Learning to Live With a Loss
Tara Geraghty-Moats competes in the Junior World Championship trials in Maine. (Kat Howe photograph)
Tara Geraghty-Moats of Fairlee, Vt., stands on the ski jump at Storrs Hill Ski Area in Lebanon, N.H., on Feb. 7, 2014. Moats competes in both biathalon and ski jumping and travels world-wide to compete.
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Evan Dybvig of Tunbridge, Vt. flies over the crowd during the U.S. Freestyle National Championship at the Sugarloaf ski resort in Maine in this March 29, 1997 photo. Now an Olympic freestyle skier, the Tunbridge resident has earned a spot in the latest Warren Miller extreme skiing and snowboarding film, "Fifty." The film, showing around the country, celebrates half a century of the sport and revisits Miller's greatest moments on film. While this is his first Miller film, Dybvig has appeared in four other films, including "Skiing's Last Stand" and "Degenerates." (AP Photo/Nathan Bilow)
Lebanon — For every athlete who gets to experience the thrill of a podium finish at the Olympics, there are hundreds of others who don’t even get the opportunity to compete.
Chances to qualify are few and far between, and even the most prepared athletes aren’t immune to unforeseen circumstances, such as illness or poor weather, that might compromise their chances.
Multi-sport specialist Tara Geraghty-Moats, of Fairlee, knows about coping with disappointment. A 16-year-old competing on the USSA Developmental Women’s Ski Jumping team in 2009, a training crash left her with three torn ligaments and a broken tibia, ending her season.
Geraghty-Moats went on to achieve success in cross country skiing and biathlon, the latter giving her the chance to compete in the Junior World Championships and to attend Solleftea Biathlon High School for a post-graduate year in Sweden. She won a biathlon gold medal this winter in the Swedish National Championships.
A goal for the 20-year-old this winter was to qualify for the International Biathlon Union Cup, which the United States Olympic Committee uses as qualifiers for the Olympics.
Geraghty-Moats had only one chance to get to the IBU Cup — by qualifying at trials staged at Minnesota’s Mount Itaska in mid-December. But her asthma flared up unexpectedly — and inconveniently — during the trials, and she missed qualifying for IBUs by about 70 percentage points, way out of the running.
“For the last three years, the Olympics were kind of in the back of my mind, but my goal was really to be at (IBUs) and take it from there,” said Geraghty-Moats in an interview at Storrs Hill Ski Area, where she first began ski-jumping as a 9-year-old. “I’d made my debut in that circuit last year and had some good races, so I definitely wanted to be back. I was definitely kind of depressed because it was something I had trained for all summer. Everything kind of went on hold, and I took a week to reassess everything.”
It can take longer for some. Burlington-area sports psychology consultant Shelia Stawinski, who has worked with athletes at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, N.Y., and the University of Vermont, likened failure at elite levels to losing a loved one. Geraghty-Moats said her experience wasn’t close to that, but Stawinski said the comparison is legitimate for some athletes.
“Generally, the higher the level and the more investment the athletes have put in, the more of a grieving process the athlete goes through,” she said. “When you fall short of a significant goal — and when you’re talking about making the Olympics, that’s significant; it’s not the same as, say, winning a state (high school) championship — it can be so traumatic and devastating that it’s like losing someone you love.”
During the recovery process, Stawinski said, athletes can help themselves by identifying internal and external factors that may have led to the poor showing. Assessing these factors may help prevent them in the future, while understanding that some circumstances will always be out of an athlete’s control.
“There are a lot of things that can make up a recipe for disaster,” Stawinski said. “You can’t control the weather, you can’t control a lot of external things. Things like getting adequate sleep, having a strong mental routine in place and your attitude, those are things you can control.”
Athletes coming off a significant individual setback should also re-evaluate their place in the sport — and the place that the sport assumes in their lives — to determine if continuing the commitment and training is something he or she truly wants to keep pursuing. Sports psychology consultant Russell Medbery, a professor at Colby-Sawyer College, emphasized that an athlete’s physical shape is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to conditioning.
“You want to ask yourself, ‘What were my shortcomings?’ and ‘How can I meet these goals?’ but you also want to ask yourself, ‘Is this the direction I want to go in?’ If you want to focus on making the next Olympics, that’s another three to four years of commitment. With such a far-reaching goal, it’s a good time to look at what’s in front of you and what you have in place that’s going to help you achieve your goals. What is your support personnel like? What’s your situation with your friends, family and coaches? What’s your scenario physically, mentally, financially and socially?”
In fact, both athletes and sports psychologists agree that making mental adjustments is crucial for competitors in coping not just with losing but with adversity in general.
Letting Go to Fly High
Ski-jumper Nick Alexander was nearly in a place where it might have been wise to re-evaluate his competitive goals. The 25-year-old Lebanon resident won a second U.S. National championship last summer, bettering teammates in Lake Placid, but he later endured a string of poor results in November and December. He fell out of qualification for the World Cup circuit and missed the cut at the U.S. Ski-Jumping Olympic Trials in Utah in late December. His only chance to qualify for a second Olympic berth — he competed four years ago in Vancouver in 2010 — was to have a string of outstanding performances on the second-tier Continental Cup last month.
