The resilience of Olympic Games aerial skiing gold medallist Lydia Lassila. By Cindy MacDonald.
Flying machine: Lydia Lassila, 34, aerial skier
In this story
I started with a dream to go to the Olympics. I didn’t get the shot I wanted as a gymnast but the choices I made from there were always geared towards an Olympic sport.
I knew nothing about the aerial skiing program. They had the idea of directly recruiting gymnasts and teaching them how to aerial ski, so I was the first, along with my teammate Liz [Gardner], to be picked. We were basically guinea pigs. And I was a workhorse and just kept pushing through injuries. It was stupid. If I could go back, I’d look after my body more.
My older brothers were tough and they never let me win anything. So growing up with them set the tone, but I think it also came down to us all being treated equally by Mum and Dad. I’d get to help Dad on the building site and the boys would be helping Mum in the kitchen.
Nadia Comăneci was my idol growing up. That idea of being able to do something perfectly is what drove me. When I started in aerial skiing, I drew my inspiration from the best in the world. And they were the men. They were so far ahead of the women at the time; I was obsessed, really, with what they were doing and how they were doing it.
When I qualified for Salt Lake City I was 19 and half the team were thinking, “Who’s this girl? She’s come from nowhere.” I’d only been skiing for 18 months when I made the finals and came eighth. At those Olympics, there was such fierce rivalry between the favourite, Jacqui [Cooper], and Alisa [Camplin]. I was genuinely happy for Alisa winning gold but at the same time shattered for Jacqui who I’d been training alongside.
By 2004 it was a very combative rivalry between Alisa, myself and [Chinese skier] Nina Li. You could win with double somersaults, but I sacrificed my results, because I thought, “If I can do triples, I’m going to smash them.” My first competition doing triples I came third and the next week I knocked myself out. Concussed myself. Those massive ups and downs in confidence happened for the first seven years of my career, I suppose.
Blowing my knee six months before the Torino Olympics was shattering. I had to have experimental surgery – an allograft – with donor Achilles tendon tissue, and there weren’t many benchmarks on how my knee would cope. I was back skiing within eight weeks.
It’s scary to come back from an injury, let alone go and jump. And I know Alisa was going through the same thing; she’d had two surgeries in a matter of a year as well. It worked out for her [with a bronze medal], it just didn’t work out for me. In the documentary, The Will to Fly, you see me screaming after my ACL ruptures again, but it’s not the pain of the injury, it’s the pain of the defeat. It was knowing it was over for another four years and everything I had done was undone.
After Torino I had a lot of work to do mentally as well as on my knee. So I hired sports mind coach Jeffrey Hodges and he helped me break down a lot of belief systems. One of them was, “I’m always injured.” He said, “That’s rubbish. You’ve been injured in the past, but your past doesn’t equal your future.” I also ended up with Swiss coach Michel Roth, and combined with Jeffrey it made the difference. In 2007, I got married [to Finnish skier Lauri Lassila] and a lot of people were saying, “Haven’t you had enough?” Lauri was always, “You’re not done yet.”
I went into the Vancouver Olympics with so much confidence and mental domination over everyone. When I landed my last jump, it was the best feeling ever – that feeling of just nailing something so perfectly at that time when everything was on the line.
I had a baby [Kai] in May 2011 and a lot of people assumed I would drop off the radar. But I was back on snow that December, training. In 2013 I had a back injury and twice I said to Lauri, “I don’t think I can get through this one.” Both times he said, “Don’t be stupid. Keep going, you’ll be fine.” I was like, “Okay…”
It’s weird mixing being a mum and a professional athlete. I didn’t like Kai watching me jump because that’s when my two worlds collided and it was a bit grey. I couldn’t focus 100 per cent on jumping and I couldn’t focus on him.
Leading into Sochi I wanted to win but I also wanted to do the quad-twisting triple somersault. No woman had ever done it. It came down to that decision: which one? In Vancouver the milestone I wanted to achieve was an Olympic gold medal. Tick. Next was to do the quad. In that order. I won bronze in Sochi, which was great, but I only would’ve been truly satisfied if I’d landed that jump cleanly. That kind of ate at me. It still does.
I feel hamstrung about 2018. I had baby Alek last February and Kai’s in kindergarten. My circumstances are different now and I’m not willing to pack everyone up and jet set for 10 months of the year. So I’m fighting for a training facility, a water ramp, in Lennox Head. It’s in the hands of government. I’m sad because I want to be able to retire on my own terms when I’ve had enough. I’d like to go to my fifth Olympics [in South Korea] but time is ticking. I think I could do it if I had the right set-up and support. If they build the facility now I would still have time.
If I had one word to describe myself? A machine.
• Surfing: World Surf League Championship Tour – Gold Coast Pro
Until March 21, Snapper Rocks, Coolangatta, Queensland
• Horseracing: Australian Cup
Saturday, 4.30pm (AEDT), Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne
• Soccer: A-League – Sydney FC v Wellington Phoenix
Saturday, 5.15pm (AEDT), Allianz Stadium, Sydney
• Rugby union: Super Rugby – Melbourne Rebels v Queensland Reds
Saturday, 7.45pm (AEDT), AAMI Park, Melbourne
• NRL: Melbourne Storm v Gold Coast Titans
Sunday, 6.30pm (AEDT), AAMI Park, Melbourne
• Cricket: ICC Twenty20 World Cup – Australia v New Zealand
Friday, 8.30pm (AEDT), Himachal Pradesh Stadium, Dharamshala, India
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2016 as "Flying machine".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.