When the brain quiets in demanding athletic moments, the body and instinct takes over. There is a special deeply human or perhaps, more accurately, animal experience, that sets in. Noise quiet, vision focuses, sense sharpen, breathing settles, time is utterly gone and training takes over. This is an intense moment of being truly alive as a physical being.
In ski racing, I remember when I was truly in the moment not so much seeing the gates, as feeling them. We had to memorize the course, the look but more the feel of it, that was what mattered. It was thrilling, terrifying and such a vivid experience of being alive. Even when I crashed, which was often, those moments of both knowing the situation was irretrievable and then suddenly it being over. In D1 racing we were pushed to the edge by our coach. Not what we thought was our limit, that was left behind in the first days, but our actual edge, which we pushed further daily.
In an intellectual age, and one where increasingly our 'selfhood' almost exists outside our body, in the all the platforms of technology, these physical experiences are that much more valuable. This thrill and focus, freedom and empowerment, even the pain and the challenges, are in us, our own bodies, not some far away land or some pricey object. This is one of the reasons why running is so beautiful and soccer so universal. And what is demanding is all relative, your own pace, your own goals, your own victories, but this human moment of challenge and achievement is eminently accessible.
When I was doing my thesis in graduate school I read a remarkable book called the "The Body has a Mind of its Own" by Sandra Blakeslee which confirmed what I had long believed about our extraordinary neurological physiological capabilities. The intelligence and capabilities that our bodies have, beyond just sports (yes I said it) are astounding. And so few people tap into this. The idea of bringing people more present into their body, or enabling their experiences in their body to be that much more successful, vivid or even super charged is what has repeatedly brought me back to projects around the thread of physicality and the optimal experience of the body.
As a designer who dedicated the better part of the last 4 years to sports products, and most of her career to designing for greater physical engagement, whether it was through wearables, through aging, or products for on the moon, it may seem odd that I have not written much about the body or sports on my blog.
As is often the case, the answer is simple, and not so simple.
Professionally, at New Balance, on the apparel innovation team, the majority of my last year and a half was spent on gear for the 2016 Olympics, using innovative data techniques and modes of design, working with the MIT Media Lab; extraordinarily exciting stuff. Another project was for DHARPA with the Harvard Wyss Institute. All of which I, of course, cannot talk about.
On the other front, last February over the course of a few days (long story, a trite version would be that denial in the pursuit of powder is a strong pain killer) I badly fractured one tibial plateau and severely bruised both. As they say, it's not the cliff its the landing. I lit up like a Christmas tree on the X-Ray once the swelling went down, only after hobbling through fashion week in a blizzard.
The doctors scared me straight, showing me how close I was to a heavy surgery, ie how lucky I was. And I became a crutch and PT devotee. For months. The human body is both intensely powerful and very fragile, and this year was a lesson in patience and humility.
I daydreamed about yoga classes, zoned out imaging long runs in the woods as I interviewed Team NB athletes, and was nearly in tears craving heart pumping sweat inducing spin classes as I designed Olympic training gear drawn out of data sets. One of my great passions in design is finding ways to enable greater physical engagement, joy, success. In the least by removing all barriers, at the pinnacle by enhancing physical and mental capabilities. Considering all of this from the sidelines this year was a new perspective, perhaps, like most, a good one to try on for a bit.
But eventually my patience paid off and, as well as designing for athletes, I am back to being one. I love every single screaming muscle, gasping breath, heated muscle and the utter exhaustion that tells you your body is alive and doing all that it can possibly do. This rush is accessible to us all, I often wonder why so few take it, and continue to design in hopes of enabling more people this ultimate joy.