Muffy Davis:The Challenge of Optimism

Photo by John Wieland

The 2000 Disabled Skiing World Championships in Enzère, Switzerland, weren’t turning out the way Muffy Davis had hoped. In the downhill, she never finished a run. In the super G, usually Davis’ best event, her ski broke on the second gate. Frustrated and angry, she approached her next event, the giant slalom, in very un-Muffylike fashion. “I always preach the importance of a positive attitude,” says Davis, “but at that point I just wanted to get it over with. I didn’t care how I did, I just went out there and skied.”

She won the gold.

“It made no sense to me,” says Davis. “What happened to staying positive?” Determined to learn from every experience, she theorizes, “I guess I just needed to hit bottom, to lose all my expectations–and just ski.” The World Championships didn’t come close to shaking Davis’ belief in the power of positive thinking. It’s unlikely anything ever will.

Born to Ski
Muffy Davis was born to ski. Growing up in an athletic family in the ski country of Sun Valley, Idaho, she was skiing at age 3 and racing at 7. A year later, she told her mother that God had made her to be a ski racer. Davis’ principal competition was fellow Sun Valley resident and future Olympian Picabo Street. The two girls traded wins and egged each other on. “I wouldn’t have been as good without Picabo there,” says Davis, “and she says the same about me.”

When Davis was 14 she was one of three American girls selected to represent the country in a series of races in Italy, one step in a process intended to culminate in Olympic competition. Most of Davis’ teammates from that European trip eventually made the national team.

In 1989 Davis, then 16, became a paraplegic. It happened–no surprise–on the slopes. During downhill training on her home mountain, on a turn she had skied hundreds of times but had never raced, Davis lost control, flipped over a fence and crashed backwards into some trees.

After rehab, Davis bought a water ski, and at “the exact minute they said it was OK,” she was out on the water. But snow skiing seemed out of the question. “I said, ‘I’m never skiing again unless it’s standing up on two skis, the way I’ve always done it,’” Davis recalls. “Skiing was my freedom, my release. When I had a bad day at school, when a guy didn’t like me, I’d go up on the mountain and let it go. The thought of learning that all over again–of my release becoming my challenge–was more than I could bear.” Then the next ski season came around. Davis’ family and friends were out on the mountain, and she was home watching TV. “I missed it,” she says simply. “My soul missed being out there.”

The Davis family visited the adaptive ski center in Winter Park, Colo., where the 1990 World Championships were being held. (The field included champion monoskier Sarah Will, now Davis’ teammate and chief competition, though the two didn’t meet at the time.) Davis saw what was possible, but she had no idea how to get there. At the time, the Winter Park instructors didn’t know how to work with her T6 injury. Back home, the Davises bought a monoski, and they were on their own.

“We had no idea what we were doing,” Davis says of her family’s efforts. “We did everything completely wrong, and I mean everything.” Davis later learned that her ski was mounted incorrectly by a whopping eight inches. “It was the most frustrating thing in the world,” she says. “I’d make one turn and fall. Make a turn, fall. Fall. Fall. Fall.” Davis could manage a run on the bunny hill she had last skied when she was 7. “My ego was shattered,” she says. On the big mountain, “I’d pass the spot where I had my accident, and I’d be a basket case. They’d have to take me down in a toboggan. I got so used to the toboggan, the ski patrol stopped strapping me down–I would just sit there and go for a ride!” This went on for three years.

With the wrong equipment and without an experienced instructor, Davis’ frustrating lack of success was perhaps predictable. What is remarkable is how long she persisted. “I know skiing,” says Davis. “I know it with everything inside me. And I knew if I could get the equipment straightened out, I could do it.”

The first step was meeting ski instructor Marc Mast. Together, they worked during Davis’ college breaks and whenever else she could arrange it. Mast changed Davis’ monoski seat to give her more upper body stability, but truly enjoyable skiing was still elusive. Competition was out of the question.

After graduating Stanford University in 1995, Davis planned to take a year off and “play at skiing” before applying to medical school. At Mast’s suggestion, they went together to Sarah Will’s monoski camp in Vail. The first day of camp, Davis was cringing at the 10 inches of fresh powder on the slopes, sure it was beyond her. Mast had brought an extra ski with him, a Yetti by Radventure, and suggested Davis try it. “I jumped in the Yetti, and it was like night and day,” says Davis. “Before, I could hardly turn. Now all of a sudden I’m linking turns and going through gates. Everything flowed. I could hardly believe it.” For the first time since her accident, Davis was really skiing. The other skiers in camp encouraged her to race, and their enthusiasm was hard to resist.

Eight days later, Davis entered her first monoski race. She finished barely a quarter of the course, but it didn’t matter–she had felt that familiar adrenaline rush, food for her soul. Medical school was history, at least for a while. For the next two years, Davis trained and raced. The challenge was, and remains, applying her knowledge of skiing to monoskiing-getting her body caught up with her brain. By the end of the 1997 season, Davis made the U.S. team. The role Picabo Street once played in her life is now occupied by Sarah Will: The challenge of catching Will is Davis’ greatest training incentive.

A Higher Calling
As an 8-year-old girl, Davis felt she was destined to be a ski racer. As a 27-year-old woman, she’s found a broader purpose. Davis’ “life’s mission,” she says, is changing attitudes and perceptions of people with disabilities. Bubbly and vibrant, eminently articulate, she’s a natural for her developing career as a motivational speaker. In appearances before school groups as young as pre-kindergarten on through the corporate circuit, Davis speaks about healing and growth, challenge and potential, the indomitability of human spirit, and, always, the power of a positive attitude.

When she gets to the part about having no regrets, nondisabled audiences tend to gasp in surprise or roll their eyes in disbelief. “I wouldn’t want to go back and not have had my accident, because I’m happy with who I am,” she declares. “Ablebodied people say, ‘How can you not want to walk?’ It’s not that I don’t want to walk. But I’ve learned so much about myself that I may have never learned if I hadn’t broken my back. The inner wisdom I’ve gained is tremendous.”

Davis talks a lot about challenge–what it is, and what it isn’t. “My disability may be one of my challenges,” she says, “but we all face challenges–no one gets through this life without them.” Paraplegia, she says, is the lesser obstacle compared to the social stigma of the wheelchair. Her first day back in school, post-injury, made that painfully clear. “I went from walking into school–’Hey, there’s Muffy, she’s the best racer in the school’–to rolling in–’Oh my god, there’s poor Muffy, it’s so sad what happened to her.’ When I rolled down the hallway, it was like the parting of the Red Sea. People had no idea how to react to me–but I hadn’t changed. Who I was–the essence of me–was the same.”

Communicating this to as many people as possible is Davis’ objective. She acknowledges debts to the support of family and community, and to the healing powers of time, but she always returns to her central theme: “I am the same as you. I have the same emotions, the same sexual feelings, everything, as everyone else. Disability changes your life, but it doesn’t change the person.”

In the short term, there is skiing. The 2002 Winter Paralympics beckon, and Davis intends to be at the top of her game. But however much the need for speed courses through her veins, she doesn’t want the next two years to go by in a blur. “The main thing is to enjoy the process,” says Davis. “My goal is to win a gold medal in 2002, but even if I don’t medal at all, I’ll learn a lot about myself on the way. You have to wake up and enjoy every day. You don’t want to be so focused on your destination that you miss the trip.”

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