PARTNERS – JOHNNY “FOON” CHILTON
Words by Leslie Anthony Johnny “Foon” Chilton hunches over a surfboard in a cavernous warehouse in Pemberton, British Columbia. Just back from...
Words by Andres Valencia
A cameraman aimed at me from the left, while my coach invigorated me from the right. “Remember you’re doing this for you and no one else.” My heart was pounding and my legs felt wobbly. The voices in my head were singing loudly. I had been dreaming about this moment for years thinking to myself, “What would it be like, what would it feel like?” Before me: arguably the world’s toughest mogul course by steepness and length metrics. What was I thinking? After only three months of formal training, the moment had arrived and I felt I was losing the battle between relaxation and my nerves as I stepped into the start gate waiting for the countdown to begin. My body was taut with tension and adrenaline. Only seconds between me and making my childhood dream of becoming a competitive mogul skier a reality.
My first-ever professional tournament. Olympic medalists surrounding me. Athletes from Asia, Australia, North America, Russia and Europe, but only one from Latin America, me. All professional athletes, but only one amateur, me. The competition was over in 30 seconds. I was close to the last participant to cross the finish line. But how many people in the world could say they had crossed a finish line? And this finish line? My overwhelming thoughts and emotions had been instantly replaced by an addictive combination of joy and satisfaction. That’s when I realized why I was really doing it. Not a medal, or standing on the podium, but the sheer experience of living out my dream. My attitude started changing, as did the way I approached the world. I was far away from the comfort of my desk job in Mexico City, yet there was no place I’d rather be.
To the outside, I was having enviable career success for my age. The work, leadership, learning, financial security was all there, but something was missing. I was 27-years-old and had just made a career move from Uber to Didi, the largest ride sharing platform in the world. The type of job where you can directly measure the impact you’re having, whether it’s recruiting X amount of new drivers or pushing X amount of users to download the application.
I had become one of the company’s operational directors, aiding the global expansion of the world’s most valuable startup at the time. I was managing a diverse, multicultural, and multifunctional team, including senior managers from top MBAs around the world. My team and I achieved market share in a top global city in Mexico that even companies such as Lyft had never been able to achieve in over 10 years of operation.
I was completely invested in growing my professional equity, but felt lost in the “climb the corporate ladder” mentality. Skiing left a hole inside that my professional success wasn’t able to fill.
So even though I considered myself somewhat of a workaholic, I found myself catching round-trip red-eye flights just to be able to ski on any given weekend and feel the addictive “high” that the sport provided me with.
Skiing was the only thing I knew that put my mind, body and soul at ease. It provided me with a powerful feeling of wholeness, made me feel grounded, flowing, and not thinking about the past or future.
But why the obsession with mogul skiing?
In part, it was a side effect of several family ski trips during the Holidays. That’s where I watched the pros rip down mogul runs and where I had that moment of, “I need to do that, I want to become that.” So I began practicing and quickly noticed that beyond the sheer physicality, mogul skiing was inducing my mind to be present at all times. I was not anxious about tomorrow, not thinking about conclusions, results, outcomes, as I did in my every day life in the office. It wasn’t about simply going down the mountain but dodging the bumps with grace, navigating the obstacles, establishing a perfect balance, a choreography, a flow if you will, of speed, skill and poise. Unlike other sports where you’re trying to conquer human opponents, in mogul skiing you are conquering yourself. Or perhaps it was about becoming one with nature, letting my intuition trace a path from top to bottom. It’s hard to describe the feeling of what sports psychologists refer to as “flow,” but it’s something close to being utterly absorbed in the moment, not thinking, just feeling.A combination of complete focus with pure enjoyment. In short, I’ve always loved mogul skiing.
Before Covid-19 got everyone reflecting on their lives and careers, I did a little soul searching myself, trying to figure out what was missing in my life. Even though my professional career was blooming, I still felt dissatisfied. I kept asking myself a corny yet critical question. Better late than never, I thought. “What will you regret as you grow older?” Many things. But the main answer was both kooky and simple: not becoming a professional mogul skier, a wacky idea that I had been daydreaming about since childhood and reliving those feelings while thousands of miles away from the mountains, feeling trapped inside an 600-foot building in the heart of one of the top five largest cities in the world.
Having grown up in Mexico City, skiing seemed so vastly different from everything I knew. There’s no snow. Winter sports are non-existent. If anything, it is a touristy activity few people get the privilege to engage in when traveling abroad. No wonder why Mexico has a very small winter Olympic team—composed of athletes who are either naturalized citizens or ex-pats—and has never had a mogul skier before. Skiing is a niche sport and mogul skiing is a niche within it. I naturally feel grateful to my parents, because if they hadn’t taken me skiing on holidays as a kid, I probably wouldn’t be here. Clicking my boots on, on the first day of our yearly five-day trip, always filled me with positive emotions.
Naturally, professional skiing seemed like a foolish pursuit. It was something I had put on the back burner in order to pursue an idea of success that wasn’t exactly of my own making. One that was prioritized having over being. I had initially imagined myself turning 30, being a general manager of a tech company or the founder of a promising startup, but definitely not as a full-time competitive athlete bootstrapping my life savings to chase snow and competitions in different hemispheres.
