The Inn at Riverwalk’s Resident Athlete, Olympic mogul skier and Vail Valley local, Tess Johnson, is one of thousands of professional athletes worldwide who saw their seasons come to an abrupt end. At this point, we all know what it’s like to have our plans dashed by the COVID-19 pandemic and for most, this period of uncertainty has been difficult to navigate. Tess shared with us what this unique situation has been like for a professional skier who usually spends the season abroad competing with her teammates rather than stateside training at home and quarantining with her family.
It was almost 6 A.M. We were in Idre Fjall, Sweden, for FIS Alpine Ski Mogul World Cup Finals, and I was groggily rolling around my bed trying to fall back asleep after waking up from jet lag. At that point, the U.S. Moguls Team had already competed in Japan, Kazakhstan, Siberia and Norway, so my sleeping patterns were completely whack. I could hear my teammate, Jaelin Kauf, breathing evenly in the little European bed next to mine. Just as my eyelids fell, our bedroom door creaked open.
“Girls, wake up,” a deep man’s voice recited quietly. My first thought was, There’s an intruder in our bedroom! Jaelin bolted upright and I could tell she was startled too, but we quickly realized it was just our teammate, Brad Wilson. We rubbed our eyes and squinted in pure confusion at what he said next.
“We have to pack up now. We’re going home today because of the coronavirus.” My next thought was, Is it April Fool’s day? What kind of joke is this? Jaelin and I exchanged stunned glances as we processed the meaning of Brad’s message.
“Is this a joke?” I asked Brad in my dazed state of mind. He chuckled.
“No. That would be a really mean prank; check your phones. We have to meet the coaches by 8 A.M. for a team meeting.” I grabbed my phone and read our coach Matt Gnoza’s message with darting eyes. President Trump...foreign travel ban...coronavirus pandemic...this Friday. It was Wednesday, and I began to worry we wouldn’t even make it home to Vail, Colorado. I hurriedly googled the crisis and it was all coming together: our ski season was over, and getting home to Colorado could be an absolute nightmare.
Shockingly, the trip home was as smooth as we could have hoped for. Every time I sat down, either in the airport or the airplane, I would aggressively disinfect every surface, nook and cranny. My hands started to peel and blister because of how often I was dousing them with soap, water and hand sanitizer. It started to feel apocalyptic and I could sense the fear in fellow travelers. Initially, the Brits, the Japanese and the U.S. ski teams were the only three to withdraw from the event. About two hours after we left, however, the entire World Cup event got cancelled as well as our Ski National Championships that were going to be in Squaw Valley, CA the following week. Our staff was like superheroes with rebooking our flights and getting us home as quickly and safely as possible. It’s a miracle to me that not a single one of us out of fifteen team members didn’t get sick. There’s a good chance a few of us were asymptomatic, but every day I’ve been counting our blessings for our health.
My entire family was reunited when I got home to Vail, Colorado. My sister’s senior year of college got cut short and my brother was finishing his junior year of high school online. We don’t often get to spend much time together, and it was such a relief to come home to a house full of love after the devastation of my season being cut short. Sadly, I was instantly faced with the reality of being quarantined from my own family. I had to live alone in the basement for the first 14 days since I had just been in Europe, categorized as a “Zone 3” area. My sister and I share a room, so I was in the basement man cave that is my brother’s room. It’s dark down there, and with every passing day I got lonelier and more depressed. My mom brought meals down and was sure to wash her hands thoroughly after every delivery. I fortunately never showed any symptoms of COVID-19, and there were too many times when I thought we were overreacting, but we weren’t. I couldn’t risk getting the rest of my family sick, because the severity of this virus is worth fearing.
My saving grace was the Rocky Mountains. Growing up in Vail has sometimes made me forget how lucky I am to live in such a serene place. I’ve never been so grateful for something as simple as fresh mountain air. Since the Vail and Beaver Creek Ski Resorts closed, I dug my AT gear out of the garage and skinned up Meadow Mountain, outside of Minturn, nearly every day. It was my escape from the darkness of my isolation, and it was rejuvenating to be back on skis, even just for one long, mogul-free run. The things I used to take for granted like hiking up the Davos trail behind my house in West Vail or walking around the block with my dog, Kodiak, flooded my heart with joy again. Getting to go outside was imperative for my mental health, which is why I’m appreciative to live in a place like Vail. When I finally made the move back upstairs, I’d never been so thrilled about sharing a room with my sister. It was wonderful to be with other human beings again. We’ve been doing puzzles, staying fit with home workouts, practicing yoga and meditation, and staying present as often as we can.
After a tough competition ski season, I was rattled to see it come to a screeching halt. I’ve learned plenty about myself as a competitor, and I was hungry to end the year on my highest note yet. It’s a perfect example, though, of how there is so much out of my control: my competition results, the snow conditions, other athletes, and now, this virus. Our summer training is completely up in the air right now. Barely anyone in the entire ski industry is skiing right now, and competitors certainly can’t train normally. The ski industry is losing hundreds of millions of dollars from the outbreak, and I don’t know when I will see my teammates again, but I’m not focusing on any of that. I’m directing my attention towards the many things that are in my control: getting as strong as possible and mentally preparing for next season with sports psychology. I’m keeping it as positive as possible because this is a fantastic opportunity to focus on the little things that will make me an exceptional competitor.
My heart goes out to those who are suffering from this pandemic, whether that be financially, medically, or emotionally. It’s crucial that we stay home to flatten the curve and have the compassion to save each other in any way that we can. It warms my heart to know that the Inn at Riverwalk in Edwards Colorado has opened its doors to support healthcare workers and first responders in Eagle County during this time. I’m overwhelmed with gratitude to have this partnership with the Inn because of their empathy and forward-looking attitude. They are an excellent embodiment of how we should respond to this pandemic, because it’s acts of kindness like theirs that will get us through this adversity together.
A big "thank you" goes out to Tess for sharing not just the effects this pandemic has had on her and the skiing community but also acknowledging the importance of positivity and hope during a time when both are hard to come by.