I was nervous before my conversation with Todd Ligare. I had recently gone down an Internet hole, watching some of his prolific ski videos and feeling totally awed by his capacity as a professional athlete and risk-taker. Additionally, I know next to nothing about skiing (I legitimately called snow “fluffy” at one point) and was soon to have a conversation with one of the top freeskiers in the world.
Todd connected with me from Salt Lake City, Utah, a few days before he was about to head out for 1-2 months of work travel to capture ski footage. His calm, humble demeanor immediately put me at ease, allowing me to feel comfortable in my lack of winter sport knowledge and desire to ask questions that may seem uninformed or even slightly naive. Todd shared with me that March and April were the best months for snow sports. Not only does the snowpack tend to stabilize, increasing the safety of the conditions, but also the weather becomes warmer and the days become longer.
I am fascinated by the opportunity that Todd has as an athlete to use his body as his main tool for professional development and success. He is quick to admit that although he loves the sport, plummeting his body down some of the world’s tallest snow-covered mountains can often come with a high level of stress. Todd commits to his own version of self-care by learning how to find moments to pause and relax his body and his mind.
For much of our conversation, Todd and I engage on the topic of fear. I ask Todd what his relationship with fear is like. He explains that he is constantly learning to understand what type of fear he is dealing with in any situation. In his work, he is being paid to feel confident in his skill set and wise in his intuition while pushing himself to find the edge of his personal capabilities to achieve what is unthinkable to so many of us. He notes that he has learned the art of compartmentalization, regularly asking himself if it is a healthy, true fear or an intuitive, true or false fear. For him, that subtle differentiation could be the difference between life and death.
Our bodies are equipped with a natural mechanism called the “stress response,” also known as the “fight-or-flight” response, which was first described by American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon at Harvard. When we experience something that feels like a threat, the amygdala in the brain experiences the emotion of fear. The brain then communicates to the hypothalamus, which communicates to the nervous system, which in turn signals to the adrenal glands to release the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. This assembly-line-like process of the sympathetic nervous system is a crucial part of the body’s internal self-protection mechanism. The only problem is that we are not physiologically designed to be frightened often.
In today’s world, many of us live in overdrive and operate in a constant state of fight or flight. This state can be a result of feeling the fear of imagined threats: financial security, societal achievement, the steadiness or demise of a relationship, a perceived health threat, the loss of a loved one, etc. For Todd, he is constantly being asked to determine if the conditions of his environment are a real or perceived threat to his personal safety. This risk assessment isn’t an easy task for a professional athlete as he is being paid to push limits and take big risks. On shoots to capture ski footage, decisions are often made as a group. Todd shares with me that when he has an intuitive feeling that the run they are about to do may actually threaten their physical safety, he is tasked with getting the rest of the group on board. When there is one person that wants to call the mission off, that person is exercising an extreme amount of vulnerability. If his intuition tells him that today may not be the day for the run that the team was set out to do, not only is there the possibility of letting down his colleagues—but also the reality of losing thousands of dollars that were set aside for that day’s shoot.
Todd shares a story of when he didn’t listen to his gut on a ski trip in La Grave, France, a tiny mountain village in the French Alps. He and three other athletes boot packed up a steep face of the mountain, immediately feeling how thin the snowpack was beneath their feet. Once they reached the top, Todd, who was the first skier up, remembered feeling an immense amount of dread and a deep desire to back out. Instead, he launched himself down the mountain, toppling over himself and his skis until eventually hitting a boulder that saved him from potentially inflicting further injury. Although he did get hurt, he was incredibly lucky because it could have been so much worse. In listening to his story, I think about how often these situations must happen for professional athletes and how they must be quite used to operating with some degree of fear in their day-to-day lives. In discussing how courage is the antidote to fear, Todd says,
“Being courageous is a habit. You [become] used to overcoming the right kinds of fears and not the wrong kinds of fears . . . used to the habit of overcoming those hurdles. It is a process that you become accustomed to.”
I ask Todd how the act of courage on the slopes has translated into courage when he is not out on his skis. Although slightly shy in his response, we dance around the idea of the different types of risks that exist: physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual. When he is not traveling or working, he is able to use the tools that his body has learned from skiing to address challenges and compare reference points for how bad something may actually be. There’s something quite freeing about going down the rabbit hole and realizing that even amidst chaos and high stress, many of the fears that exist are those that we create in our minds. In The Fear Cure author Lissa Rankin, MD, defines the cultivation of courage as “not about being fearless; it’s about letting fear transform you so you come into right relationship with uncertainty, make peace with impermanence, and wake up to who you really are.”
When we learn to identify the true fears from the false fears, we begin to build up our courage muscles, allowing us to sit in the discomfort of the unknown and the never-ending human cycle of letting go. And we learn that even amidst the chaos and the darkness, we will be okay.
Todd Ligare is a Salt Lake City, UT based professional free skier. A decade plus into his career and twice nominated for Freeskier Magazine's "Skier of the Year," he continues to search for soft snow, steep lines, and his own definition of expertise on skis.