Lydia Lassila is an absolute powerhouse of a woman. Winter Olympics Gold Medallist, world record holder, mother, entrepreneur and motivational speaker, Lydia Lassila is the kind of woman we all need in our lives to look up to; for proof of how much one person can actually, truly achieve. Not only is she a complete professional in what she does, but she has completely shattered preconceived notions and expectations of herself and female athletes everywhere.
I started skiing when I was six years old. I was a proud Milo kid, Thredbo’s finest. My Dad would save all of his coins for the whole year, and that would fund our family’s trip to the snow. Then in high school, I was a part of my school’s ski team. We competed in Skier Cross and Slalom. We were terrible. One girl forgot her socks and almost got pneumonia, the other lied about actually having skied before, and I became completely undone when I found myself airborne over the crest of the final jump of the course.
Skiing has always been a part of who I am and how I identify myself. I love how thin and crisp the air gets the further up the mountain you climb, and I love how utterly freeing and exhilarating it feels when you are carving your way down the slopes. No matter my passion for winter or the sport of skiing, I have reserved myself to the fact that I will never be anything more than a recreational snow bunny.
One of our most widely celebrated athletes, Lydia Lassila has accomplished far more than what we see on the slopes and with her documentary, The Will to Fly set to hit cinemas next month, it was in that that I wanted to get to know her just that little bit more.
Ultimately known for her podium finishes and world record-breaking ways, what I found so incredible about Lydia is her respect for her sport and how her words are filled with gratitude when it comes to chatting about her career. Aerial skiing is on everyone’s radar because Lydia Lassila was daring enough to challenge all who preceded her and talented enough to break records as she went. She spoke of her sport with such familiarity that it was endearing, as if it were an old friend.
I chose early on in my career to forego World Cup medals to push my boundaries
“A lot of the time the higher-ups said, “You don’t have to do triple somersaults, you could win with a double!” and I said no. I chose early on in my career to forego World Cup medals to push my boundaries.” Herein lies Lydia’s success; she is an athlete who wanted to take her sport and her career to the next level and in doing so was fully aware of the consequences. For Lydia, sacrificing a few titles and medals here and there were but small things as she had much, much bigger plans.
“I guess I did meet some resistance by both men and the women in sport,” she recounted, “but I am glad that I didn’t listen and that I found people who would support that vision I had that was to take the sport for women to that extra level and prove that we could do the same jumps as the men. And that’s what I believe I have done.” Lydia Lassila is the first and only woman to have ever done a quad-twisting triple somersault. The only woman. She didn’t want to simply compete, Lydia wanted to completely reinvent the world of aerial skiing and in doing so, she has paved the way for all the athletes that have come after her, regardless of their sport.
I asked her whether her gender has any thrown any obstacles in her way in getting to where she is today. It was in her answer that I felt a surge of pride and complete adoration for this woman. “Overall, it kept the whole field on edge. Every time I went out there, they knew that I was going to push them as well,” Lydia said of her competitors. “A lot of them have come up to me and said that it isn’t the same without me out there, or they tank me because I helped them see that there were possibilities beyond what they thought there were.” Trailblazer indeed. When she said this, it dawned on me how much power we has as individuals. Lydia single-handedly changed the game purely because she wanted to achieve something for herself, and to me, that’s power. In doing so, she inadvertently changed the view and opened the eyes of those around her – her fellow athletes, the officials of the sport, her supporters, her male counterparts. That is the mark of truly inspirational person, someone who is able to recognise the status quo and who proceeds to go way beyond it.
“I never looked to women for inspiration in jumping,” Lydia told me, “Men have always set the benchmark for me. I always saw the men and said that that is perfection to me, that is what the best in the world looks like and that is what I wanted to do. Not because they were men, but because they were the best in the world.”
In the lead up to the Rio Olympics, there has seemed to be a shift in the media attitude, where it is the women of sport who are being celebrated and focussed on. Even though all I wanted to do was shout down the receiver in gratitude, “THIS IS HUGELY BECAUSE OF YOU! THANK YOU!” I instead posed the question to Lydia as to why this may be. “Women have outperformed men recently – certainly at the Sochi and Vancouver Games,” she attested. “The women’s standards in Australian sport and how well they are performing on the world stage has got a lot to do with it I think. They are holding their own ground.” Holding our own ground we are. It is undeniable that there is a definite shift happening at the moment towards female athletes and women’s sport, but it is built on the courage and daring nature of women like Lydia that have made it possible to build something from.
