SNOW // 01 JUNE 2022
SEIZING THE SPARK
“I’ve been obsessed with skiing since I was three,” smiled writer and skier Erin Spong. “For a long time, it was ski racing that I was obsessed with, and then that four year break allowed me to separate. I got really burnt out from ski racing and love my love for it. When I went to college, I was able to separate racing from freeskiing and I rediscovered my love for just skiing—just the experience, not turning it into a competition.”
When her older brother joined the junior ski racing team, two year old Spong desperately wanted to follow suit. The imminent skier was forced to wait in anticipation for a year, her mother was concerned that Spong was too young for the sport. “I started the next season when I was three,” she explained. “I took one lap on the bunny hill at Hyland Hills with my mom and then I ditched her. She stayed on the bunny hill and I took the chairlift up.”
Finally when she was five, Spong was able to join the junior race team at Hyland Hills in Bloomington, MN. Infatuated with the sport, she raced for thirteen years, all the way through her senior year of high school. “I’m competitive by nature,” laughed Spong, explaining her dedication to the sport. “I always have been and I think that’s [due to] having an older brother who’s five years older than me. If I really wanted to stand up for myself, I had to get competitive and not be afraid to hit back or do whatever to get what I wanted. I really loved skiing. I truly loved skiing every day and skiing as much as I could.”
Her daily laps on the chairlift came to a screeching halt after a ski accident during her sophomore year of high school. Cracking her femur, hip socket, and ultimately tearing her labrum, Spong had to undergo a complete hip osteoplasty and labral repair. “I got the surgery a year after I had the injury,” said Spong. “So I skied a whole season with the injury and just kind of muscled through the pain. It was pretty brutal. But ironically it was my best season because mentally I was like, well, I’m as broken as I can be with my hip, so there’s no worry about injuring it any further. So, I felt like I could push it.”
Post-surgery, sixteen year old Spong was looking at a year long recovery time. The process was slow, especially for the usually active teenager. It took Spong six months to get back to a jog, even then just one minute on and then a minute off. Coinciding with her hip surgery, Spong was also healing from a head injury, which, at a time when concussion awareness and therapy was poor by today’s standards, made the recovery process challenging physically and mentally.
Still, Spong was back on her skis for her junior year season of racing. Faced with a plethora of mental blocks, Spong struggled to bounce back. Having experienced the year long consequence of a bad crash, Spong was consciously and subconsciously hesitant in her races. In the end, she failed to complete any of the International Ski Federation (FIS) slalom races she participated in that season and paid a hefty price in penalty points.
Stuck at the back of the pack her senior year, Spong decided to focus more on ski high school races and less on the FIS circuit. Though happy to race in a low stress environment, the passion had fizzled for Spong. Feeling burnt out, she decided to quit ski racing. As she toured different schools to make her college decision, the importance of a collegiate ski team suddenly dwindled and other factors began to take precedence. Instead of heading out west to Boulder, she accepted straight admittance to the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri.
Spong knew from an early age that she’d be a writer. “Both my parents are writers, and my brother is a writer, my whole family [is full of writers]. I think my parents nurtured that skill in both of us from an early age because that’s what they’re also good at,” she explained. “I wanted to go into magazine writing initially my freshman year, and then I took an intro to journalism course that introduced every sector of journalism. I got really intrigued by advertising.”
Studying journalism with an emphasis on strategic communication and copywriting, Spong enjoyed her four years exploring the old southern campus of Mizzou. During her winter breaks, she would occasionally visit with friends and ski, but as Spong explained, “My freshman year of college, I went home and did an invitational race and was like, oh, yeah, definitely hate it. I never need to do this again. I thought I missed racing. Definitely don’t miss racing.”
After her four years of college, Spong still dreamed of making her way out west. Practically toting her packed bags behind her across the graduation stage, she moved to Denver to work as an intern, and ultimately a junior copywriter, at an advertising agency just ten days after her commencement ceremony.
