by Mary Stennes Wilbourn and Alison Behnke
Winter arrived early this year for most of us, and it hit with a vengeance. Windchills plummeted and snow fell hard, leaving many people thinking “here we go again.” Then, against the backdrop of plows and icy roads, snowmen began to appear in front yards. Local hills became sled runs, and ski destinations gave reports on snow conditions.
Lots of us enjoy winter sports as a weekend outing. Then there are the adventurers and athletes who take winter as a call to do more, be stronger, and learn about their own limits and abilities. Here are three excerpts from Brad Herzog’s Count on Me: Sports series that show the remarkable character and impressive accomplishments that people are capable of.
From Powerful Stories of Perseverance in Sports
CONQUERING A CONTINENT ● January 22, 2012 ● Antarctica
Felicity Aston knew exactly what she wanted after her record-setting journey. “A very long, very hot shower,” she said. “It’s something I haven’t had in quite a long time.”
Fifty-nine days, to be exact. That’s how long it took Aston to become the first human to ski solo across Antarctica without help from kites or machines. At 34 years old, the British adventurer used only her own muscles and mental resolve. For nearly two months, Aston dragged 187 pounds of supplies behind her on two sleds. She crossed 1,084 miles of ice and snow. Her diet was mostly freeze-dried food, and she battled through temperatures well below freezing. Sometimes it was as cold as 22 degrees below zero. And she was all alone.
Aston started at a location called the Ross Ice Shelf. From there, she traveled up Leverett Glacier. As she headed across the glacier, the wind blew so hard that she thought her tent was going to rip apart. Then, as she crossed the Transantarctic Mountains, her two lighters suddenly stopped working. Aston was in trouble. She needed fire to survive. She did have a box of safety matches—exactly 46 of them. She used them very carefully, hoping they would last. Finally, as she came down out of the mountains, her lighters began to work again. Aston next crossed the vast central plain, fighting against constant headwinds. At last, on December 20, 2011, she arrived at the South Pole. The stop was one of only two points in her journey where she got fresh supplies.
She got to the pole six days after a big anniversary. One hundred years earlier, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first person ever to reach the globe’s southernmost point. He did it on December 14, 1911. But Amundsen had traveled with four teammates and more than 50 dogs. Aston was by herself. And she went far past the pole. In fact, she went all the way to the other side of the continent. After all, she had a deadline to meet. She had to catch the last flight out of Antarctica before the harsh winter set in.
Aston had faced tough challenges before. She had raced in the Canadian Arctic, trekked across the Sahara Desert, and skied along a frozen Siberian river. But in Antarctica, she learned that her biggest hardship wasn’t physical. It was mental. Loneliness was the enemy. “Being alone sounds like such a simple thing,” says Aston. “But when was the last time you went a whole day without seeing any person?” During her trek, Aston was alone for weeks.
Along the way, Aston learned a lot about pushing her limits. She explains that whatever challenge you’re facing, “if you can just find a way to keep going, then you will discover that you have potential within yourself that you never realized. At some point in the future you’ll look back and just be amazed at how far you’ve come.”
From Remarkable Stories of Teamwork in Sports
PUPPY LOVE ● March 14, 1990 ● Nome, Alaska, United States
Susan Butcher had just raced through the Alaskan wilderness for 1,151 frostbitten miles. She was tired and cold. But she was happy. Wearing a bright red snowsuit and a wide smile, she trotted across the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. And she did it with the team that it made it possible—her dogs.
The Iditarod is a demanding event. In it, sled dog racers drive teams of specially trained dogs. Sled dog racers are also called mushers. During the Iditarod, mushers go through blizzards, over mountain ranges, and across frozen seas. They travel between the cities of Anchorage and Nome. The race is a test of endurance for both the humans and their furry companions. The 1990 race was especially hard for the 70 teams that started it. That year, mushers had to deal with the deepest snow in 25 years. They also ran into ash from a volcano and even the occasional aggressive moose or herd of buffalo. Fortunately, Butcher and her team of dogs had been preparing for the challenge for years.
Butcher was from Massachusetts. When she was little, her parents got divorced. It was a hard time for Butcher. But she found comfort in four-legged friends. “I was born with a particular ability with animals and a particular love for them,” she said. “An animal loves you, and you love them. I needed that as a child.” She later became a veterinary technician. She also raised dogs called huskies.
Butcher’s personal bond with the dogs she raised started the minute they were born. She held each tiny puppy in her hands. She fed the dogs, trained them, and massaged them after long runs. She let a few of them sleep in the cabin each night. Once she even stayed up for five nights in a row with a sick dog named Granite. Butcher held Granite’s head in her lap until he got better. Eventually he became, according to Butcher, one of the best sled dogs ever.
Butcher won the 1990 Iditarod in record time. It took her and her team of dogs 11 days, 1 hour, 53 minutes, and 23 seconds. The victory was her fourth in five years, making her one of the sport’s all-time greats. She eventually joined the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.
The Iditarod crowns an individual champion. But Butcher knew that she shared credit for the success. “This team has been absolutely incredible,” she said after that fourth triumph. “I’ve never had a team go as strong as this.”
From Inspiring Stories of Sportsmanship
SNOW ANGEL ● February 14, 2006 ● Turin, Italy
It was Sara Renner’s dream to win a medal at the Olympic Games. It had been her dream almost since she was born—in a town called Golden.
The Canadian cross-country skier got her first Olympic experience in 1998. That year she competed at the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. But she finished far behind the medal winners. Not long afterward, she was diagnosed with a condition called Graves’ disease. She had to have her thyroid removed. Still, her dreams remained. She came back to compete in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. This time, she competed in four events. Her highest finish was eighth place. Renner vowed to return once more. In 2006, she headed to Turin, Italy, with her skis, her poles, and her mission to win a medal.
At the Turin Olympics, Renner’s best chance at a gold was the women’s team sprint competition. During the final race, she started strong. But then a competitor accidentally stepped on one of Renner’s poles, breaking it. Renner wobbled forward for a few moments. But it was a bit like trying to fly with a broken wing. In a 17-minute race, every second counted. Renner despaired as skiers from Finland, Sweden, and Norway glided past her.
Then a man appeared by the course. He handed Renner a pole. She grabbed it and continued on.
The helpful man was Bjørnar Håkensmoen. He was the Norwegian cross-country skiing coach. Cross-country skiing is one form of Nordic skiing, which is Norway’s national sport. This would be Håkensmoen’s last Olympic Games. Like Renner, he desperately hoped his team would return home with a medal. But when he saw Renner in trouble, he didn’t hesitate. “Winning is not everything in sport,” he later explained. “What win is that, if you achieve your goal but don’t help somebody when you should have helped them?”
Renner’s new pole was longer than her old one, but it was a whole lot better than a broken pole. She charged forward to a silver medal with teammate Beckie Scott. The two skiers hugged and joyfully collapsed into the snow.
The Norwegians finished fourth. Håkensmoen’s skiers just missed taking a medal home, but the coach had no regrets. “How can you be proud of a medal if you win when someone else’s equipment is not working?” he asked.
Renner went on to win a bronze medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. But before that, she gave Håkensmoen a gift and a note thanking him for his help during that February 14 race. Renner said, “He was my valentine.”
Perseverance, teamwork, sportsmanship—these attributes help all of us as we take on challenges. They help if you are dreaming of speed skating to a medal or mastering that backside rodeo flip on your snowboard. They can be great tools when you spend the afternoon shoveling snow so you can get out to go sledding. Winter brings new chances to test skills and endurance, and share the love of outdoors and sports with friends and family.
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The Count on Me: Sports series by Brad Herzog