Never Stop Learning - Athlete Insight with Colleen McGarry

I met Colleen was I was 22 and a brand new teacher. I had just completed my student teaching and was offered to fill a maternity leave - I am not exactly sure of the first time that we met, but I am keenly aware of a conversation that must have taken place early in the semester over the usual super rushed lunch that is the norm for a teacher -  it was the usual, do you have any plans for this weekend? I was new to the department and I am sure that this was a polite way of breaking the ice, so I just answered with, well kind of, I am flying to Dublin, Ireland to run a marathon. The look on her face was priceless, she still gives me that look - the you are bat shit crazy, but somehow this works! That was October and in November Colleen approached me to tell me that she had just started running and had run her first 5k - when she told me her time, I bit my tongue and thought, well fuck - this chick can run. But I pretended that I could keep up and we decided to meet for a 5 mile run after school - a loop that we just revisited this past December - she left me in the dust, but more importantly we started to forge what would become the strongest friendship that I have ever had. From that day on, we have spent countless hours swimming, biking, running, lifting, laughing and talking each day.  


There is something that makes Colleen a unique creature - she has some kind of special race mojo that she can call upon when she hits the starting line that most of us can only dream about. Colleen is the epitome of the line from Midsummer's Night Dream - "... though she be but little, she is fierce." But this fierce side of her is often shrouded initially in fear - however, zip up that wetsuit or lace up those sneakers and she goes next level into a full blown suffer mode.  Another amazing thing which I believe is linked to her ability to take racing to the next level is her desire to never stop learning and to take on new challenges at any age. Colleen inspires me as an athlete every day. She never stops learning, growing, and challenging herself.

Last year, after my father died and I turned 40, I decided I would try things that were outside of my comfort zone. Things that would make me feel alive and keep the world from moving too fast away from me. Learning new things brings freshness to life, but it is also scary as shit.  Especially as an adult. I’ve embarked on new athletic adventures before.  I became a runner at 25, ran my first marathon at 29, qualified and ran Boston at 31, and have been racing triathlon for a decade. But skiing felt different. Skiing felt unreasonable, untouchable, undoable; that is exactly why I decided it was the perfect thing to begin with.



Saturday was my second week back at ski lessons and my husband suggested that I go to the mountain with the family to show what I had learned the previous week.  Since I had already had one week of lessons and it wasn’t steller, I was hesitant to show anyone anything. In fact, I wasn’t sure I really knew anything. My twelve year old is hesitant to ski even after a previous year of lessons, so I decided I would swallow my fear and head up to bunny hill to set an example for my son.  


Keep in mind that this was the second time in my life I had ever had skis on. My 9 year old took off french frying like a maniac down the mountain and my husband stood by while my older son and I hesitated at the top. I pushed off and immediately lost control and fell.  Since I’ve never fallen before, I had no idea how to get up and I had no poles to get out of the skis.  I looked to my husband for help and he seemed frustrated that I had no idea how to get my body upright again.  As in, how could you not be able to get up? Just get up! He helped me and I tried again, only to fall.  Again.  Since the 9 year old was eager to be out there, my husband just couldn’t deal with me (and the four kids we had with us) and sent me off to wait for what would be my second ski lesson.  So, I stood alone waiting for the instructor and the other beginners to arrive.  For 30 minutes.  That’s a long time to stand feeling defeated, frustrated, and humiliated.  That’s a long time to choke back the tears of self doubt.  As the others arrived, I decided that the day’s new goal would be: just don’t cry.  Just don’t cry.  Just. Don’t. Cry.


We headed back to the mountain where my self doubt ruled supreme and we started the lesson.  The instructor didn’t remember me at first, but as soon as he saw my hesitation and anxiety, he remembered. I was so nervous for each new skill that every time we came to a rest for instruction, my legs were shaking.  I had clenched feet in my boots and my whole body was tight while I concentrated on being afraid.  I was digging deep to get through this.  I reached back to remember the day I showed up for swim lessons at 27 years old.  I didn’t fear swimming in the same way I am afraid to speed down the slopes, but I was afraid of failing. I safeguarded myself from failing in the pool by practicing and practicing and more practicing.  Now, it’s hard for me to remember a time when I couldn’t swim.  I often get asked for advice from novices at the YMCA and have frequently exited the water at the top of my age group in open water.  I called on that success to calm me on the mountain.  And then, I hit one of the skills right on.  The instructor celebrated me for a brief moment and my legs began to settle.  


Conquering the chair lift without the help of the instructor was the next hurdle for the day.  I paired up with a sweet 7th grader and he gave me some advice.  At one point he leaned over to me during the lesson and said, “the first step to success is a positive attitude.” There is nothing like the advice of an honest child to set you straight. Near the end of the hour he left me with this, “What you should do is, after the lesson, ski until you just can’t ski anymore.” He was my cheerleader everytime we rode the lift during the lesson and for hours after.  

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After the lesson, I was left with my 9 year old and his friends on the bunny hill.  I had no choice but to be on the hill with the kids. I could have chosen to stand around and take photos, but I stood at the top knowing exactly what I had to do. Practice.  And fail.  On my own terms. And then, do it again and again and again.  I just had to make it from the top of the hill to the bottom of the hill once. I pushed off and in few minutes I was at the bottom and it was glorious.  Not graceful, but glorious. And then I did it over and over again, each time with more confidence that skiing is a new skill that I am capable of learning. Although I had trouble executing the skills in the lessons on demand, I felt my intuition lead me around obstacles.  I felt my body sort of lean when it was supposed to. I felt my fear turn into drive. I am certain that nothing looked pretty and I am sure anyone watching knew I was green, but at the end of the day I wanted to keep skiing and I had crushed my goal of not crying.


Even when I spun out and found myself backward on the hill I wasn’t deterred. I turned my body and my skis so I could get up without sliding. I thought about my bike crash at The Big George 70.3 in Lake George, NY.  I was crushing the race, killing my previous 70.3 PR when I got careless and my wheel slipped on loose dirt while I was in aero with one hand in my jersey pocket reaching for nutrition. I crashed hard, body over handlebars, helmet smashed into pavement, with my bike landing on top of me.  I got up, collected myself, assessed my bike and without much more consideration continued the race.  Because really, the fastest, easiest, and maybe only way back to transition was to ride.  I had a great run fueled by adrenaline and finished the race strong despite the bike crash, but the most important lesson of the race was that I got right back on.  I didn’t let fear take that day. So, I turned those skis down the mountain and finished that run and went back for several more because I wasn’t going to let this day go either.


The day was mine, but it also belonged to my family.  My 9 year old smiled with friends on the lift and raced down the mountain until he was dead tired and frozen. My 12 year old conquered his hesitation and practiced skills on the bunny hill with friends for an hour. My husband had time to hit the real slopes and we had spent an entire afternoon and evening together. The reward is big for embarking on new adventures like this, but I am certain I would never have had the courage to be here in this moment if not for all of the challenges that I’ve encountered through years of training for and racing in endurance events. Before triathlon I wasn’t able to harness the fear that is inherent in new experiences, but triathlon has taught me that failure isn’t really failure. Failure is giving in to that weakness in your shaky legs that tells your brain you can’t do this.  Moving past that, even if it’s tiny baby steps on the bunny hill, that’s a victory.