No pressure, just a journey for Olympian Ashleigh McIvor
The first thing Ashleigh McIvor does when she arrives for an interview with the Straight at a Gastown coffee shop is apologize for her appearance. The tall, willowy blond, whose 2010 Olympic gold-medal ski cross run captured the hearts of the nation—and the eyes of not a few red-blooded males—looks just fine. Better than fine.
Exuding health and athleticism, she peels off a parka to reveal a many-stranded silver-grey necklace atop a casual grey tank top and slender jeans, and declines a coffee. She’s headed to the gym shortly, she says, and will have a bigger breakfast after the workout, which she needs after a busy two weeks of events and appearances with her boyfriend of 11 months, Vancouver Whitecaps FC captain Jay DeMerit.
“Last week, we were at a fundraiser for the Canucks for Kids foundation, and that was cool,” she relates. “It was, like, a bunch of the B.C. Lions, a bunch of the Whitecaps, and then all the Canucks—and me. And last night was a fundraiser for B.C. Alpine called Peak to Peak, which raises money for ski racing in Canada, which is obviously great for me to be involved with, because it’s a program I came up through.…And then there’s the Gold Medal Plates, a fundraiser for the Canadian Olympic Committee.”
Just about everyone wants a piece of McIvor these days, and now it’s hitting closer to home: her father, Brent McIvor, is running for Whistler mayor. “My current task is to set up a couple of parties, and invite my friends, and just give everybody an opportunity to get to know him and what he’s all about,” says McIvor, clearly proud of her father’s ambition to take on incumbent Ken Melamed, who is gunning for a third term. “I think he just feels it’s time for a fresh perspective with the new municipality there,” she goes on. “He knows the direction everyone wants Whistler to go in, and the direction it was going in for years. It’s just had some ups and downs, and he wants to spend the rest of his life there, and he wants to make sure it’s a great place for my sister and I to spend the rest of our lives and raise families.”
You can’t get more homegrown Whistler than McIvor, who grew up in the resort town and still calls it home when she’s not on the road, hanging out in her rustic cabin on her 10-acre lot in Pemberton, or spending time with DeMerit in Vancouver. Her first memory, she says, is of sliding down the hills below the Magic Chair at Blackcomb. “My parents would be in a snowplow, and I would be between their legs with my skis forced into a snowplow by the insides of their skis, holding on to poles across the legs,” she recalls. “Skiing, to me, is like walking to most people.”
Her father was a ski racer in his youth, before becoming a log-home builder and helping build the Whistler community with her mother, Marilyn, a public-health nurse.
“My mom started the [Whistler] Food Bank and the Whistler Community Services Society, and my dad sat on the board for Millennium Place,” McIvor says proudly. “I also kind of helped plan the youth centre there.…But affordability is a huge issue. I wouldn’t be able to afford to live the way I want to live there. I mean, I’d be in a tiny little condo and I wouldn’t have a yard. I lived there my whole life, that is my hometown.”
This winter, McIvor says, she’ll be spending a little more leisurely time on those Whistler Blackcomb slopes. In March, she underwent surgery to repair the knee injury she sustained in January while on a training run for the Winter X Games in Aspen. “I overshot a jump, and I landed on the flats. My knee just buckled,” she recalls matter-of-factly, without a hint of concern or regret. “So, I tore my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament], my MCL [medial collateral ligament], my meniscus, and I had a lot of bone damage, a lot of bone bruising, which takes almost 12 months to heal, typically. And there’s a big divot out of the bottom of my femur, where my tibia slammed into it. It’s also the second time I’ve torn this ACL,” she confides. “I did the exact same thing at the X Games, same event, five years ago.”
But contrary to what you’d expect from an athlete under intense pressure to deliver the goods in the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympic Winter Games, McIvor isn’t sweating it. “It’s all part of the game, and it’s just how it goes,” she says, self-assured. “I’ve been through it so many times. I know at this point in every recovery I’m always kind of dreading going back to it and being nervous, but then as soon as it’s feeling good, I’m like, ‘Let me go race!’ I know how my mind works. I’m not concerned. I need to be patient, and it’s a good opportunity to ease back into it this year.…I don’t think I’ve ever been this calm and content going into a winter. I’m just looking forward to skiing around Whistler Blackcomb with my friends.”
If she sounds remarkably level-headed about the ordeal, it’s not thanks to any sport psychologist—McIvor has never used one, though when the national ski cross team was assembled for the Olympics, she at first requested one. “They asked us, the people who had already been racing ski cross, what was important to us, what we needed as a support system. And sport psychologist was at the top of my list, because I hated racing. I would get so nervous and so stressed-out. Right before every race I’d be like, ‘Why did I allow myself to get into this situation again? What excuse can I possibly come up with to not have to race tomorrow?’ ”
Then she had an epiphany: “I kind of realized that everybody thinks that way, in a sense. And everyone feels those nerves, and it’s all in how you handle it. I remember the guys on my team making so much fun of me for saying I needed a sport psychologist. They’re like, ‘Suck it up, princess!’ ”
McIvor says she ended up developing her own mental process to deal with the pressures, one that’s almost the complete opposite of the methods espoused by most sport psychologists. “I almost think I’m the exception to most sport psychologists’ rules,” she notes. “They just want you to be so focused and visualize your winning run and visualize all the possible aspects of what will go into your winning run. And I just don’t do it that way. The way that I deal with pressure is I convince myself there isn’t pressure.…We had [retired Canadian ski racer] Brian Stemmle come and speak to our team before the Olympics in the fall, and he had a picture of the gold medal in his wallet. They had released what the medals were going to look like for his Olympic experience, and he cut it out and he had a picture of it in his wallet, and he looked at it every single day. It’s all he thought about. I would lose my mind if I operated that way.”
Instead, McIvor takes her cues from Deepak Chopra, whose book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success she says has been a big influence. “It’s about focusing on the journey as opposed to the end result,” she explains. “If you have these seemingly unattainable goals that you’re trying to achieve, you just break it down into a series of mini goals, and it becomes a lot less overwhelming.”
It’s that sort of attitude that may explain her composure in battling a serious injury at the start of the season. And there’s a bright side to the situation, too: McIvor’s sponsors, she says, have been thrilled that she’s more available to them. “A lot of my sponsors went, ‘Okay, she’s hurt. She’s not gone to Europe all winter.’ And they started using me even more,” she explains. Among other campaigns, McIvor is now appearing in ads for Acura, Oakley sunglasses, and Bell—a testament not only to her skills on the slopes, but to her physical charms as well.
Pressed to address the emphasis on her looks, McIvor squirms a little. “Stuff like the Acura commercial”—in which McIvor is stripped out of bulky ski wear and transformed into an evening-gown-sporting glamazon—“is obviously great,” she comments, noncommittally. “I kind of have to be doing that kind of thing to continue my racing career.”
What really makes her uncomfortable is being on Internet lists of hot female Olympians. “It’s weird” is all she can muster about that. “I don’t get it. It’s just weird.…I usually just blush. What are you supposed to say to that? If it makes my sponsors happy, sweet.”
Keeping her sponsors happy also means maintaining her position as a role model for youngsters, a badge she wears happily. “It’s so cool to have that impact,” she says. “It’s always been a big reason why I do sports.” Asked whether she finds it hard to live the kind of clean life required for the role, the self-confessed adrenaline junkie blurts out, “Oh, I don’t, necessarily…” before catching herself with a laugh.
“Obviously, it is my responsibility to be a positive role model and a good influence and everything,” she concludes. “But you also can’t live in a box. My sport is my life, but there’s more to life than sport.”