To me, there is no greater gift than being in the company of individuals who have wisdom to impart, something to offer and an ability to recount all the experiences, flaws and quirks that make them who they are. What I gained most from my chat with Lydia, is how tirelessly she worked to turn her passion and her goals into her reality and all the while, she remained realistic in all that it took to get to where she is today.
“These days I guess my focus is a little more spread – spread on family, spread on my business, on sport,” she told me. “I think for an Olympic campaign you become so singularly focussed on that one thing of performing well at the Olympics that everything else gets put on the backburner. Whereas for me now, sport is on the backburner because I am uncertain of where it is going to go and everything else has come to the forefront.”
I have never before spoken to a professional athlete of such a high calibre, and it was in our conversation that I was introduced to what it takes to be successful on the world stage. Lydia Lassila is a truly magnificent woman who creates every single one of her opportunities and it was so easy to see what it takes to be an absolute champion. “It was obvious to me that we, women, could do the same as men. I didn’t feel limited because I was a female,” she said coolly. “The boundaries are changing – the level has shifted up. It is always going to fluctuate depending on who is in the field and who is willing to take it to the next level. There are some athletes that simply like making up the playing field; they don’t want to change the game, they just want to compete. They love what they do and they are happy to be in their comfort zone. And then there are others that want to take it to that next level, knowing that there can be consequences.” That thought had never even occurred to me, that some athletes would feel fulfilled simply by competing. In my head and I guess what I have grown up believing, is that professional athletes are out there and doing their thing so that they can be the best in the world. So when Lydia said that, it really opened my eyes to a side of sport that had ever even occurred to me. What it also says to me is that she has such a well-rounded, informed and intelligent view on the world that she is a part of.
“I love being an athlete. I love the physical nature of it; the feeling of improving every day, training and the competition of it all, the preparation, the planning – I really love that whole process. I haven’t found anything like that in “normal life” that can quite replicate it. I love my business and I am passionate about it. But it’s very different to my experience as an athlete.” In almost everything that we spoke about, there was a reference to the skills she has acquired as a result of her sporting career. Being an athlete is so deeply ingrained in Lydia, it is who she is not just what she does.
“I know how to have fun,” Lydia said to me, “but I also know how to switch on and I think that that is one of my best qualities. I can be very singularly focussed perhaps which some people don’t like, but it’s worked for me!” It sure has, and her gold medal and world records can attest to that. Lydia spoke of this singular focus a few times throughout our conversation, and as she did she painted me a pretty good mental picture of how she has been in the lead up to her Olympic campaigns. Motivate, driven, completely consumed by the process of it all. Though she acknowledges that some may not have liked or appreciated that that is the way she does things, what I admire is that she didn’t apologise for it. And nor should she! There is no way that she would have pushed the envelope of aerial skiing as far as she has been able to if she didn’t do it exactly her way.
“I try to do everything to the best possible standard that I can, and that is how I have lived all my life. And I have enjoyed being in control of my life and run my business and do things how I want to do them.”
Knowing herself so well and being able to acknowledge her “singular focus” that would overcome her during her Olympic campaigns, Lydia talked about her business in a beautifully thought out and honest way. She spoke to me about her business venture and what it was born from with comfort and confidence, “For me, it’s been about finding that passion outside of sport,” she said “To have that singular focus on that one goal, it’s difficult to find that outside of sport.”
BodyICE was started by Lydia out of the experience she had when her knee collapsed and she had to undergo surgery. “I couldn’t find an ice pack that would fit, be cold enough and be effective enough! I think they are the best kinds of products – ones that are born out of actual experience and a real need.” When Lydia was in recovery, instead of just recovering she went ahead and built herself a company that had a real market. I cannot fathom the determination and absolute strength of this woman who, when at a time of vulnerability and uncertainty turned it around into something positive, helpful and quite frankly, needed.
“I started with the recovery range which was more out of my own horrible circumstance and blew my knee. My next experience was motherhood. I was in hospital and they and they gave me stuff to help, like frozen condoms and wet pads and I just thought, ‘there’s got to be a better solution than this!’ Going through that process of childbirth was another experience where it was just like, oh gosh, we can do better than this. Women deserve better than this we’ve got to look after our mums post childbirth!” And so, the women’s range was born. “Watching Kai grow into a toddler, bumps and bruises and things like that – there wasn’t anything suitable for him as well! And that’s where the kids range came from!”
