There are few experiences in life that we can call life changing. Those events are worth writing about hence the reason I am back on my blog after a long summer hiatus. Most that follow this blog may already know about my time with the Navy a few weeks ago and many of the activities that transpired while I was there, but I would like to put the experience in my own words since so much can be lost in translation with the media. and also to help me remember it all. I believe you can learn from everything and everyone, but the amount I learned on June 18th and 19th has taken a few weeks to gather into real thoughts and memories. I know this experience has changed my life for the better although time is the best testament as to how I can use what I learned, felt, and saw.
The question I have been asked most since being at the Fallon Naval Air Station is not about the flight or the people I met, but instead how on earth I got to do this. The answer is that I am extremely lucky and am surrounded by incredible people. I went to a mothers day party in Mammoth with many of my friends whose mothers live out of the area. We were celebrating our favorite in-town "Mama"! I met a new friend at the party briefly but had no idea who she was or what she did. The next day I found out via email that she is a commander in the Navy and she asked if I was interested in such a project. Of course I was, but I doubted the reality of something so cool actually occurring. Being a teammate in the shadows of a couple of super stars has both its pluses and minuses. The pluses being that I don't face the same pressures and commitments that they do (which I am thankful for), the minuses being that almost all the cool experiences off the snow go to them. I guess I am use to reading about Lindsey and Julia doing stuff like this, so I doubted a bit that it was my turn. I learned that the Navy is true to their word and the pieces quickly fell into place. Kelly Clark happened to be in a coffee shop with me during some of the correspondence and I asked if she was interested to be my "wing man". We always talk about trying to close the gap between skiers and snowboarders and this was the perfect opportunity for that. Before we knew it, the two of us were in Fallon, Nevada wide eyed and ready.
It felt like true military style to be waking up at 3:30 in order to get both of my workouts in before I had to meet NBC at 9. My trainer informed me that even an experience like this didn't justify a day off in the gym! The Navy ran this project through its Public Relations department and the US Ski Team helped insure their time, effort, and money was well spent by having NBC come and film. The footage will be used as b-roll in the Olympics and for segments in USSA produced events that air on NBC this coming winter.
Our first official duty was a meet and greet with sailors on the base. We were lightly briefed on the ranking system and that each sailor wears an emblem that displays their rank. I thought that would be cool to know, but once the sailors started showing up they were all just men and women in uniform and equally as cool as the one before them. Of all the meet and greets I have done over the years, this was easily the best. It was small enough that we actually got to talk to each sailor and learn their stories. We met everyone from janitors to the Rear Admiral and they all are so nice and interesting. After the meet and greet and some lunch it was down to business in our modified flight training school. Thank goodness we did not have to go through the simulated drowning like we thought. Instead it was death by powerpoint in order to save our lives if the unexpected occurred. I loved that we were given tools to evade the enemy on the ground if we needed to. I quickly asked if there are "enemies" in Nevada we should worry about. They said it was all clear other then the mountain lions! Most of what we learned was what not to do in the cockpit and what to do in "just in case" situations. I enjoyed learning all of this even though it kind of freaked me out. We learned about the safety gear, the cockpit, and ejection seat. We also talked a lot about the jet and what it is capable of. Our training was put to an end for the day when it was time to head off to our next meet and greet at the Teen Center on the base.
Kelly and I have very different Olympic experiences. She has won medals and I have hit fences, earned helicopter rides I don't remember, and fought to just compete. Our stories complement each other and our shared belief that it is important to give everything you have to a task and to push yourself constantly to be the best you can be. But at the end of the day an athletic achievement doesn't define you. What defines you is how you carry yourself as a person through the good and the bad, and how we can give and share with others to help them be better people as well. It was really fun sharing this with the teens.
