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Local Spotlight

OLYMPIAN CHRIS DEL BOSCO

How a champion defeated both demons and doubters

We’ve all had that one big dream. The one that is so big and so far away that for most mortals like us, it seems unachievable. For Chris Del Bosco, my brother, that dream has never wavered. His dream is of being an Olympic champion, to stand on that top podium step, head held high with a gold medal around his neck.

For a long time, that was our family’s dream for him, too. Chris is a rare talent. Since we were kids, I have been amazed at his athletic ability. He managed to pedal off on a mini-dirt bike shortly after his second birthday – without the use of training wheels. He strapped on skates soon after he learned to walk and seemed to glide effortlessly over the ice. At about the same time, he slipped on his first pair of ski boots and eagerly clicked into his tiny skis. Off he went. No fear. Smile on his face. It was as if he had found the freedom that so many of us search for and never quite seem to find.

Growing up in our home in Vail was different. As kids, we were shuffled from one activity to the next. We were the family that never really rested. Chris is the baby. I am six years older, and we had three half-siblings who were adults when Chris was born.

After a certain age, naps were unacceptable, loafing around was prohibited and the expectations were always high. Our parents were keen to make sure every moment was a learning experience. To some, this might sound harsh, and at times we were not so fond of the rigorous schedule either. However, I don’t think I would go back
and change a thing. I don’t think Chris would either. Respect, hard work and giving to others were important in our family. I remember my mother telling me if I ever felt sorry for myself, I should feed the homeless.

I was a young athlete, too. I ski raced, swam, played soccer, tennis and golf and even studied ballet. We were those kids who tried anything once. We were also those kids who loved to be outside. Our parents expected the best and quite frankly, we did too. I guess it seemed logical to us. I mean, doesn’t everyone want to be the best at something?
For many years, Chris road-biked, played hockey and ski raced competitively. He did each effortlessly. He used to take his first run at a ski race in the morning, hop on a bus to the rink, lace up his skates, score some hockey goals, rush back to the hill, take his second run, collect his medal and then head back up the hill to ski in the trees until the lift operators had to send him home at dusk.

When he was 5 years old, he participated in a ski-a-thon to raise money for multiple sclerosis. Chris raced up and down the mountain and logged a staggering 49,000 vertical feet in five hours. I am sure he would have skied more had the sun not gone down. This was how most of his days played out. Jam packed. Full of adventure. Going fast. He was, and still is, a bundle of energy that runs on a 30-second minute, while everyone else trails behind him happily using all 60 seconds.

I guess it is important to note that Chris was always able to keep up with his studies and always managed to have a group of friends. I like to think that he actually taught himself the periodic tables, calculus and history on the road in between ski races. He is a quick study. He has a photographic memory. He can recite lines from movies and is quite a ham. Ask him to do a Jim Carrey impersonation, and you will be rolling on the floor with laughter. Just another reason we think Chris is so special. From afar you might assume he is reserved, maybe even aloof, but spend a day with him and that funny side might come out and you will see why we adore him so much.

I have often said that I do not believe many people have a bad thing to say about Chris. Here is this kid with supernatural athletic ability, book smarts, a cunning sense of humor, a kind spirit and great drive. There must be a flaw somewhere, right? I mean, who is blessed with all these wonderful things? Certainly no one is perfect and sadly, the same holds true for Chris.

Chris is smart, good looking, kind and quiet. He prefers to let others take the spotlight. He has been crowned U.S. National Champion in downhill bike racing. He has won countless hockey trophies. His ski-racing medal collection is massive. There was a time when his success never stopped.

I can only imagine the pressure he must have felt. I used to think it was the pressure cooker he lived in that made him crack. The expectations to win, the expectations to get straight-As, the expectations to be better than everyone else. All that and to attempt to live a normal teenage life.

Chris and I can thank our father for our athletic talent and our mother for our work ethic. Our father was a Junior A hockey star from Sudbury, Ontario, who came to the U.S. on a hockey scholarship and never left. (Fifty-seven years later, he is still a Canadian citizen). My mother was an Army brat who spent much of her childhood in Europe. Our parents are some of the hardest working people I have ever known. They have given us so much over the years. They have dug deep in their pockets when there was nothing but lint, yet still found a way to give us the best. I know they sacrificed some of their happiness to see us succeed. All they have ever wanted was for us to be happy and successful.