The entire range of products that have all been designed and based on real experiences seem to have come about so organically for Lydia that it is almost unbelievable, even for her! “I didn’t really think at the time – because I was so focused on being an athlete – that I knew I was starting a business, but it was never a priority for me and it just grew without me really doing anything!” Though that is how it may seem, in my opinion that is the mark of a true entrepreneur – someone who creates a product that really does meet a need and fill a gap. What Lydia did was put herself out there in a way that not many other do successfully, completely owning her experiences and what she had struggled with and transforming it into something really quite amazing.
“Some people, when they try and start a business, they can’t get their head around it. Whereas I am the complete opposite, I couldn’t think of anything better to do with my time!”
I am not an entrepreneur for many a reason, but the main one is definitely not believing in myself and what I have to offer. With Lydia, there is not even a hint of that and that is a trait of hers that I completely want to embellish. “Some people, when they try and start a business, they can’t get their head around it. Whereas I am the complete opposite, I couldn’t think of anything better to do with my time!”
“It ended up funding me, which as an athlete is difficult to do when you are travelling for ten months of the year to find a source of income outside of sponsorship and government funding. It turned out to be a really great thing to focus on. My athletic career wasn’t one dimensional anymore – it wasn’t just tunnel vision, I had balance and other things to focus on without them distracting me from being an athlete.”
“I honestly didn’t think there was a story!” Lydia laughed down the phone to me, “I think it’s that totally Australian thing – I always second-guess myself and, not exactly put myself down but I definitely don’t lay myself up. I’m not a big self-promoter so part of me was like What? Why would they want to do a movie about me?” I have never thought of being kinda-sorta a little bit self-deprecating as an Australian thing. Rather, I actually thought of it as a female kind of thing – a notion that I am happily willing to let go of.
I asked Lydia whether there was a point where she knew that her story was one worth telling, or whether it took for a film crew for her to be convinced. “I didn’t think it would ever really happen, the movie. I kept thinking that maybe they would just change their minds and it would all go away!” But it didn’t go away. The Will to Fly documents the journey Lydia took as she came back to the sport after winning gold, this time as a mum.
“I think when you reflect, and now sitting back from sport and really remembering and reliving what I did and what I went through to come back from winning gold as a mum and still try to push boundaries in my sport was a massive effort. And I am somewhat surprised at the things I did endure and that I could remained focussed and hungry on that as well as being a mum at the same time. I guess when you do reflect and look back on things you think, how the hell did I do that?” And yeah, seriously, how the hell did she do it? I never like asking the question, “But how do you find the time to do it all?” as it is a question that is generally reserved for women. But in Lydia’s case I really had no idea how she was finding the time to do it all.
“The logistics and mental challenge of it, plus the physical challenge of aerial skiing is all encompassing. It tests every facet of you. Its unrelenting. You can’t let your guard down because that’s when things can happen to you. When I look back on it, wow. It took a lot of strength for me to block certain things out and still go in with fear but confidence as well, that belief and that faith that I could do it.”
Aerial skiing is not a sport that is widely celebrated or in the media all too often, and so for me personally, I am just excited to learn more about something that I knew very little about! Add in Lydia’s colourful career, her complete disregard for the norm and her relentless passion and what a story it is. “There are external variables in aerial skiing that we can’t control, and there are things that happen, injuries. The nature of that sport, things can happen. That’s a challenge for any aerial skier, let alone a mum! Being able to go on knowing the risks but backing yourself and having the confidence to go ahead anyway. As a mum you are responsible for not just yourself but for another person and that’s a big factor – it’s different when you are doing a sport like mine. You know, adding that element in is what I look back on and think, jeeze that really was a good effort.”
Whenever I interview someone there is always a moment where the interviewee will say something that resonates so deeply, that is so profound that leaves me completely speechless. “I don’t think there was any time in my career that I ever felt comfortable.” When Lydia said this, my response was a really drawn out silence and then, “Wow. I like that.” To me, that sentence is so powerful, even in its simplicity. But then, she went even further, “There was never that winning streak of being comfortable to me, there was always that challenge and push, and trying to get more out of myself. With that comes risk. And some of those risks pay off as rewards and some don’t.”
“I am really proud of the movie and the messages it puts out. It is a really positive story. It was nice to be a part of something meaningful that will actually make a difference.”