It was another early morning on our second day but there was zero concern about oversleeping the alarm. I felt like a kid on Christmas day I was so excited. We checked in at the base at 5:45. Since it was a $10 fine to quote the movie Top Gun, my favourite quote came when Kelly said "one day hanging out with a skier and I am already up before the sun!". We got outfitted in all our gear to make sure everything fit right, just to take it all off again. We also did another cockpit familiarisation. Even though I met my pilot Lutenient Commander Adrian Calder, call sign BOA, the day before in the meet and greet, I now had the opportunity to meet him in his element. We went over our plan for the flight and he gave me the best description of what to expect even though, as I know now, it is really hard to describe the feeling of flight to someone who has never experienced it. He was so thorough and professional that I never once felt nervous or scared, much to the disbelief of those who have flown commercially with me. My feeling was pure excitement and embracing the unknown. Just like in ski racing, the hurry up and wait lifestyle had its place here also. We got to wait in the waiting room with all the Top Gun pilots and instructors. Even though there is a clear order of rank in that world, it is so hard to tell from the outside as the professionalism of everyone is over the top. This waiting area was identical to the feeling of the athlete lounge at a World Cup Downhill race. Everyone has an aura around them of extreme desire to succeed and a wealth of knowledge and experience to do so despite the risk involved in the future task. This is where I first learned how much my teammates and I have in common with this group of people from a crazy different world. It was so inspiring to just be around this group of men (there were no women pilots in the room at that time, but I did meet one after my flight). The word came that it was go time and reality sank in about what I was about to do. That reality was even more clear when the mechanic that helped strap me in informed me that even he had never had the chance to fly in this jet. Wow.
We were in the air for an hour and a half although it felt like 5 minutes. We did everything I could have imagined. It was so cool! Even though the manuvering we did was nowhere close to what these machines and the pilots are capable of, it was all I could handle. I LOVED the manuvering part of the flight and trying to watch out the canopy and see the manuvering of our wingman from that point of view was so unique. The power of the jets becomes very clear when you see them so gracefully defying the rules of gravity.
The awareness of the pilots is so crazy it is hard to explain. I think I have good body awareness as an athlete, but their awareness in space is so much more advanced. Knowing where you are in space is one thing, controlling a $20 million dollar jet at the same time is another element and doing that at the same time as battling all the unnatural forces just makes what they do incomprehensible. The forces literally plaster you to your seat. I reached 6 g's, so imagine six of you sitting on top of every part of your body and then someone trying to drain all the blood out of your brain at the same time and that is what it feels like. I didn't even have the strength to lift my finger up a inch while the g's were upon us and meanwhile the pilots every movement is controlling the plane. Does that explain it well enough? Still no....
We did a Mach run and broke the speed of sound going mach 1.08 while in a dive. That kind of speed is my new goal on skis! We did a valley run where the plane is flying at a low level and following the contours of a valley. The valley we went through had a road winding through it and we flew 500 feet over two cars. Imagine their shock! We got a birds eye view of Mammoth and Yosemite and then all the way up the Sierra's past Lake Tahoe and Truckee and did another low level run through the valley that my parents live in. I thought it would be cool to fly over Tahoe upside down so headed back south and did that then had one last treat doing a carrier break which feels like buzzing the tower but actually is the fastest and most efficient way to get the plane on the ground. Then we did a carrier landing. Told you I did everything!
Kelly had her turn next and it was just as fun watching her get ready and take off. While she was in the air, I got to see one of the Navy's helicopters up close. Those are very cool machines as well and I am thinking we should organise a heli-skiing project in the Ruby mountains next spring! Post flight interviews lasted almost an hour, I had so much to say! Maybe I was subconsciously trying to draw the experience out as I didn't want it to end. My new friends were hard to say goodbye to. I am so proud of them and what they do for our country, and getting to see the inside workings of the Navy only increases that pride. I can not do what I do with out these men and women fighting for the freedom that allows me to chase a dream of my choice. We both represent our country in very different ways, but with the same pride. Everyone has said that the similarity I found between the personality of my teammates and I and the pilots is probably because we both have "a need for speed" or we love the adrenaline rush, but I believe it is because we both live our lives with so much passion for what we do and use that passion to overcome the negatives or fear involved in our jobs. That kind of passion and zest for life is rare, but I found it in Top Gun.
I am so thankful to have been blessed with this opportunity. I can't imagine anyone enjoying and appreciating it more then I did! A big thanks to everyone who helped make the experience so special, to the Navy for enlightening me to what you are doing, and to all that serve, especially the members of my family, for believing in how great freedom can be.
Life is full of surprises and amazing places. I have an overwhelming desire to constantly be challenged and pushed, and to see everything this world has to offer.