trying a more difficult terrain. Larry had also been a great instructor. He was first and foremost extremely patient with me; my pace was as slow as molasses compared to his, but he never zoomed too far in front of me on any trail. He also was always offering helpful tips and tricks as we skiied each run, to help me better navigate the terrain. On blue slopes that were steeper than others, he would tell to me tilt my body forward as opposed to leaning back l, so that I could have more control over my speed.  He also could tell that, as a fairly inexperienced skiier, I was used to skiing straight down a slope and not turning or edging my skis enough to enjoy the run. So he suggested turning more, in a “french fry” stance as opposed to “pizza” stance. He wanted me to get more comfortable with owning the experience of skiing, and using the full power of my skis to my advantage to have more fun with the sport. So I wanted to show him that I had learned something in what he had taught me over the past two days.

But when I saw the black diamond beneath me, fear coursed through my body. I remember thinking to myself, how was I going to do this? The slope looked menacing. I could see – and hear, from other skiers already going downhill – that there were several ice patches I would have to endure. The moguls that dotted the course looked bigger than I had ever pictured in my head; I was not used to having to ski on bumps. Larry had told me that this black diamond was one of the easiest of the available ones on the mountain, but in surveying what laid before me, I began to have serious doubts.

My anxiety must have been written all over my face, because the next thing I knew Larry came up behind me and gave me a huge bear hug that comforted me instantly. He always knew just how to read my emotions; he was so empathetic and intuitive like that. As we embraced, he whispered in my ear “You can do this, Larrainey!” He then gave me a big kiss on the cheek and, as he let go of me, turned to face me and beamed a huge grin. His energy and excitement was so contagious, and it made me forget how scared I was.

Larry then started slowly gliding down the slope, and motioned for me to follow him. Somehow, I mustered the will to move towards him and begin skiing slowly but surely alongside him. He slowed his pace considerably and skiied right by my side the whole way down, never jetting in front of me the gentleman that he was. Even though he might have found the slow pace torturous, he put my needs first. With his help I made it down the steep slope, and only suffered through two small falls along the way.

After about twenty minutes, we finished the run. I was so happy to be standing at the bottom now, looking up at the challenge I had just faced head on. And I owed it all to Larry. Without his encouragement I would probably have chickened out. He was the epitome of strength, positivity and determination. He had such a unique ability to transfer those same feelings to people he truly cared about.

Your Dad is the reason I got down the slope that day. In a lot of ways, he was like the mountain itself – challenging, strong and also completely thrilling. His passion and enthusiasm did not start and end with skiing; he had it with everything. He really  pushed me to be the best version of myself in all that we did together, and we had such a wonderful marriage built on mutual admiration, love and respect. I will always be thankful to have shared a life with such an amazing man like him.”

My brothers and I all have similar memories about skiing with Dad. He was the best instructor we could have ever asked for. What’s more, the life he built for our family – surrounded by love, warmth, and modest fortune – allowed us to ski in the most coveted of areas on both the East and West coast. My favorite mountain to this day is Vail, the same mountain where Dad took Mom all those years ago. I am fortunate enough to say that that was where Dad raised us to ski.

Vail is like a slice of heaven, but it’s right here on Earth.  I have not yet skiied the renowned Swiss or French Alps, but Dad would always say how Vail and the resort we stayed at – a beautiful chalet called the Sonnenalp – was the U.S.’s answer to the Alps. And now that I think back, it really was. Our family had the privilege of vacationing in the small ski village for five years, starting when I was 7 years old. Like everything in life, a great place like Vail took hard work to get to. Traveling there is not for the faint of heart, but once you are there it’s impossible to imagine leaving. Because flights are typically extremely expensive especially if you want to fly directly into the small airport in the center of the town, my Dad always found creative ways for us to work around the trap of being heavily overcharged. He usually found our family of five a flight out of JFK or Newark at 4 in the morning, that would typically fly into Denver and arrive around 10 in the morning. From there, we would take a 3 hour bus drive on the narrow trails of the Colorado rocky roads and hills. More often than not, my brother Jack, Charlie or I would get motion sickness and end up vomiting at some point during the trip. Dad, always the most easygoing of us all, would take care of us. He would soothe whoever got sick back to health by getting us excited for the upcoming ski week, which would always include 6 hours of ski school from 9 am to 3pm, followed by afternoon ski lessons with Dad from 3 to 6. Jack, Charlie and I all knew that the hours we spent with Dad on the slopes were the most fun.

