Wendy Fisher: ‘Burnout’ to ‘Coolest Thing Ever’

Reflections: 'I just felt lonely and sad. I was distracted. I wasn’t tough. Picabo Street was tough.' -WF

Photo: Dave Reddick

Photo: Dave Reddick

By John Clary Davies

Lost, alone and burnt out on ski racing, Olympian Wendy Fisher quit the U.S. Ski Team and dropped out of college. She loaded her car and headed to Crested Butte, where Kim Reichhelm had offered a couch. Two weeks later, with the encouragement of new friends, she entered the 1996 U.S. Extremes competition on the local hill. Placing third, she then went on to win consecutive World Extreme Skiing Championships in Valdez, Alaska, and the South American Extreme Skiing Championship in Las Leñas, Argentina, in 1997, the year she started filming with Matchstick Productions. In 1998, Fisher won the overall International Extreme Freesking World Cup title.

The Tahoe native is now a skiing ambassador at Crested Butte and a mother of two, ages 4 and 6. In a recent interview, Fisher reflected on her long career in ski racing and freeskiing with Powder.com.

In Third Bowl, Crested Butte. Photo: Tom Stillo

In Third Bowl, Crested Butte. Photo: Tom Stillo

I was on the Squaw Valley ski team at age 6, and that was the same team as Shane McConkey. My earliest memory of him was when he got a bamboo pole stuck in his cheek.

I went to high school at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont. I loved it—70 kids living in the middle of nowhere in the boondocks of Vermont. It was pretty hardcore. I found out later that the headmaster told my parents not to send me there, that I was never going to survive four years, because I was from the west coast and Westerners weren’t as tough as Easterners, and because I was too small.

My Olympics experience was bittersweet. The speed on the last day of the last training run, the course really got faster and a ton of girls ate shit on this jump—the Waterfall or something like that. I go into one air and turn and go into the last air and flew about 140 feet. I got knocked out. It was a crazy, ugly crash, tumbling down the hill. I had 215s on and my skis didn’t come off. I came out of that with a broken thumb, a bruised rib, a concussion, a really bruised anklebone, and hurt both my MCLs. And that was my Olympics.

It was the highlight crash. I had a live interview after that with Greg Gumble, because there was a lot of controversy. I probably got more TV time than the girls who did decent, because Americans are into carnage.

I felt a little Bode Miller-ish. I felt for him when he was going through his issues. The media was just hounding on him. We work really hard doing the World Cups and no one pays attention. Then, when the Olympics come, we get this micro zone and the media digs deep into every flaw, every nook and cranny about you. They come and ask you these ridiculous questions, and you get kind of get pissed off because we work our butts off and they come in and ask all these crazy questions.

I left the ski team in ‘94. I was totally burnt out. You make the U.S Ski Team at a young age; I made it when I was 15. It was hard, but when you’re on a team, you have a lot of fun with girlfriends who are your best friends for the most part. Then, as you climb the ladder, suddenly I found myself at the start at the World Cups, the highest level in the world, feeling totally alone.

Wendy Fisher, age 7, at bottom right, with Shane McConkey behind her in the back row. Photo: Wendy Fisher collection

Wendy Fisher, age 7, at bottom right, with Shane McConkey behind her in the back row. Photo: Wendy Fisher collection

I was someone who needed to have fun. I needed to talk. I didn’t like to think of the task at hand, and when you’re at the top everyone is so serious. I just felt lonely and sad. I was distracted. I wasn’t tough. Picabo Street was tough. She didn’t let things get to her, and I was sensitive, so unfortunately, I feel like that that was my downfall.

The last three years I was really down in the dumps. I really worried more about my big ski body. I didn’t embrace it; I pushed it away.

I let things get to me. I‘m disappointed about that. I look back and I have regrets because as a skier, I could have gone farther, but I burnt out and I missed freeskiing and thought about growing up at Squaw, having fun skiing.

Fisher entrenched at the Butte, April 2008. Photo: Tom Stillo

Fisher entrenched at the Butte, April 2008. Photo: Tom Stillo

I was lost. [Racing] was the only thing I focused on my whole life.

