Tommy Ford has built a reputation for himself on the World Cup Tour as the quiet, unassuming American that comes out to play in the giant slalom, laying his skis out with a style that appears so effortless his skiing could almost be described as graceful. His starts are calm, his finishes composed. His interviews are short, sweet, and to the point. But Ford’s calm exterior and introspective attitude are characteristics he has not always possessed. They derive from experience, perseverance, and patience with his body and mind.
From an outsider’s perspective, Ford’s rise in ski racing seems natural. Both of his parents, Mark and Mary Ellen, along with his older brother Tyson, were ski racers. Mark skied collegiately at the University of Colorado, then went on to coach at Dartmouth. Mary Ellen was a World University Games champion in the giant slalom and coached both alpine ski racing and soccer at the University of Vermont before coaching at Mount Bachelor Sports Education Foundation (MBSEF). When it came to teaching Ford how to ski, the pair choose to stay hands-off. They’d drive up to their home mountain outside of Bend, Oregon, select a slope with proper pitch and snow for Ford’s ability, and let him go. Ford took it from there.
“As a little boy, he just ripped all over the mountain, having fun in the snow and building jumps and all that. He was a natural,” remembers Mary Ellen. “I watched him with other kids training and he was always dialed in, even as a little kid. And he just loved it.”
Ford was a unique kid. His playful nature allowed him to learn by doing. He was so curious and eager to learn that he would walk around the house in his ski boots to get a feel for his equipment. His mom says that when he was only three and a half feet tall, he looked at a couple of pictures of his older teammates cross-blocked, and picked it up the next run. When he wanted to learn to swing a golf club like Tiger Woods, he would practice in the yard with a stick, repeating the motions until the perfect swing came naturally to him. Not because he cared about perfection, but because the simple act of doing, of playing, made him happy.
“I thought it was interesting how comfortable he was just trying things,” says Mark. “The total comfort of just doing and not having any negative feedback on himself. He wasn’t self-critical, he would just go for it. He didn’t have expectations and we didn’t have expectations. He would just do things for the joy of doing it.”
Ford brought this playful nature and patience to his skiing, quickly progressing through the sport as a teenager. By the age of 17, Ford was recruited to join the U.S. development team, right out of high school. He had already committed to attending school at Dartmouth and chose to compete on the NorAm circuit while balancing school and ski racing. Just two years later in 2009, he made the B Team and started his first World Cup giant slalom in Soelden. Later that month he went on to score his first set of points in Alta Badia at the age of 19. His season went so well, that he earned a giant slalom spot in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, and scored.
Now, 11 years later, Ford is 30, and the 2019/20 season marks the first year that he has ever stepped onto a World Cup podium. The road to a win has been a long time coming, a mission that Ford has worked toward each and every season. Although winning, and results have never been the main goal. The road to self-satisfaction, to joy, and to finding comfort within himself, has been Ford’s priority for the past 10 years.
In August of 2012, Ford experienced his first major injury, one that required hip surgery. He had the operation in September, and was back out training and competing in November, a quick turn around after an invasive operation. By the time January rolled around, 23-year-old Ford found himself frustrated, by his results and by his skiing. New giant slalom skis had just been released, and the results just weren’t coming as they had a few years prior. Right after Adelboden, Ford chose to take some time off and ski some backcountry laps in France with his friend, Max Hammer, in an effort to take a break from the craziness of the ‘White Circus’.
On day one, Ford and Hammer were out ripping around when they happened upon a cliff band that was steep and blind. Ford came in hot and immediately started tumbling. By the time his back slammed against a tree forcing him to a complete stop, it was clear that his leg was separated. Hammer, luckily, had not followed Ford and was able to get help. Together it took the pair two hours to get out of the backcountry before reaching a helicopter, where Ford was airlifted to Annecy and spent nine days in the hospital. A rod was placed in his femur prior to him returning to the states.
Before his injury, Ford had gotten his first taste of the attention that comes with scoring in the World Cup, starting in the Olympics, and being the “next big thing” on the U.S. Ski Team. The spotlight, the travel, the new places, and faces, took a toll on him more than he had anticipated. The expectations that he had placed on himself to do well were brand new, having been the kind of guy that acted, rather than reacted. He says these emotions contributed to his injury.
“When I was younger, I wasn’t thinking as much and wasn’t as intentional,” says Ford. “I just really enjoyed skiing and I would say I was more naive in the sense that I didn’t have as many expectations, and as those developed along all of those other outside pressures, I wasn’t strong enough mentally to stay without expectations and not succumb to other people’s wishes.”