During the series of letdowns that started his winter, Alexander admitted to falling into unfavorable mental traps, allowing poor results to snowball internally. He’d followed brilliant summer seasons with poor winters in previous years as well. Recognizing that pattern became important to breaking it.
“It became a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Alexander said. “After (failing to qualify for the Olympics in Utah), I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s the end of the whole winter. There’s nothing else.’ Then I realized that I really had a bad attitude about it. I told myself that I knew I was a good ski jumper and that from then on if I had a (poor outing) I was going to forget about it and focus on the next jump. When you work so hard and things don’t go right, it’s hard to let go, but I promised myself I would do it.”
Alexander’s newfound resolve was tested right away when he had another poor showing in France to kick off the new year, but he went on to place as the top U.S. jumper at three of four Continental Cup events in January. He was named to the Olympic team as a discretionary pick Jan. 25.
Alexander reached his goal in part by exercising some of the techniques favored most by sports psychologists — positive thinking and “self-talk,” an inventory of mental cues to reinforce positive thinking. Stawinski called these tactics, along with visualization, “99 percent of the difference” when it comes to success rates among elite athletes.
“They’re powerful, effective skills,” she said. “Elite athletes talk a lot about these skills, and it’s not a coincidence. It’s important to have these things in your toolbox.”
“Having a core of self-talk principles to fall back on can be really important when things you don’t anticipate come up. You want a queue of things adapted into your mentality that you can focus when the situation calls for it.”
For elite athletes, simply getting to the Games doesn’t constitute success. Alexander has called getting there, “a goal, but not the goal” while suggesting that the annual World Cup competitions are an overall better measuring stick of the planet’s finest ski jumpers. Geraghty-Moats said there are so many variables in biathlon that there is always a “Plan B” for competitions when Olympics aren’t in the picture.
For former freestyle moguls skier Evan Dybvig of Tunbridge, getting to the Olympics was far from a pleasurable experience in 1998. He was initially excluded from the games altogether for what he considered unreasonably difficult qualification criteria set by the U.S. Ski Team. Though there were 14 spots set aside for men’s freestyle skiing, only 11 qualified under the established criteria — winning a World Cup event, getting two top-threes or three top-10s.
“I had a top 10 and a top 3, and I knew there were three open spots,” Dybvig recalled. “I had to go to an arbitrator to get in.”
After gaining admittance and arriving in Nagano, Japan, for the ’98 Games, Dybvig found himself in an uncomfortable situation when it came to his relationship with coaches.
“(U.S. Ski Team administrators) had basically said, ‘You’re not part of the team,’ and yet there I was,” he said. “I knew they probably didn’t want me to do well.”
Dybvig didn’t. Competing the day after the opening ceremonies, he fell during his first run and failed to make the field of the top 16 necessary to advance.
Just 22 at the time, Dybvig decided he was far from done. With the 2002 Games slated to be hosted by the U.S. in Salt Lake City, he took full advantage of extra resources afforded to the U.S. Ski team in preparation.
“They wanted to ramp up efforts for Salt Lake City and build up the team, and I wanted to come back with a vengeance. I tried to take full advantage to prove myself, be stronger and healthier and elevate my overall game.”
Dybvig went on to place sixth at 2001 Freestyle Skiing World Championships in Whistler, British Columbia, and had little trouble qualifying for the ’02 Games, where he placed 28th overall in men’s moguls.
Dybvig has encountered more challenges in his professional life. He co-owned Enfield’s Whaleback Mountain for eight years, helping to form and instruct the Whaleback Core Team program to mentor young snow-sport athletes, among other initiatives. Whaleback closed last year after running up more than $1 million in outstanding debt, challenging his resolve once again. It has since re-opened with the help of the non-profit Upper Valley Snow Sports Foundation.
“It’s pretty hard to draw clear parallels between athletics and business. It’s not apples to apples,” said Dybvig, 38. “When I had hard times as an athlete, I knew right away that I wanted to keep going and prove to myself that I could be better. After Whaleback, I’m still kind of deciding what’s next.”
In the interim, Dybvig continues to coach the Whaleback Core Team.
Still Going Strong
Geraghty-Moats has also decided to keep right on competing, and recently rediscovered her love affair with ski jumping. While training biathlon in Lake Placid last fall, she found herself gazing at the ski jumps where she used to train and missing the sport. After biathlon was through, she got back on one of the jumps for the first time in four years. She started on the 40-meter structure, then tried out the 90-meter version and nailed an 85-meter jump. She was hooked again.
“It was a little strange, because the last time I was on one I was going through that difficult injury and my knee was the size of a football,” Geraghty-Moats recalled. “But I always missed it and was glad to be back.”
Geraghty-Moats will pursue only one sport, ski jumping or biathlon, full-time next season, but she won’t decide until spring. She’ll compete in the Junior World Biathlon Championships in Presque Isle, Maine, on Feb. 28-March 5 — it’s her last year of eligibility on the junior circuit — as well as the Continental Cup in ski jumping beginning Feb. 14-16 in Finland.
While Geraghty-Moats understands the emphasis and excitement placed on the Olympics, she insists qualifying isn’t what drives her. “I really don’t ski to win,” she said. “When I do well, it’s because I love it and I’m in my element. If I get there some day, great. It’s just not the focus.”
Jared Pendak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3306.