I had been hearing about the Extremes. Kim Reichhelm invited me to come stay with her in Crested Butte even though I barely knew her. I got there two-and-a-half weeks before the event, I wasn’t planning on staying there that long, but Kim introduced me to some people and I started skiing with these guys and just had so much fun—Murray Wais, Steve Winter. People showed me where people ski in the contest, and where the girls usually go, so I entered.

Shane and I also went to Burke together. I idolized Shane. At Christmas, I would chase him down and be like, ‘Hey Shane, can I go skiing with you?’ Shane and I were friends and he was at the contest, and I was at the bottom. I said, ‘Hey Shane, I was watching all these guys and they’re not the greatest skiers. Shane, could I do that? What about that line?’ ‘Yeah, you could do that.’

So I went back up there on the second run, and the girls usually crossover at the Headwall, but I didn’t even go there. I just went along the rock band. This is one of my favorite moments of skiing. I’m on top of this rock where I decided I could do an air to a straightline. I could hear everybody cheering like crazy at the bottom. I remember stopping at the top of the rock and taking it all in.

I jumped off into the straightline and skied out of the gully and did three super-G turns to the bottom, and everybody surrounded me and I thought this was the coolest thing ever. That was just so much fun. I had a 10-point lead after that run.

I did the Squaw comp and won it. I did Kirkwood and won it. I went up to Alaska, to the Valdez contest. I didn’t know what slough was. I didn’t know what avalanches were. I remember going with Dean Cummings and Chris Anthony to where the venue was going to be. I was so scared. I thought we were standing on a little cliff or cornice. Then Dean started making these hop turns. Holy shit, this is the run! I did the contest and won it. I went to South America and won that in August.

Photo: Tom Stillo

Photo: Tom Stillo

Things worked out how they should have.

It was so refreshing, so fun. I grew up being a freeskier at Squaw. When I burnt out on the ski team I wanted a dog, I wanted a boyfriend, and I just wanted to ski.

I was going to go back to school, and then suddenly I started getting paid more than when I was ski racing, so it was too easy to keep skiing.

I was in Chamonix the next winter doing contests, about to fly home, and Murray said, ‘We want you to stay and film.’

I had more confidence with the boys. Filming with Seth [Morrison] and Cummings and [Chris] Davenport was awesome, because they knew me really well and knew what I liked to ski. I always felt like I was going to die, but it was addictive.

My first film with MSP in Chamonix, the first day filming, I witnessed a guy die in an avalanche on the run I just skied. Then, going to Portillo and watching the heli crash, I went in always freaked-out, but mentally talked myself into it because of the satisfaction. I was so honored that they would ask me. You know, what I want is to show that girls can do this. I’m happy. I’m capable. I’m a good enough skier to do this.

Seth showed up last season and I was like, can I go skiing with you? He skied so hard, nonstop, never looked back. I went off the wall and did everything he did, like a little kid chasing someone, trying to do everything he did, thinking, ‘This is awesome. I forgot I can do all this stuff.’

I think about Shane a lot. It sounds so stupid to say, but I never thought it would happen to him. Shane was so brilliant. I also lost my brother to skiing. I think about Shane just as much as my brother. I can’t even believe that it happened. So many people miss him. He was such an inspiration and so creative and brilliant and had an awesome personality. He had everything going on and a great family. I think about Ayla and Sherry and what it must be like for them. He was such an aberrant personality. Ayla’s just going to have to hear stories about him and that’s hard.

He died in a ski accident in Squaw when I was 6, playing a game called Fox and Hound. I was one of the first ones on the scene, just looking at him. I remember standing there, thinking [my brother’s] dead. He’s buried at Squaw. When I stopped loving skiing when I was a racer, it was extra emotionally hard because he got our family into skiing. I held that inside of me. I had to keep skiing because of him.

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  • danK

    My favorite & inspirational athlete! Went to school at SNC with Wendy, and to this day I draw upon my memory of her toughness as an athlete: watched her hammer through a rocky switchback and grunt up a loose, silty hot climb hours from nowhere with a steely stare of resolve. Fifteen years later I remind myself “if she can do it you can too.” She may not have thought “tough” defined her, but believe you me, Wendy is a bad ass mofo.

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