Featured image: Nic Alegre
Over the last five years, Caite Zeliff has etched her name in skiing’s history books by claiming the first-ever Queen of Corbet’s title in 2018 and again the next year when she solidified her standing with a back-to-back win at the now infamous Jackson Hole event, Kings and Queens of Corbet’s. The stomp that was heard around the world earned Caite undeniable notoriety both on social media, as well as in the industry. Production companies like Warren Miller, Teton Gravity Research and Matchstick Productions started calling and the former ski racer put her best ski boot forward—producing movie parts that will be watched and emulated by little girls for years to come.
But like most every other athlete story, Caite has experienced her fair share of career curveballs and injuries. This season, you likely haven’t seen or heard much from her until recently due to a major back injury. Instead of hiding, Caite has fearlessly come out to tell her truth and to show that she is, in fact, a human just like the rest of us. Physical ailments and mental turmoil have not evaded Caite’s career but now the professional athlete is using all of her experience, good and bad, to help others build the careers they’ve always dreamed of. To dive deeper than Instagram could ever go, we caught up with Caite to talk about the good, the bad and the downright ugly parts of the ski industry and the lessons she’s learned along the way. Keep reading for one of the realest conversations we could have with an athlete.
How are you doing? Where are you currently?
I’m in Seattle at the moment, I’ve been staying in Girdwood for the last two weeks and I love it but a bunch of shit went down with the project I had going on and I just had to be okay with it. Marcus Caston is doing a Return of the Turn at Tuckerman’s Ravine in New Hampshire, and he called me and asked if I wanted to join. So I’m headed home to ski that and hang out. Just trying to still be productive at the end of the season regardless of my back.
You’ve been staying in Alaska the last couple weeks, what have you been doing up there? How are the conditions?
Alaska has been awesome! My sponsors have been so supportive but they and my project partner and my filmer have all asked me not to push anything [with my injury] so I listened. It’s shitty because I feel like I’m ready for it for a lot of reasons but the reality is I was pushing my recovery—safely, with doctors—I felt okay with it but it was one of those things where my sponsors at The North Face were really questioning if I was ready, in a healthy way. I think that came from losing Hilaree Nelson and the brand taking inventory on the pressure they put on athletes and they made it incredibly clear that there was no pressure coming from their end, which I think is incredible. But it was also really heartbreaking because I have been working so hard to get ready and it always sucks when an injury ends something you were looking forward to.
But maybe this is all a silver lining, opening you up for more opportunities?
For sure! And it’s also, in some ways, allowed me to think about a two-year project and something I really want to do. Like this journey, what I’ve really taken away from skiing content creation is it feels like a lot of people resonate with the human aspect of this sport. The project I was going to make this year was going to be a classic ‘two girls shredding on their sleds in Alaska’ and I love that but there are a lot of bigger stories to tell. I think being honest with my injury has really resonated with people and I want to keep moving in that direction. I will always keep skiing and skiing well but there are a lot of stories we can tell and show that we’re all just human and trying to survive [laughs].
What has this injury taught you?
I was worrying more about what sponsors wanted than my own happiness because that’s how I was conditioned but that’s not my sponsors’ fault, they aren’t putting pressure on me. I am putting the pressure on myself and that’s my problem. Prior to really thinking about it, I don’t think I realized how messed up my thinking was. For the last three years it’s been, “that’ll be good for my career, that’ll be good for my career, that’ll be good for my career.” It was never, “what do you want?”
If you could go back and do anything different in terms of developing your ski career, would you?
I don’t think I would, to be honest with you. I had to learn all of these lessons for myself. We want it so bad as athletes and I have been honest with female athletes about certain relationships or brands. It’s easy to assume that just because someone else had a bad experience it won’t happen to you or just because other skiers get injured, you won’t get injured. I remember being younger and seeing Angel [Collinson] being honest on social media about burnout and thinking “how could you ever burn out of this lifestyle,” and here I am facing burnout. Or with my back injury, I don’t think I would have learned how to find steep landings without this injury—I would’ve just continued living like I was superhuman or something. There really is nothing that I would change, the only thing would be to not be so affected by what people in the midwest behind a computer screen are saying about my skiing because that’s not what matters [laughs].