Being injured was the first time Ford was ever forced to sit with himself, evaluate his emotional life, and begin to process the experiences he was having as a young professional athlete. All of his regular outlets – skiing, climbing, hiking, skateboarding, mountain biking – none of those things were an available escape to him as his body healed. The emotions he had buried, all of the frustration he had been feeling about skiing, relationship strains, and living up to expectations, started to rise to the surface. Forced to face his emotions outside of the physical realm, Ford turned something he could create without walking – art.
“Shedding that active culture identity was uncomfortable and frustrating and scary,” says Ford. “That’s a lot of emotion that just came with losing your identity. And once I started studying art and just being open to it, I was able to learn to process those emotions by really focusing on the work and the material and becoming very present. And that presence really transcended art.”
Ford dove into drawing and sculpture during his recovery while studying at Dartmouth, taking his emotions, and translating them into a language much different than skiing. Prior to attending school, Ford had taken an interest in alternative forms of healing and began to incorporate that education into his recovery process as well, eventually finding a connection between healing, processing emotion, and enjoying skiing, without ever strapping a pair of skis on to his feet. Art, he says, helped minimize the burden of self-expression through skiing and gave him a way to process his feelings outside of physical activity in a way that was less self-destructive.
“Skiing is this connection to this unseen force, gravity, in the hill and you are this medium in between those things,” explains Ford. “And being able to be in tune and present with your own being while being between the hill and gravity is what sculpture is to me.”
As Ford progressed and got back on snow, the lessons he learned while sitting in pain he carried over into training. Before his injury, the tension and the pressure had risen to a point that he, as a young skier, could not handle. After his recovery, Ford saw a shift within his mindset, one that allowed him to be mindful and listen to his body without overdoing it physically or emotionally. Essentially, Ford was looking to incorporate his naivety and innocence, the same defining characteristics that led him to success as a kid, to his skiing in adulthood. Ford says it’s been a process but he has finally come to a point of trusting what he knows from living.
When Ford stands in the start gate, an aura of calm seems to take over him. No deep breaths, no arm shaking, or quick motions, just stillness. It used to not always be like that. The younger version of himself felt so much pressure to do something “special” on the World Cup, that he used to hyperventilate, overthink, and panic. Now he treats his starts much like Bode Miller. On the outside, the stone wall of focus is impenetrable. On the inside, he’s still freaking out, he’s just learned to acknowledge unhelpful emotions and let them pass.
“It takes effort to really turn inward and know yourself. To go back and restore to that place of presence and innocence, to create that space, you need to face the uncomfortable emotions and thoughts and memories and process them however that is,” explains Ford.
By the end of the 2019 season, Ford had completed his best year on the circuit yet, finishing ninth overall in the World Cup giant slalom standings. Then in December 2019, Ford earned his first-career World Cup podium, and his first-career World Cup win on home soil in Beaver Creek, making him the first American male to win a World Cup since 2017. After his win, the interview requests, the money, the social media, it all reminded him of the build-up to his first Olympics. The spotlight that so vividly shone down on him during his early years on the World Cup was back and brighter than ever, and so was the anxiety and nerves. For a while, he wasn’t sure exactly what to do with all of the energy focused on him after his win in Beaver Creek. Processing came more slowly, it was a new mental landscape.
But this time, he knew how to deal with it.
He called the people he loved. He drew. He spent New Year’s in Denmark with his friends and girlfriend Laurenne Ross. He meditated and practiced mindfulness. He took time to go back to Bend, Oregon to visit his parents. He channeled his thoughts and feelings into the things that bring him joy other than skiing.
Then in February, Ford skied to his second podium, this time finishing third in the Yuzawa Naeba giant slalom.
“Winning is just a byproduct of what I’ve been practicing and what I’ve been doing, and so is recognition,” says Ford. “I just continued to work to return to a place of playfulness and being aware of something bigger than myself as far as doing this with purpose rather than just doing it to win. Appreciating the thing that brings you joy and realizing the power that it has to help you become more confident and self-confident and more at home with yourself, it takes responsibility.”
If embracing his childlike sense of naivety, while simultaneously reaching emotional security and stability was the goal, Ford has done so with flying colors. His patience, ability to feel, and sense of joy are exactly the characteristics his parents say have allowed him to get where he is today.
“It’s a joy to ski fast, and it’s a joy to have a responsibility to something bigger. To take care of, the position I’m in. I want to inspire others to do what they love and really listen to themselves, and by doing that with myself it’s the best way I know how to do that.”