McRae Williams could’ve hung up his skis last summer. His mental focus was foggy at best — both in and out of skiing.
There were personal problems and relationship problems. He faced another battle to try to be one of the world’s best slopestyle skiers. Then one day while dealing with one obstacle after another, he received a care package from a sponsor. Inside was a book that helped redirect his life.
“I had a rough summer and things weren’t going so well,” Williams said. “That book came into my life at the perfect time.”
He referred to the book, “The Mindful Athlete,” and how it helped refocus his ways of doing things.
“Ever since I read it I’ve been super mindful of everything,” he said. “I apply what I’ve learned to my personal life and to skiing, and it’s been a night-and-day difference.”
Williams begins the 2017 FIS Freestyle Ski & Snowboard World Championships this week in Sierra Nevada, Spain, and it’s not far-fetched to see him on the podium. Last week’s fourth place at X Games Norway was his lowest finish in 2017.
“Fourth place kind of ruined my streak, but it’s been a really good year so far,” Williams said.
So far in 2017 he’s finished first in a world cup at Fort Romeu, France, and second at the world cup in Silvaplana, Switzerland, which earned him the crystal globe for most points of any men’s slopestyle skier this season. He also won a silver medal at X Games Aspen in January for his third career X Games medal — and the first one in three years.
In other words, he’s hit the podium in all but one of his major events this year.
Williams seemed to have so many problems last summer that his head was spinning more than a high-flying trick off the rails. The clincher was breaking up with his longtime girlfriend.
Once Williams began reading Zen in a book, he cleared negative thoughts from his head and focused on good things.
“I’ve always had skills, ability and potential,” Williams said. “But what I’ve learned is that not only sports, but all aspects of life, so much of it is mental.”
Clearing the mental hurdles of 2016 wasn’t the beginning for Williams. In 2000, just two years after his father signed him up for an aerial skiing recruitment program in Park City, Utah, his father quickly and unexpectedly passed away.
“It was a rough few years after he passed,” Williams said. “My mom was trying to raise me through my teenage years, but she was also raising a young girl. She’s a warrior for what she’s been through.”
Meanwhile, ski coach Kerry Miller took Williams under his wing, got him into a winter sports school and found a scholarship for Williams. He also introduced a teenage Williams to Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, a three-time Olympian in aerials. The two became friends, but after battling with alcohol and depression, Peterson committed suicide in July 2011, a little less than a year and a half after winning a silver medal at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
“Speedy went through a lot of hard times when he was younger like I did, so it was good to have someone successful I could look up to at that time,” Williams said.
Over the next few years, Williams often trained with fellow Park City native and good friend Joss Christensen, who narrowly made the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team that Williams just narrowly missed. Christensen went on to win the first Olympic gold medal in slopestyle skiing at those 2014 Games.
“I was so happy for him, but at the same time it was tough to watch my childhood best friend living the dream,” Williams said. “It gave me motivation, and it made me hungry to do better and reach that pinnacle.”
Williams said he doesn’t think about missing a rail or a jump, but rather how he will perfect it. He doesn’t focus on what things he’s had trouble with in the past, but instead visualizes how great he will be before the event begins. He even conjures up a great score in his head before making his run.
“In the past few years I would focus on something like, ‘Don’t mess up this rail,’” Williams said. “Now I only think positive thoughts and block out all the negative.
I feel like it’s not the skills, but my mentality that’s changed.”
He said the next major goal en route to continued podiums is perfection of the triple cork 1440 jump, including being able to spin both ways. In the meantime, he’s riding a wave of momentum in 2017.
“I’m skiing the best I ever have,” he said. “Each and every day we put on skis we get better, and more and more I work on a positive mental state.
“This was always a dream of mine, for sure. My life has had a lot of ups and downs, but I’ve lived an amazing life and hope to continue.”
Scott McDonald has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.