What kind of advice would you give to girls who are currently working at becoming a professional skier?
It’s so complex. There are all the really easy ones: Believe in yourself. Keep working hard. Surround yourself with people you can trust and can push you. But honestly, what I’m learning is that we don’t need to compare ourselves to men. For the longest time I didn’t necessarily want to ski like a girl, I just wanted to be good and equal and I think that mindset actually caused me more pain in the sense that I was never good enough for myself. My style has never been tricks and airs, so when I see a 16-year-old boy throwing backflips and I don’t even like mine enough to do them in front of a camera, it’s easy to say “Why am I here? I don’t deserve this.”
I’m not saying we should compare ourselves to women either, I think comparison is our worst enemy, but I would say get psyched on your style, whatever that is. Jim Ryan once told me to just play to my strengths and do what I love and I realized I was wasting so much time and energy worrying about what I thought I needed to do instead of focusing on fostering the parts of my skiing that I am naturally good at and genuinely love doing. I think it’s easy to get caught up in what the industry wants, but trying to do what all the men do almost killed me. I do think it’s important to push ourselves and have goals and be excited but I think it’s important to do what you are excited about because that is what will keep you safe and healthy.
I also wish I had a bit more fun. Somewhere along the line I kind of forgot how much I love skiing because it’s also how I was paying the bills and it became a very different game. When you’re trying to make money from skiing, that’s not an easy thing to do, so you feel like you need to be the best to get by. So just try to have more fun with it. When I’m having fun, that shines through. That’s what is so cool, it’s a creative expression. Once I got it into my head that skiing is creative, I felt empowered by that. I’ve been an athlete my whole life but have never really thought of myself as an artist and then when I started looking at skiing as more of an artistic endeavor, that took a lot of pressure off. We’re all out there to have a good time, it can get heavy at times and feels really intense but try not to lose the joy because that’s really the only reason we’re doing it.
There’s a saying out there that comparison is the death of joy—how do you keep from comparing yourself to other athletes, especially when you’re on such a stacked team like The North Face?
I feel like the cool thing about The North Face, at least from my experience, is it is really treated more like a creative endeavor or lifestyle as opposed to a career. These sports are so much a part of these peoples’ lives. I’ve never felt more at home than being surrounded by The North Face athlete team in Bishop, California. I have an incredible family and support system that loves me more than anything but I have always felt like a black sheep because I love to do death-defying stuff and scare the shit out of myself and most people think I’m crazy but then all of a sudden I was in a room of people who genuinely understand that. I have a family in my teammates there. There’s no lick of competitive nature on that team and I am so grateful for that. All of my sponsors are the same way. Where I felt the most competition is in the production company world. The North Face has a lot of female athletes on the team, I would argue it’s actually probably 50-50 so there isn’t this feeling that you have to fight for your space because there’s plenty of room for all of us. Whereas in the production companies, until very recently, we all have to agree that there has been the token female in ski movies.
Basically, when TGR and I went our separate ways, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t hurt when I was replaced. And then I was having these negative feelings toward the woman who did replace me who totally deserves the chance to be in a ski movie. I’m not proud of that knee-jerk reaction but we have been kind of conditioned and maybe it’s just me. I’ve always been the underdog and have worked really hard and sometimes it feels like people who aren’t working as hard are getting the opportunities but maybe it’s just that they are having more fun while working hard.
Being a professional skier can get STRESSFUL sometimes, how do you keep your head on straight when it gets chaotic?