After the long 3 hour drive from the Denver airport, we would arrive in Vail in the late afternoon just as twilight began. I always think back with fondness on the picturesque views we were greeted with upon our arrival. Without fail, everytime our family would get dropped off at the Sonnenalp – the five star hotel we had the privilege of staying in for every trip – the sky and mountains surrounding us were breathtaking. The colors of the sky would be streaked with deep sapphires, somber pinks, and vibrant purples. The skies that had glimmers of orange and red were the ones that were the most dazzling to me, something out of a Venetian painting. The mountains in the foreground were also just as mesmerizing. The summit peaks were capped in powder. The snow always looked freshly groomed and inviting. The etching of the trails and chairlifts, often clearly visible from our vantage point as we looked up from the Sonnenalp, beckoned us closer and made us anxious to wake up bright and early at 7:30am to begin skiing the next day.

As for the Sonnenalp, to describe it as a hotel is an exercise in understatement. It was more like a palace, something out of a dream. Our family was lucky enough to realize this exquisite dream for a week in February each year. The Sonnenalp was a ski-on, ski-off resort. It had five excellent restaurants on the grounds, an indoor-outdoor pool complete with saunas and hot tubs, as well as a spa and shops. It sat right in the heart of the Vail village, a charming little hamlet that our family loved to stroll through after rewarding days skiing on the main mountain. Sometimes, we would even ski from the mountain to the town after skiing with Dad; the mountain had a few rocky and narrow, yet still skiable trails that traversed from the base of the mountain to the center of town, a distance of about two miles. On days that we skiied this run to town, Dad would always treat me and my brothers to chocolates at our favorite chocolatier in the Vail village. He knew that, after a long day of ski school both with certified instructors and with him, that we were usually pretty exhausted. And nothing felt more satisfying and delectable than biting into a mouth-watering chocolate covered cherry (the sweet I always chose) after 8 hours of skiing. Dad always knew how to reward our family after a challenging day on the slopes.

My greatest feats of strength and determination have occurred because my Dad gave me the will-power and conviction to follow through on everything I set my mind to. I wouldn’t be the confident, empowered woman I am today if it wasn’t for the skills he helped me to hone. Skiing is where he first taught me the value of hard work, and the importance of continued persistence in the face of obstacles or stress.

One of the most grueling ski days I ever had with Dad was on a cold January day in the winter of 2005 in Okemo, Vermont. The temperature was negative 15 degrees below zero, but with the wind chill it felt significantly colder than that. Okemo is notorious for its frigid conditions, but we had still made the trip to the mountain several times throughout the years as it was more convenient to get to than Killington or Stowe, and more affordable. Although our family often had to buy more layers at the local ski shops and extra hand warmers to be able to bear the colder weather, usually the temperature at the mountain stayed above zero even at the highest peak.

The same could not be said for that bitter cold day in January. It was an unusual day, as it was the second to last day of our trip and Dad had surprised me by suggesting I take the full day off ski school so that we could ski together before we had to head home the following evening. Mom was taking my two brothers on the mountain separately (her skiing had improved significantly with each coming year of marriage). So it was just me and Dad on the slopes together. A real father daughter bonding experience.

We spent the morning skiing easy black diamonds together, a rare occasion for us as Dad and I usually always defaulted to skiing the hardest double blacks. By 2005, he had trained me well enough that I treated black diamonds like a warm up run to the real challenge to come: large, icy moguls on often very narrow glades, and the steepest of slopes. While the wind that morning on the mountain had been strong, it wasn’t anything Dad and I couldn’t handle. We had become desensitized to cold weather. Or so we thought. As the day wore on, the wind began to pick up considerably and temperatures plummeted. What started out as tolerable conditions soon became unmanageable; the air was so frigid that my skin began to redden and itch. Even though I was now becoming extremely cold, I distinctly remember that I felt a hot burning sensation across every part of my body that wasn’t shrouded by layers. The weather had become so cold, dropping down to around negative ten degrees by noon. The sharp pain that the wind inflicted onto my cheeks and ears was unrelenting. Around 1pm, we stopped off at the ski lodge at the base of the mountain to warm up and refuel. For me, the best lunch you can have while skiing is a warm, delicious hamburger with waffle fries and a Mountain Dew. Without fail, this meal would always help to recharge my batteries and give me a second wind if I was feeling the least bit tired. And on that day, skiing the subzero temperatures had made me thoroughly exhausted. Luckily, lunch and great conversation with my Dad – who often ordered the same meal as me –  brought me back to life and made me want to go brave the cold weather again. I thought to myself, how much worse could it get?