I don’t know the exact day or time when our happiness and success began to unravel, but I have a guess. While Chris was enjoying his triumphs as a 10-year-old boy, I was in the hospital. I was in a major ski racing accident at a downhill race in Aspen in January 1991 and had badly injured my leg. I spent the next four years in and out of hospitals recovering from one surgery after another. My mother was usually with me while my father almost always stayed behind to look after Chris. It was really the first time Chris and I spent long periods apart. Chris was busy training and attending school in Vail, and I was far away, busy waiting for my next operation.

The stress definitely took its toll on all of us. I think I stunned my family when I told them in the summer of 1994 that I was giving up my fight to save my leg and thought it was time to have it amputated. I knew this idea was frightening. How could a strong-willed athlete like myself decide to give up? Athletes don’t give up. Athletes don’t like to see other athletes hurt. And athletes certainly don’t like to see things end up the way they did for me. After the amputation, I was eager to move on. I plowed through learning to walk again, enrolled in university a semester late and left home. Chris was left in the house alone, with no big sister to encourage him, to get after him or in some cases to cover for him.

At the height of his career as a successful junior athlete, I was away at college and Chris was at home. I remember hearing the panic in my mother’s voice, as she would tell me that things were changing with Chris. I think it was around his thirteenth birthday when things really seemed to be off balance. The easiest solution was to ignore the irrational behavior. Chalk the laziness up to an overburdened teenager. Look the other way, right?

Needless to say, there was a powerful concoction of fury and resentment brewing inside Chris. I am not going to say that I never did anything wrong, but even as an experimenting teenager, I seemed to be able to hold things together. I guess in a way, Chris did, too. Even as he began to drink heavily and hide it, he still succeeded. He still won. He still got his homework done. He still played the part. Maybe this is a mark of a true overachiever. You can pull things off that the normal Joe never could do.

With the drinking came drugs, or maybe it was the other way around. It really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change the facts. When he was drug tested at the 1998 U.S. Nationals and subsequently kicked out of the U.S. alpine skiing program, he hit the first of many lows. There comes a time in life when you deserve to be loved the most, even though the circumstances say otherwise. I truly believe this was his turning point. Rather than beat him down for the drug use, Chris needed the most encouragement from his coaches and peers. At that crucial moment, he didn’t get it.
Chris continued to race his mountain bike and took part in many of the new extreme skiing events that sprouted up. He, of course, found success in these adventures. He, of course, continued to drink. He, of course, denied any sort of problem.

The next few years he continued to spiral out of control. I think some wondered why we, as a family, weren’t doing more. I don’t think anyone is in the position to judge or question how a family deals with an addict. It is personal to the core. You do what you can do in any given moment. Sometimes that means doing nothing. Sometimes that means doing too much. Unless the addict can admit there is a problem and wholeheartedly immerse himself into a recovery program, there really isn’t anything anyone can do. The guilt we all experienced was enormous. The panic we all experienced was unimaginable. I think it was the worst for my parents. Where had they gone wrong? We were embarrassed, scared and feared the worst.

Things spiraled out of control; there were blackouts and run-ins with the law. We could never rest, worrying about the next phone call, the next emergency. We hoped that the end of the grief was near when Chris was found holding on for dear life in a creek bed in the dead of winter. He had been attacked and left to fend for himself in the freezing water. He was badly beaten and had a broken neck. By the grace of God, someone heard his weak plea for help. When he was pulled from the water, his body temperature was nearly 10 degrees Fahrenheit below normal. Anyone else would not have survived. Chris had major neck surgery, and, thankfully, his physical wounds healed.

But, the drinking started again. The trouble escalated. The disappointment at not being able to ‘fix’ him became unbearable. I asked, “Why?” a lot. My parents were broken-hearted. We lived in constant fear. You might think this sounds over-dramatic. Trust me, it wasn’t. Think about losing a loved one. Imagine being powerless in the fight to help. People will tell you to let go, to move on. We are not those types of people. We fight to the end.
In the fall of 2005, Chris arrived at my door in Los Angeles. My parents were traveling, and we all thought it was best for me to babysit him. He was out-of-shape, cranky, mad at the world and he drank – day and night. He was unable to really do much other than walk to the store to buy more booze. He was struggling to get through the days and attempted to hide empty bottles in his duffle bag. It was heart-wrenching. It was not my Chris. When I looked in his eyes and it was as if I could see right through him.