I’m not very good at it, to be honest [laughs]. I think that’s why I don’t compete anymore, or never really liked to, because I don’t love that pressure and intensity. I think through this injury, however, because it’s my first injury to happen within ski season—I’ve blown my ACL ski racing prior to becoming pro and broken my leg at the end of a season—but this was the first injury to get in the way of my career and I was also going through a breakup as it happened so I decided to take a break from all substances, including coffee because I’m a masochist [laughs]. I was in the fire and I didn’t numb myself at all and I really sat with my feelings and I learned to breathe through it and trust these feelings of anxiety will subside.
I think one of my goals moving forward is to try to keep that calm that I’m able to find when I’m at home and things are calm when I’m in these stressful situations. I have gotten good at it on a line, for example, but when I’m getting calls that I might be going to Alaska or I might not, that style of stress I’m still working on. On the outside I’m cool as a cucumber but on the inside my mind is racing but it’s because I care so much. All we can do is take it day by day, especially with this injury. Some days I wake up and feel stronger than I’ve ever been and some days I wake up feeling like I slept a little funky. So being present in the moment and breaking it up into segments has really helped me believe that I’m capable of what I’ve set out to do. That’s not to say I’ve never had any doubt but I genuinely know that not believing in myself isn’t serving me anymore.
What are some ways you “treat yo self” and how often do you practice self care?
I love self care! Obviously with this back injury it has been easy not to feel any guilt about self care. I love a good massage, I’m really into cold plunging—that one is good for me mentally and physically. You know when you take a big cliff hit and then you have a comedown, that’s how I feel cold plunging is. For a while I was working with an acupuncturist because my nervous system was all jacked up, I think just from the nature of this industry as well as being a stress case but my body was in a constant fight-or-flight mode for years. It’s easy as an athlete to take care of your body but trying to do things for the systems I can’t see—I go to therapy, I sleep a lot, I take naps, I do hot tubs. All of my friends will call me if they need a healer because I have every healer’s number in Jackson and I’m creating a ridiculous list of healers in Anchorage and Girdwood [laughs]. For a while there I was getting a massage every week, cold plunging daily, acupuncture weekly, I was doing reiki work, I was doing so much and almost too much. Nutrition is another incredible way to take care of your body and that’s self care too.
Skiing professionally can be a harsh reality sometimes, what is it about this sport that keeps you hungry for more year after year?
The challenge. I know I still have more in the tank and it’s not to prove anything to anyone, I would just like to master my craft. When I am on skis, when everything is flowing and working, that is the most magical feeling in the world. Knowing that I have the ability to get into that flow state and to have the creativity on skis, I think sometimes to take inventory because when you’re an expert skier you can literally make turns wherever you want on the mountain. Being an athlete is the best career path for me right now because I do prioritize my health. I guess I could do that in another career but this one really allows me to prioritize my health and take care of myself. It makes me want to be at the top of my game and do things that really help me grow and I think I need that motivation and skiing happens to be it.
I would also say that skiing has taught me and showed me more in my life than anything else. Getting to travel the world as a child, basically, ski racing in high school and getting so much experience, seeing so many other places, realizing how big the world really is. And also being scared a lot of not being able to rely on anyone else. Standing on top of a line there is nobody you can call on, that’s on you, and I think it’s a great metaphor for life because you really have to be able to lean on yourself and I think being scared in the mountains has shown me that I am capable of so much more than I could ever imagine. It also allows me to continue my education. I dropped out of college not to chase being a pro skier but because traditional education wasn’t for me. I love to learn, so I continue to take avy courses, I got my EMT this fall—all because I want to be the best mountain partner I can be.
I feel like I was put on this Earth to ski. When Hilaree [Nelson] died I questioned if this was worth it and then when I had this injury I was removed from it all and I realized I am a fraction of the human being that I am out of the mountains. When I started getting back into the mountains, everything about me lit up. My skin got color back, my eyes got clearer, I felt good, I was more social, funnier, thoughts were flowing and I was more creative. There’s just so much that the mountains give me, so it was actually a cool process to be out of them for the longest period I’ve ever been out of them and notice there was a genuine difference in who I was as a person. I know I could find that elsewhere but right now I just don’t want to.
This article was originally published by Freeskier.com. Read the original article here.