Well, it got a lot worse. When Dad and I finished lunch and walked outside the lodge, my skin immediately began to singe with irritation from the harsh, cold air. Even Dad had become noticeably uncomfortable, and ran inside the lodge to quickly buy us each extra hand warmers. The ones we had in our gloves already were not going to suffice at the top of the mountain, where the wind was likely to be unbearable. We then skied over to the chairlift, the both of us shivering and shaking. The many layers of thick clothing on my body did nothing to shield me from the effects of the frigid temperatures. When it was time for Dad and I to get onto the two person chairlift, I had become so numb that I could barely feel my fingers and toes. I somehow managed to get on the chairlift. Throughout the ride up the mountain, I felt my body growing more and more intolerant of the cold. The numbing sensation had spread from my fingers and toes, to my entire body. I remember looking over at Dad, expecting him to be in a similar state. However, though he was definitely visibly cold, I could see that he had a wide grin plastered across his face as he surveyed the slopes beneath him. Dad was enamored with the mountains, the fresh powder, the moguls on particularly challenging courses. No amount of wind or subzero conditions could deter him from a day of skiing. I tried to channel his energy and motivation internally, hoping that in doing so I could forget about how utterly miserable I felt, being out on such a freezing cold day. I wanted nothing more in that moment then to be curled up in a warm bed.

When Dad and I got off the chairlift, the wind was blowing at a much faster speed than it had been earlier in the afternoon; it was so fast that it even managed to push me along towards the trail signs. Dad followed behind me; he knew that I was having trouble coping with the extremely low temperatures and wanted to watch to make sure I didn’t take any falls. We stopped when we got to the trail map to decide which run we were going to take. By now, my entire body felt like lead. I had searing hot and cold flashes coursing through me every few minutes. My system was no longer in equilibrium and I was very much so in a state of fight or flight. Dad took one look at me and said, “Alright, we’re doing a single black. We’ll skip the double blacks for today. We just need to get you home.” I responded with a faint smile indicating my approval of his plan. We then, slowly but surely on my part, began to ski towards the black diamond course that would bring us to the base of the mountain. I couldn’t wait to get inside the base lodge.

As we started to ski down the mountain, I became more and more uncomfortable. The numbness that I felt throughout my entire body was unbearable. My nose was running, my eyes were tearing so much so that it became hard to see through my goggles, and my legs were sore. Usually, Dad’s positive energy made it easier for me to push through any difficulty, on that day it proved no help. My thoughts were racing, and I was beginning to panic. {

{Italics here for introspection}: Why were we skiing on a day like this? I can’t stand this cold. What was Dad thinking? This is a suicide mission. I’m so numb I swear my hands and feet must be blue with frostbite by now. How could he have taken me out on such an awfully cold day? I can’t do this anymore, or I’m going to faint. Or vomit. Get me out of here.

Negativity was beginning to consume me and was now blinding my judgment on the slope. As I turned around an icy mogul, for the first time in years I fell on my side and began to wimped and tear up a little. I felt embarrassed as I was usually – thanks to my dad’s teaching over the years – an excellent, well-practiced skier who could anticipate icy or rough patches on a run and avoid them to ensure I did not fall. But that day, the frigid cold seemed to over take me. As I was scrambling to get up and finish skiing down the mountain after the fall, I looked around to see where Dad was. He had been skiing at a faster pace in front of me for some time but I saw that, probably because he had seen me fall, he took off his skis from where he was further down the slope and was trudging up the hill to see if I was okay. I stood up on my skis to face him, admittedly feeling sorry for myself as I hadn’t fallen on a ski slope in front of him in a very long time. Dad finally reached the spot where I had fallen and gave me a huge hug. I could smell his signature Polo Ralph Lauren cologne even through all his layers beneath his iconic purple onesie on – his preferred ski outfit. Immediately, I felt comforted and began to relax again. Dad then helped me to put on my skis again and encouraged me that he would ski behind me the rest of the way down, to make sure if I fell again that I knew he was there for me.

