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December 15, 2019

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World skiing elite’s creative ways to relax

To unwind, Italian downhill racer Dominik Paris sometimes screams into a microphone.

Not so much screams as hauntingly growls out lyrics he wrote himself.

Being the lead singer of a heavy metal band called Rise of Voltage is just a way for Paris to give his mind a break from thinking about racing.

Look around the World Cup tour and athletes rely on all sorts of tactics to unplug: American Travis Ganong opened a coffee business; teammate Tommy Ford is into art; Alice Merryweather gives tarot card readings when she’s not strumming her ukulele; Canada’s Laurence St-Germain immerses herself in college courses (she’s working on her second degree) and three-time overall World Cup champion Mikaela Shiffrin does a little bit of everything (sings, plays instruments, learns new dances, even tries to juggle).

All these endeavors provide a measure of stress relief as they wait days, sometimes even weeks, before going fast again in a race. That’s a long time to dwell only on results.

“The key thing is they’re able to diversify their self-identity, so they’re not just ski racers,” said Jim Taylor, a former ski racer who’s now a sports psychologist. “The bigger piece of the pie that’s devoted to the sport, the more dangerous that can be in terms of over-investment. If their athletic identity represents, say, 80 percent of their self-identity and they have a bad day? That’s an existential threat to who they are.

“But if there are some other things in their life that they can fall back on, it will enable them to get over the result and move on.”

Music strikes just the right note with Paris, who jots down song lyrics whenever inspiration hits. He and his band practice and perform whenever they can. They have an album out titled “Time.”

Fitting, since Paris’ career is based on it.

“Music is good for my concentration to keep calm,” said Paris, who’s among the favorites for the overall World Cup title this season following the retirement of Austrian great Marcel Hirscher. “It gives me a lot of inspiration and power to ski fast.”

Once a race is over — whether it’s a podium finish or not — and it’s analyzed, the goal is not to think about those hundredths of a second another instant.

“If you’re always thinking about ski racing it drains you mentally,” Ganong said. “It’s nice to have something else you can work on.”

Ganong co-founded Pacific Crest Coffee in Truckee, California, with professional snowboarder Ralph Backstrom. When he’s on the road, Ganong promotes their products (like their honey-processed coffee). And when he’s home, he works behind the register to greet customers.

“It’s super fun doing something completely different than what I do as a professional ski racer,” said Ganong. “It’s really cool seeing the company grow and morph into something pretty special.”

Merryweather travels with a deck of tarot cards and frequently gives readings. Always lighthearted and nothing too deep or serious.

And no, she won’t do a reading on herself before an event. “I think that if I were to read the night before a race, whatever card I pulled would be in my head,” Merryweather said.

She also plays the ukulele, but not as much these days with teammate Laurenne Ross — a guitar player/singer — sidelined with an injury.

“If I’m focused on racing and training 100 percent of the time, I tire out and lose my passion pretty quickly,” Merryweather said. “I think that putting energy into something else, like an instrument, tarot reading, or other hobby, can help maintain and reset the competition/performance part of my brain, and actually make me more focused and productive on the hill.”

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety has found another way to take to his mind off racing — chasing after his young son.

“I don’t know if that adds pressure or takes pressure away,” said Ligety, who also runs a company called Shred that makes goggles, sunglasses and gloves. “But that’s a good piece for me.”

For St-Germain, it’s hitting the books. She has a computer science degree from Vermont and is now working toward a biomedical engineering degree through the University of Montreal. She’s currently taking a chemistry class with her final set for next week while she’s in Switzerland. Her ski coach will monitor her exam.

“I thought when I was done (at Vermont) I’d be free of school,” she said. “But it just kind of seemed weird for me not to continue with school.

“Even if it’s busy on the road and there’s a lot to do, I just like how I can get my mind off skiing and zone out.”

A look at how some others decompress: American Bryce Bennett recently took up bow hunting (he’s reading books on the subject); Ford draws, cooks and rock climbs; Ross takes photos; Steven Nyman runs Fantasy Ski Racer (think fantasy football for, well, ski racing); and Kjetil Jansrud of Norway has been known to pick up the guitar.

“Having other activities and interests and passions takes their mind off of the 24/7 mindset of their sport,” Taylor said. “It basically relieves them of a lot of pressure.”


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