After a few days passed, I had had enough. I told him the end had come. I told him he would die. I told him I was scared. I told him we did not want to lose him. I thought he would fight back. I thought he would yell and scream. He didn’t. He cried. He said he knew. That Sunday night, I found a program for him. I called my sister and asked her to fly in from San Francisco to help me. She arrived immediately. The next morning, we drove south. Chris agreed to check himself into a 90-day program. As the three of us sat at the check-in, we fought back tears. We were terrified. If he succeeded, he would complete the program on December 31, 2005. I found that to be so symbolic.

Chris thrived in the program. It was a simple unadorned place. He had to find a job, cook meals, do chores and he had to stay sober. Each week, I would drive more than eight hours to see him. The transformation was amazing. Soon he was able to spend the weekend with my husband and me. He was functioning again. It was the Chris I grew up with, the one who always succeeded, the one who made us laugh. He made it to the 90-day sober mark and had glowing reviews from his counselors. The smile on his face when we picked him up on that final day was an image I will never forget. One of the first things he asked was: “Can I go home and ski?”

To overcome any hardship, you must be a fighter. Chris is a fighter. He arrived back in Vail in January 2006, and had one chance to qualify for the ski cross event at the Winter X Games. He had not been on skis in over nine months. While he had been working out as part of his recovery program, he was far from his “fighting” weight.
Chris and my father packed up the truck and headed to North Lake Tahoe, California, to a last-chance qualifier race. Chris surprised us all and won. He had a spot in the X Games and went to Aspen to race with the big boys who had been training for months.

I watched him race live on TV and, at the same time, had my mom on the phone who was standing at the finish line in Aspen. We screamed in delight with each heat he won. I was weak in the knees and had a knot in my stomach. When Chris finished third, I wept. I cried and cried. I am not going to lie, I cry every time I think of that moment.
I think I thought the end had finally come. Look at what he achieved. Sadly, I was wrong again. Shortly after his bronze-medal run in Aspen, Chris began to drink again. That spring, it caught up with him. He was arrested for a DUI, and the judge was not going to let him off easy. After ten days in jail, I spoke to him. I remember him telling me he was done. It took one more fall on his butt to get there, but he was done. He never drank again.

Our attitude, then and now, has continued to be one of not giving up. Don’t ever give up. Don’t. For those of you with struggles in your life, there is a plan for all of us. This road was not easy for Chris. It was not easy for me. It was not easy for my parents, my siblings or our friends and extended family. But just don’t give up.
In the summer of 2006, it was time for Chris to decide what he was going to do. He had his eye on a shiny 2010 Olympic medal.

At about this time of clarity for Chris, the Canadian ski-cross team was being formed. A group of skiers at a restaurant at Whistler were talking about ski cross and the X Games. The waitress just happened to be our cousin. She’s like most of us in the family and she loves to talk. She overheard the conversation and mentioned that her cousin, Chris Del Bosco, competed and was half-Canadian.

A couple of days later the team president, Cam Bailey, was on the phone talking to an excited Chris. The U.S. had not organized a team yet, and Chris was eager to begin training. The idea of competing for Canada seemed just about perfect.

He spent the 2007-2008 season getting his bearings on the World Cup circuit. He spent the 2008-2009 season scaring his competition. Chris has battled his addictions with the same tenacity he uses to race down the mountain. His is not a battle against his opponents or the clock, he’s competing against himself. Currently, he is the 2011 World Champion, No. 2 in the world, No. 1 in North America, No. 1 in Canada.  He powers out of that start gate. He tests his mettle. He skis fast. He reminds us all that there is hope.

In the beginning, it was my family’s dream to see him on the Olympic podium. Now, the dream is different. Our dream for him is to continue to be the wonderful, strong man he has become. For him to excel in life. For him to be happy and healthy. For him to continue to make us laugh. For him to give us a reason to cheer. Don’t get me wrong. We want him to ski fast. We want him to win. But we really just want him to be Chris.

Quite possibly the most difficult thing about cheering on my brother Chris is that nothing is certain. He competes in ski cross, and it is nothing like the predictability of diving into a pool of water every day.

There is weather to contend with. There are dozens of skis to choose from with different wax combinations. There is the guy next to you, sticking his ski pole in your face. The courses can be good, bad or somewhere in-between. I guess the only thing that is a constant is that whenever that gate drops, you best be the fastest guy out there.

