Turning Points

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Yesterday someone posed the question: “What’s the biggest turning point you’ve had in your life?”

I usually give a wishy washy answer about retiring from skiing or in this case, finishing college. 

After hearing their beautiful and impactful answers to the same question, I couldn’t live with my surface level response. So to answer the same question “What’s the biggest turning point you’ve had in your life?” I thought I’d write about it.

Some Background:

Womens Podium
NZ Freeski Open

I used to tell people I retired from professional slopestyle skiing because I blew my knee too many times and just had to stop.

“I want to be able to walk when I’m 30” I’d joke.

While it’s true I tore my ACL twice in two years, it isn’t the whole story.

In the fall of 2015 I was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa. The day after the diagnosis I left for a six week ski trip to the southern hemisphere with the US Freeskiing Team and tried to put it out of my mind.  

RP, for short, is a degenerative retinal disorder which leaves most people blind by their 40th birthday. Imagine a vignette photograph with blurred edges. With RP, the edges of your vision gradually get fuzzier and fuzzier, slowly closing in and getting darker. A sort of tunnel vision you eventually can’t see out of. 

Scary stuff.

Processing what the diagnosis meant for me ate away at my thoughts. I was doing mental math.

I’m 21 years old. 

That gives me 19 years of sight.

I just spent the past four years in the gym recovering from two blown knees, four knee surgeries, a shoulder injury, a broken hand, and two wrist surgeries.

Another injury could take two more years to fully recover from.

That’s 10% of my time left to see – time I wasn’t willing to spend in the physical therapy room. 

So, I took a year off from competitive skiing. I more or less turned my phone off for six months and spent more than 100 nights sleeping outside. In that time, I officially retired from my professional ski career. With the prospect of blindness a few decades down the line, it wasn’t worth the risk for me. 


Turning Point:

So that diagnosis was my turning point. 

Since then, I’ve completely altered the course of my life. I moved across the country and worked on a wildland fire crew one summer, something I’d dreamed about doing, but never had time for while I was skiing. I started attending Westminster College full time in Salt Lake City. I bought a Sprinter van (thanks Mom and Dad) and moved into full time #vanlife more than a year and a half ago. 

digging in coals

I’ve committed to spending my time with extreme intentionality. I structure my life around experiencing as much as I can and doing all the things now which I may not be able to do later. 

Looking back at the past five months alone, that motivation entailed an almost frantic energy – moving from one endeavor to the next, spending weekends trying to see as much as possible, absorbing new experiences with people I care about or venturing out on my own. 

In the month of January I skied pow and mountain biked in Colorado, climbed in Indian Creek, Utah, mountain biked in the Arizona desert, surfed in Southern California, jumped in Lake Tahoe and started my last semester of school.

I spent the weekdays buckling down at school in an effort to maintain all A’s while living in my van. I took 20 credits last semester in order to graduate in two years. 

I re-certed my Wilderness First Responder and Emergency Medical Technician certifications. 

I co-presented an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Workshop at the Intermountain Student Outdoor Leadership Symposium at the University of Utah

I got my American Mountain Guiding Association Single Pitch Instructor (AMGA SPI) certification. Hand in hand with that, I helped create a brand-new kind of trip with the Westminster Outdoor Program: She/Her/Hers Climbing – a rock climbing trip in Moab with a focus on equity, diversity and inclusion for people who identify with the pronoun series she/her/hers. 

We were awarded an Innovate Grant from ASW, the student government, to cover the cost for all the participants to lower the barrier of entry and get people on the trip who we don’t normally reach through the Outdoor Program. We won a peer nominated leadership award for that trip!

I helped create a three-part event series called Reduce/Reuse/Recycle to raise awareness about reducing our waste stream both on campus and off. #WasteFreeWestminster

I collected huge boxes of winter clothing to send overseas to help a new organization called Without Restrictions start a sit-ski program in Macedonia for people with paraplegia and quadriplegia. 

I competed in my first mountain bike race (thanks Zoey).

The morning after graduation I flew to Ecuador to start a fellowship teaching remote medicine. 

I don’t want to sit here and toot my own horn. I ran myself way too thin. I got super sick a few times. I had to bail on people because I’d double booked myself. I ended up crying in the middle of campus several times. 

Despite all that, I just feel like I can’t, or shouldn’t, stop. 

Be Here Now:

Even after more than two years of processing, if I think hard about losing my vision my stomach ties itself in a knot, jumps into my throat, and makes me want to throw up. 

It’s genuinely terrifying. 

It took me about a year to get past the point of feeling like I was on the verge of an imminent mental breakdown. 

Now, if I think about it from a positive headspace, I feel a sense of gratitude. The diagnosis has given me a push to live my life right now. Because whatever it is, I might not have this opportunity forever. And that frame of mind is a special thing. 

I have the ability to view my life and what I’m doing in a 20-year time period. Ensuing darkness helps derive clarity when I’m unsure of which path to take. Making hard or complicated decisions is easier when I can honestly ask myself: “What will I remember more in 10 or 20 years?” or “What will make me happiest in the time I’ve got left?” 

I want to do all the things, see all things, and make change while I feel like I still can.

That’s why I end up booked to the gills.

The book I’m reading right now, Deep Survival, says: ‘Rule Number One’ is “be here now”. That’s my current mantra.

Be. Here. Now.


23 thoughts on “Turning Points

  1. Health issues can be such important wake-up calls! You are blessed to have had a wake-up call at such a young age. Very good medicine. Buddhist meditation is also a great life-long tool for being here now.

  2. You are an incredible woman and have always been one of my favorite people Ive ever worked with. You inspire me ❤

  3. This is fantastic, you are fantastic! I hope your words inspire everyone in some form to do what is best for them. I already quit my horrible job last month. If I didn’t already,after reading this I would have. I will make sure Hawks reads this because he talks about your attitude to his athletes all the time. He’s so proud of you!!!

    1. Thanks Kristin! That’s so positive to hear. Sending good wishes for your upcoming endeavors! Missing my Breckenridge family… I’ll let you know the next time I’m in town ♥️

  4. All any of us have is ‘the here & now so my motto has always been’ eat , drink & be merry ‘ and remain positive &🎶always look on the bright sideof life🎶

  5. Thank you for sharing. My heart goes out to you. I am many many years older than you and facing loss of mobility. It’s very difficult to not run, bike, ski, etc. Hubby and I are looking for a Sprinter (or similar) van too. A little traveling house that’s easier than camping.
    Hang tough Emilia. You have a lot to do, and many talents to share. My thoughts are with you.

  6. Attitude shapes reality. Great attitude. I have two brothers with RP. Neither was blind at 40. They managed quite well with decreasing vision until their 60s. Keep up the good works. Wishing you the best.

  7. They are advancing eye treatments so this might not be the end of sight. Check out National Geographic eyes issue. Good luck to you, I think that I would be doing what you’re doing if faced with such a diagnosis.

    1. I’ll go check it out! Indeed, the treatments are advancing rapidly, I check in with my doctor once a year. One thought, perhaps it doesn’t require such a diagnosis to “do what I’m doing”?

  8. Thanks for sharing your story. This coincidence is too much to not mention… I read your blog post during lunch immediately after touring the VEMI Lab at UMaine (https://umaine.edu/vemi/). They do a ton of research on how technology can assist the visually impaired. Maybe something to poke through on a rainy day; there are a lot of people working hard on these challenges. Best to you!

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