During this time, Spong found herself on the slopes more and more. “What really made the difference was not having to get up at 06:00 A.M. and be on the lift with sunrise and ski until the last chair,” explained Spong. “[I also didn’t have to] ski the same run on the same course over and over and over again. I could sleep in and have fun, like a good breakfast with my friends, go out and take a few laps, and then go sit in the lodge if we wanted to or whatever. So, discovering the freedom of being able to do whatever I wanted on the mountain, not having to go train on a specific course or do specific drills reignited that spark. I was like, oh, this is really fun. Why didn’t I do this earlier?”
As Spong reconnected with the outdoors in her freetime, her passion for the mountain crept into her work as well. “I was realizing that the only clients that I was working on that were firing me up were the outdoor related clients,” recalled Spong. “So, I wanted to figure out how I could form a career in the outdoor industry specifically.” Her thoughts on working in advertising in general? “That sucked my soul pretty quickly.”
By chance, scrolling through Facebook one day, she spotted a listing for an assistant editor at Freeskier magazine. She sent in her application and ultimately was hired. All at once, Spong’s passion for skiing merged with her work. Though some of the writing was basic, like selling skis and skiing experiences, Spong was also able to dive into the storytelling that resonated with her.
“I love telling profiles, like other people’s stories, interesting characters and people that aren’t always the most prominent in the public eye,” she said. “The behind the scenes characters are super fun because there’s a lot of them in the industry and there’s a lot of silent killers who don’t care to play the social media game and therefore aren’t making the magazine covers but are incredible skiers and interesting human beings.”
Driven by this new convergence of passions, Spong was thrown into the backcountry day in, day out, hiking up the skin track, taking photos, coming up with questions on the spot, all while keeping up with pro skiers. Working long days, sometimes from 6:00 A.M. to 1:00A.M., it became difficult for Spong to stay present and appreciate the experience. “You’re at all these [amazing] destinations,” she explained. “But you’re worried about getting a shot or getting the right social media clip.”
As burnout threatened to reclaim her, the pandemic hit. Laid off from Freeskier and newly situated in Pocatello, Idaho with her partner Sander, Spong was able to take a step back and rebalance. Reflecting on her own needs, she created a systematic cycle of jobs, as she explained, “I need new experiences [but I also] need somewhat of a routine, but I need it to be loose enough so that when things pop up out of the blue, I can embrace them.”
Summertime now means writing and gardening for Spong, giving her an off season both mentally and physically from skiing, but the sport still dominates her winters. A “head to toe” ambassador for Rossignol, she works to be a skier of all trades. For Spong, a key component of her progression has been the support of her partner, Sander, who “has really taken me under his wing as not just a girlfriend but as a ski partner, and [I love] seeing the joy that he gets out of helping me.” Spong smiled as she continued, “It’s awesome having somebody who is very aware of my capabilities and knows just how far to push me. So, sometimes when I’m unsure, it’s like, I don’t know, can I do that? And he’s like, yeah, you got it. You got it. All right, I got it. Or he’s like, no, you don’t got it.”
Driven by the same passion that sparked in her heart at three, Spong pursues the path of skiing as a sponsored athlete. ““I thought that I could handle it just being a weekend warrior hobby thing and I made it work for a couple of years. Once I really got the taste at Freeskier, like, oh, I can make skiing into a career. I just felt like I was melding my two worlds into my currently idealistic world. Who knows? Ten years down the road, maybe I’ll burn out of [being a sponsored skier] and want to just have skiing be a soul pursuit. But for now, I really enjoy loving my work.”
Brought back to skiing time and time again, the rapture never fades for Spong. Each season comes with new ways to fall in love again.
“I’m 28, but mentally I feel like I’m still 16 or 18 because I’m continuing to learn new things,” she smiled. “Mentally the progression and constantly challenging myself and learning new things and struggling at it for a while and then figuring it out is such a youthful feeling. That joy that you get when [a skill] finally clicks, when you finally land something. It just brings me back to being a teenager. If I can just continue that feeling, if I can continue being a teenager in my 30s, that’s kind of all I can ask for.”