Just a few minutes before my fall, I was angry with Dad for having taken me out on the slopes on such a frigid day. Now, as we began to glide down the rest of the mountain together, the frustration I felt started to dissipate. Even though it was still frigid outside, I somehow felt a second wind and was able to get down to the bottom of the slope better than I thought, without suffering through any more falls. When I reached the base lodge, I looked behind me and there was Dad – both ski poles up in the air, cheering me on with his characteristic wide smile and positive glow. While the day may have started out as grueling and even impossible to endure in some instances, I now felt a strong sense of pride and accomplishment for getting down the mountain. And for being so blessed to be my father’s daughter.

Dad’s caring, devoted nature and his encouragement was what got me down the mountain on that awfully cold day. Just like he was with mom, with his kids Dad was always a beacon of light and strength. Our relationship felt special as I was the only daughter – and I was happy about that. He was always my coach, my best friend, my biggest fan, really my go-to person in life.

Dad’s passion and enthusiasm for skiing was also present in his other favorite sports – tennis and biking. Just like with skiing, he wanted our family to fully enjoy these sports too and be the best we could be. Most of my memories of playing tennis and going on long bike rides are from our vacations in Long Island. In 2003, Dad bought us a second house in Amagansett that we were privileged to spend each summer vacation at for five years before the market suffered and we had to sell. I look back on those years with great fondness and nostalgia. Aside from the sheer bliss and tranquility that came from spending quality time at a beach house with my family for weeks on end, I really blossomed as an athlete and a person during those periods because of Dad. He always wanted to start the day with an activity of some kind; for him, being sedentary in the morning was never an option. He was all about making the most of every day. So, each morning around 7:30am, after we would finish our breakfasts Dad would always suggest a morning bike ride. This proposal was usually met with some groans on the part of me and my brothers – we were sleepy kids in the early waking hours and had to be heavily nudged and sometimes even bribed to go on the bike rides. But, without fail, Dad’s zeal would always invigorate us to leave the breakfast table and get ready to go on what usually turned out to be at least a 6 mile bike ride. All 5 of us – Mom, Dad, Charlie, Jack and me – would get gym clothes and sneakers on and follow Dad to the shed in the back where we kept our bicycles stored. One by one, single file behind Dad, we would all mount our bikes and fasten our helmets. From there, Dad would always play the leader and guide us through a scenic, but always challenging, bike ride on Dune Road.

Dune Road, a coveted street in Amagansett, goes for miles and overlooks private beach after private beach on the beautiful coast of Long Island. It was a Dad’s go-to choice for our family bike rides together. Following his lead, we would embark on the 6 mile ride and it always turned out to be more enjoyable than we anticipated. When we were out on the road, watching Dad and becoming energized by his excitement and cheers for us to bike faster and harder, my brothers and I would ultimately fall into a steady pace and good rhythm. Dad’s strong example – good form on the bike, coupled with a controlled speed and always the exuberant smile on his face – was contagious for all of us. He made us the bikers we grew to be over those summers, and eventually we all began to really appreciate the rides he had us take each morning.

The best part of the ritual morning bike ride was always around the fourth mile, when we would stop at our favorite secluded beach that was off the beaten path. Me and my brothers would be sweating and exasperated, and so we welcomed the pause in the workout to take off our shoes and walk on the warm sand, taking in the picturesque views of the Long Island Sound. Mom and Dad would buy us all water bottles at the snack bar on the beach and we would drink in the cool water, quenching our thirst to build up a second wind for the remaining two miles we had yet to finish. Walking on that beach, in the presence of my Dad and my mom and brothers, I always felt like the best version of myself. The tranquil setting of the beach around me and the clear blue water splashing from the ocean made for an idyllic location. I was energized from the biking and my Dad’s eternal positivity. Nothing could top the happiness that coarsed through me when I was around him.

I’ve always felt that Dad’s strong passion and love for sports was a catalyst for me to my approach life with just the same energy and appreciation for activity, versus passivity. His liveliness was a characteristic I admired and have been able to apply to many of my endeavors to this very day. Not everyone could handle Dad’s persistent exuberance when it came to skiing, biking, or even hitting balls at the tennis court – another of his favorite pastimes. There were people who felt overwhelmed by his energy, and by the same coin, I have sometimes been criticized in my life for my bubbly, lively nature. For some, my Dad’s and my animated personality has come off as aggressive, annoying and even exhausting. But I don’t see it that how. I loved how openly he embraced life and seized every day like it would be his last. I feel blessed to have the same kind of outlook on my experiences and relationships, and I will always treasure the fact that he bestowed upon me such an enthusiasm for athletics, and for life.