For me it wasn’t about finding myself, it was about reinventing myself. Yes, something was missing in my life, but I did not have to find it, for I had known all along what it was.
I know, I know, you’ve heard this before. Yeah, it kind of is that story. Except I didn’t travel to India, or a yoga retreat to “find myself”. I did something way more corny and stupid: I quit my job, packed my bags and used all my savings to start training competitively on the best professional team I could find, at an age when most folks have already retired from the sport, partly because of the high injury rate and toll it takes on your body due to the high impact from absorbing moguls and landing jumps. For me, this endeavor meant accomplishing a dream I had had since childhood and letting go of something I had successfully built for eight years.
When I publicly announced that I was quitting my job to ski, I was very surprised that all of the feedback I received was very positive. People showed respect, for they viewed this as a courageous decision, since I was leaving a stable career and going into the unknown. The odds were stacked against me. A close friend of mine said to me, “I am so proud and feel a great deal of respect for you. I can’t imagine that many people have courage to pursue a dream so valiantly.”
I feel grateful to have found something I feel so passionate about, but even more so to have had the courage to send it.
The first step was quitting, packing my bags and joining a Canadian team from Ontario. Upon arriving in Canada, I realized perhaps I hadn’t really thought it through. I remember waking up one day during a jump training camp in Quebec to a fight in the kitchen between two of my teenage teammates over who was doing the dishes. I felt like a complete misfit in my new reality.
The daily routine was tough to get use to. Wake up at 6 a.m. Warm-up and ski for four hours. Warm-up again, train on the trampoline, then jump off wooden ramps into a pool for three hours. Head to the gym for strength and conditioning for another hour and a half. I knew I was at a big disadvantage, since my teammates, who were mostly teenagers or in their early 20s, had practically grown up in the snow and mountains. Skiing for them was second nature, the same way soccer is to Mexican kids. It’s a national pastime. You do it after school, on the weekends, in your backyard. It’s just part of life.
So yes, I was going up against people that had the ability to ski embedded in their DNA. Not to mention mogul skiing is arguably the most technical skiing discipline, and that I had never learned acrobatics or jumping on snow, which of course is an integral part of the sport. Forget the moguls, I couldn’t even stay on my own two feet during some of our drills on flat groomed runs. I had to quickly identify and exploit any advantages if I were to stand out from the pack in any shape or form.
Somehow I was naive enough to think I at least had some things going for me. I thought there was probably a silver lining to being much older, like being more mature or having greater mental toughness and discipline. But the kids were tougher than me in every regard, from handling their emotions and failures during training to balancing their academic and athletic lives. They also seemed fearless when it came to their skiing speed and their brazen approach to jumps. Their knees gracefully dodging the moguls while I was falling on my ass or crashing after evading only a couple of bumps.
There have been countless times when I’ve felt fear and self-doubt overwhelm my mind and body. I was constantly afraid of landing the wrong way and getting hurt. An injury could spell game over for me and a one-way ticket back to Mexico. I quickly realized it’s very different to execute flips and twists off single jumps than to do them on a mogul course, where you must land at high speed and have the confidence, control and technique to ski straight into the next bumps. Also, learning acrobatics and gaining air awareness at the age of 27 for the first time is not the same as when you’re seven.
In short, there’ve been times I’ve felt very unfit next to the other skiers, times where I’ve felt like a silly tourist.
But I have learned so much from this uncomfortable experience in a short period of time. It has made me understand the power of unwavering self-belief, trusting my abilities and instincts, and focusing my mind to conquer my fears and making peace with anxiety on a daily basis.
Yet I decided to press on, even though I wasn’t quite prepared for the physical and mental uphill battle. Inevitably, I’ve become much more self-aware. I was never going to be able to beat some of these guys. I was finishing close to last place in my first competitions. But something strange started happening. Like that first competition, people started cheering me on. As I crossed finish lines the crowds clapped like I was coming in first place. They weren’t necessarily being nice. They genuinely seemed intrigued and pleasantly surprised by what I was trying to accomplish.
Participating in these competitions felt like a big win, for I had experienced something that very few people get to experience in their lifetime. Once I realized this, everything changed. I was no longer comparing myself to others. I was simply competing against myself. I wasn’t obsessing over how many years my teammates had been practicing. I was now focusing on my day-to-day. More importantly, I now felt free from all expectations, from others and self-imposed.
A year into this, I realize I’ve learned much more than I was expecting. Not just about competitive mogul skiing, but about life in general. I’m expecting to leverage all the knowledge I’ve acquired both physically and mentally during this second year, feeling excited that I still have a few blank pages in this adventure to fill in.
Even though I made my childhood dream a reality, this story is far from over.
It’s the hard, uncomfortable questions that work as catalysts to inspire change. It started with asking myself if I was spending my life the way I wanted to, the way I intended to.
I’ve learned that it’s not necessarily about dropping everything and pursuing something wild and exotic. It’s about doing whatever it is you’re doing, in a state of presence, taking in the experience without thinking too much about the results.
That’s what this journey has been for me so far. Beyond the jumps and backflips, training my mind to enjoy the ride, one mogul at a time, without thinking too much about the finish line.