I consider Chris to be one of the toughest competitors in the field. His insane ability to take risks and make astonishing passes is second-to-none. I have total confidence in his ability. Waiting to find out the results on any given day is another story.

Much of Chris’s racing happens overseas. We keep up with him via e-mail, Skype, postings on Facebook and live streams on the Web. We try not to bother him. On race days, any one of our family members is guaranteed to be crouched at our computers at some ungodly morning hour, searching for results. We often wait hours to hear that a race was delayed or cancelled. This waiting game of the unknown is a crazy time for the Del Bosco family.
We worry, we worry in a good way. Is that possible? We worry because we love Chris. We worry because we want him to be successful. I always say, “Any day you can finish and not have an injury is a win for me.” Chris disagrees with me. The sport of ski cross is inherently dangerous. It is grueling. It is erratic. It is a beast. Chris is a threat. There are guys out there that will risk anything to take him out of the heat.

When Chris was named to the Canadian Olympic team in February 2010, I hadn’t been that proud of him since the day we picked him up from 90 days in a rehabilitation program. Yup, I cried.
I am astonished by the effort it takes to get there. Most of you just watch and find the beauty in figure skating, the thrill in luge, the exhilaration in ski cross. We mortals report to an office each day. We might have an office, we have adesk, we have coworkers and bosses. We take a day or two off, and we do it all over again. These athletes are different.

They have no permanent office. Most have no steady income. Many have had family and friends chip in with coaching and travel expenses. The schedule is full-time and year-round. Yet, everyday they are in the gym, on the mountain, in the rink. Pushing themselves to the limit. Giving their life to a dream and a goal.

Chris spent over half his life’s journey attempting to get to the Olympics. His journey has been marked with twists and turns, highs and lows. Through it all, he still held the same ultimate goal in his heart. I am fascinated with that idea. From the depths of battling alcoholism, to his miraculous recovery, he still held on. He never wavered. For that, I am so proud. Never underestimate the power of the human spirit.

Today, as he has done in the past, Chris proved to us that anything is possible. Today, as he has done in the past, he made us all so proud. Today, we can call Chris an Olympian. Chris entered the Olympics coming off winning three World Cup gold medals in less than a month. He won the Winter X Games 14 in Aspen.

On that infamous middle Sunday at the 2010 Games, he showed the world what he was made of. He managed to make the crazy, hair-raising, gutsy sport of ski cross look like poetry in motion. Some of us watched on TV, some were lucky enough to be there in person. No matter where you were, you could see that Chris was calm, collected and skied with cat-like precision.

To give your life to a sport takes dedication. It takes determination. It takes the support of family, friends and fans. It takes guts. The world had a chance to see guts when Chris put it all on the line in the first-ever Olympic Ski Cross event on Cypress Mountain.

We have long known how Chris operates and what he brings to every competition. We understand him. He is the type of person who accepts nothing less than perfection. He sets lofty goals. His pursuit of excellence some times leads him to disaster, but he still takes risks every day to be the best.

I watched my brother ski flawlessly in a sport that is unpredictable and raw. I listened to the roar of a stadium full of fans cheering his name. I watched a sea of red and white flags wave in the warm sunlight. I knew in my heart he would push harder and faster than anyone else.

As Chris came around the last sharp turn, I knew he would not settle for third. Earlier in the day, I said to myself that the race would be won and lost at that exact spot on the course. While some would be content with a shiny bronze medal, Chris went to the Olympics with gold in mind. Kudos for taking nothing less.

I am so very proud that he stuck with his plan and left a part of himself up on that hill in Cypress. I remind him every day. Don’t look back, don’t second guess, don’t question it. Chris showed the world what it means to never give up. He was brave and courageous. He was strong and inspiring.

This trip we have taken as a family has been a blessing. I guess maybe we would have enjoyed a different path, an easier one. But if we took that route, I don’t know where it would have led us. I am thankful Chris took us along for the ride, thankful that he trusted us to be a part of his recovery, thankful that he lets us be a part of his team. But most of all, I am so thankful he never gave up.

A year has passed since the Olympics and Chris still makes us all proud. After a major knee surgery, he shocked us all and raced a full season. He plans to race at the pro level in mountain biking again. His future is brighter than ever.
Many ask about the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. For a kid who lives each day one by one, three years is a long way away. I can tell you one thing, if he is there, I will be there, too. I will be there to cheer him on as I have for the last 29 years. I will be there to watch him win gold!