Last spring, I was out for a run in the Swaner Nature Preserve—and I ran past my friend Donna McAleer with surprising ease. In fact, I was so shocked that I had passed her up on the trail that I stopped, turned around, and greeted her with: “What’s wrong?” You see, at best, I’m a mediocre runner, and at her worst, Donna—well, in truth, I’ve never seen her at her worst. Until that day. “I’m recovering from stomach flu,” she confessed. “But my mind was racing and I had to get out for a run.”
Donna, you see, was midway through her campaign for a seat in the United States Congress, representing Utah’s District one. She’s a West Point Alumna, retired United States Army officer, and is the award-winning author of Porcelain On Steel: Women of West Point’s Long Gray Line. Oh, and she once served as a bobsled driver in a bid to compete in the sport in the 2002 Olympics. Which is, in case you are wondering, how she came to live in Park City, and eventually lead the People’s Health Clinic, a local non-profit dedicated to giving free and low-cost health care to underserved populations.
If that’s not evidence that she’s hard to catch, I’m not sure what is. Donna’s daughter Carly attends the same school as my sons—and we met about five years ago, when her daughter and my son were attending a local music program together. As two preternaturally busy moms, we bonded and recognized both kindred spirits and the opportunity to help each other out, and a friendship—with a side-order of carpool—was born.
Amidst all of this, the 40-year veteran of ski slopes has spent the last nine years as an instructor in the Ski School at Deer Valley—and eight years as a member of the Deer Valley Synchronized Ski Team.
It will surprise you not at all that the only time we could connect our schedules for a chat was at 6:15 a.m. on a recent morning.
1. Have you always skied on the powdery slopes of Deer Valley? No, I grew up in the east, and I learned to ski on the blue ice and in the frigid temperatures of Okemo Mountain in Ludlow, VT.
2. What interested you in teaching in the first place, and what is your favorite part about teaching at Deer Valley? I love being outside and sharing my love of the sport with others. And I love helping guests improve their confidence and ability. Plus, Deer Valley has the best office view, anywhere. Any day on the mountain is better than a day in an office!
3. How often does the Deer Valley Synchronized Ski Team practice?
We do about eight sessions prior to the performance on December 30 — we train at 4:15 p.m., riding last chair to the the top of Carpenter Express and we get one run. By the time we get to the bottom it’s kind of dark. It’s a hard-core dedicated group of 12-15 of us, that have been skiing together for six-eight years.
4. Has the team ever participated in competitions? Here’s a little bit of quick history: in the mid-80s Deer Valley had a nationally-ranked synchro team, and the Deer Valley team were the world champions in 1995. After a while, the team disbanded and Andy Lane started it up again about five years after that.
5. You put on a great show for the guests—what makes it pleasurable for you? I love that we are all working to help each other get better—that is the great thing about synchro, even as an instructor, you are constantly working to improve your skills and it’s about the discipline, about skiing in line and on time and turning to someone else’s cadence. vidually beautiful, we have gone through PSIA certification together, and synchro became a part of our training, part of our commitment to each other and the resort
6. What’s the mood like during the event? It’s very festive—at Deer Valley, the night before New Year’s Eve is all about the retro ski clothes—probably because you don’t want to ruin good ski clothes, since you are carrying torches that throw off embers. But you see these great, “sexy” 80’s one-piece ski outfits—which are the original synchro team uniforms. Visually, it’s very pretty, we are in headlamps, carrying torches coming down Big Stick and Wide West. . The the night before new year’s – suynchro demo component to it along with the torchlight. It’s not a competitive team anymore.
7. When and how will we get the best view?
It starts at 6 p.m. and we encourage guests to come at 5:45 p.m. People typically line the plaza at Snow Park and the staging area for ski school. There is hot chocolate, hot cider and the mascots are there. It’s very festive. The perfect way to do it is to plan to dine at Seafood Buffet, so that you can check out the show at the same time.
8. What is the secret to good synchronized skiing?
You have to be able to do the simple really well—and when it happens it looks really good. What you look for is everybody in synchronicity: are they in line, do they have the same shape of turn, how closely they are skiing? We want to provide a team performance, it might be opposite synch, in two parallel lines, skiing in opposite directions, everyone is in cadence. We do different size turns, different shapes, and it all gets back to just the fundamentals of skiing, all the things we teach people, the foundations of good skiing—good turn shapes, moving down the hill, using turn shape to control our speed.
9. You’re an author, an executive and a former candidate for the US House of Representatives, a mother, a wife (in no particular order!)—did skiing play a role in your ability to balance all of those roles at various times? Can you see any lessons you learned during and after your campaign that have parallels on the ski hill?
Being a writer—bringing a book to publication, writing is a solitary act. In terms of my book, thousands of hours of interviews and editing, and 19 manuscript drafts, and it takes a team to publish it. Similarly, while there is only one name on the ballot, it takes a team to make a campaign viable. Skiing is like that—it’s an individual sport, but you’re moving in relation to others. And the act of skiing—moving our bodies, maintaining dynamic balance, you need to be in balance over varying terrain, how we balance and how we stand on our skis, we want to always be moving forward and in the direction of our turn, down the hill, forward and across the skis. My campaign slogan was, “Not left. Not right. Forward.” It applies to a lot of sports, especially skiing, and for me it was a key point in how we think about our political system and we are so quick to make an assumption on how someone votes or legislates—no one is really moving forward and that’s a big issue in our political movement.
Also, another parallel between politics, writing and skiing: sometimes less is more. Really good writing is simple. Thomas Jefferson said, “Never use two words when one will do.” And sometimes we get so bogged down, so focused on technique, that we don’t just ski, we have to let it go.
10. Did Deer Valley play a role in your campaign at all?
My campaign manager is a ski patroller at Deer Valley—and , despite having met and had lunch together in the cafeteria, it was politics that brought us together. He had run campaigns on the east coast, but we bonded over the fact that we share the love of the mountain. There were a number of colleagues from all departments at Deer Valley that were part of the campaign as volunteers, making phone calls.
11. How did your experience as a teacher at Deer Valley Ski School prep you for life as a candidate? During the campaign I found myself relating moments on that trail to moments on the ski trail—There are always obstacles. In skiing we call them moguls, and you need to be able to be flexible to adapt to the terrain. No two ski lessons are ever the same, even with the same client. That’s the cool thing about teaching skiing,—to help someone, to understand how different people learn— you have to be adaptable and flexible in all these situations. In the campaign you want to stay on your message and how you are trying to interact with voters and you may take a different line, you need coaching, good peripheral vision….and you need to be an active listener in both environments, you need to understand what those people’s goals are—you have to be a good observer.
Look for Donna and the rest of the DV Synchronized Ski Team at Snow Park Lodge, starting at 6 p.m. on December 30, 2012.