Riding high: How freeride snowboarder Michaela Davis-Meehan looks after her physical and mental health
After a horrific accident left Michaela Davis-Meehan with a broken back, she thought she’d never snowboard again. For someone who was competing at an elite level in the USA at the time, it was a heartbreaking moment.
“I was 18 and just starting to get into bigger snowboarding competitions. I later found out they call the jump the ‘Dream Crusher’.”
Although Michaela, now 29, had made the 70ft jump the day before, on this particular day the conditions had shifted. “It felt like jumping out of a building onto concrete. At first, I thought I was just winded, but then the pain kicked in and I couldn’t feel or move my legs.”
The journey of recovery
Fully covered by health insurance, Michaela was flown straight to hospital for surgery. Then began the long road to recovery, including stints in a back brace, relying on a wheelchair and being unable to stand for long periods. Having decided that the risks were just too high to get back on the board, Michaela completed a Tafe Cert III in Outdoor Recreation. But it wasn’t meant to be. “One day I looked around me and just thought, What am I doing? I needed to go back to boarding.”
A decade later, Michaela has represented Australia at World Cups and World Championships, and been selected for the Australian Olympic shadow team. She became the first Australian to win the Freeride World Qualifier Tour (FWQ) in 2019, and is shortly heading to Canada to start the 2022 competition circuit.
From snow bunny to elite athlete
Growing up in Newcastle, 7 hours’ drive from the snow, it was Michaela’s ski-mad parents who kicked off her passion for winter sports. When her older brother picked up a snowboard, the then 8-year-old Michaela wanted to keep up with her cool sibling and ditched the skis for good.
“When I told my parents I wasn’t going to complete high school they pushed back at first, but in the end said as long as I gave my boarding a proper go, they’d support me.”
Michaela has travelled all over the world with her boarding family and says there's a special connection between her and the other women. “Slopestyle boarding is a bit more competitive and formal, but because freeriding is so dangerous, everyone wants you to do well. We all want to win on the day, but as soon as we’re at the after-party it’s all good.”
The art of freeriding
For a snowboarding novice, slopestyle is a set course with emphasis on tricks, where freeriding is more creative, with judges looking for overall technique, speed and style. It’s not easy, and Michaela says staying mentally and physically present during a competition is vital.
"The body is moving instinctually, but I definitely talk to myself during a competition run. Things like 'I have to go left around this rock, then sharp turn to the next drop, WOOOO landed that, now onto the next hit, go faster, dammit, missed that drop'. I used to ride with music, but since being more freeride-focused I like to hear the snow and surroundings, especially for sounds of 'whumps' that indicate an avalanche, and friends cheering.”
How sport helps Michaela’s mental health
In her spare time – or when there isn’t any snow – you’ll find Michaela hiking with friends or out in the surf, favouring exercise she finds fun over lifting weights in a gym. As well as keeping her physically strong for her day job, she says being out in nature helps keep her mentally well and positive.
“I’m an optimistic person and I try not to dwell on things when they don’t go my way. But if I'm feeling disappointed or down about a result that wasn’t what I’d hoped for, I find the best way is just to get outside. It was raining yesterday and after almost a whole day of sitting around I decided to go for a surf anyway. The waves weren’t great but it was just so much fun being out there. Sport makes everything better for me.”
And while the risk of injury is very real with freeride snowboarding, Michaela admits the mental high she gets from competing is like nothing else. “The mental highs are the real wins, and the gold is the cherry on top. When you land [a big jump] and ride away smoothly you get a hit of adrenalin, a feeling of pure joy, excitement, and a grin from ear to ear. That’s one of the reasons you keep going bigger and trying new things because of that feeling.”
How Flip provides an added layer of protection
Being an ambassador to Flip, a new category of on-demand injury cover, is a step towards another personal goal of Michaela’s – to get more Aussies into freeriding. “I was the only Australian at the FWQ. I think we could smash it and take out the competition if there were more of us out there, so I’d like to start running camps to introduce the sport and train people up to compete.”
Designed for people who don’t have insurance, as well as people who want an added layer of protection, Flip has no lock-in contracts. Members can easily dial up their level of cover on riskier adventure days, and stopping cover is as easy as pressing a button. Michaela hopes that Flip will offer extra peace of mind to encourage people who want to try new things.
“With great sports come great injuries, but there's always going to be that risk of injury, no matter what you're doing. Flip gives me that peace of mind that if something does go wrong I have a back-up.”
How to tackle a new challenge like an athlete
While many of us like the idea of trying something new or a bit daring, we often let fear get in the way. While you may not have time to train like a professional athlete, there are some small steps you can take to start a new hobby that might benefit physical and mental health.
- Start small. If you’ve never surfed or hiked before, it’s not safe to leap into the biggest waves or take on an 8-hour trek. Be realistic about what you can achieve and build up to bigger challenges.
- Get some help. You’re never too old to learn something new, but ask the experts. Join a local club that welcomes new members (you can find them online) and surround yourself with people who know what they’re doing.
- Do your research. New sports or activities often require some equipment, but don’t spend a fortune until you know it’s right for you. Sports shops and online stores can get you started with the basics.
- Take breaks. Micheala might be a professional freerider, but she doesn’t snowboard every day. Mix up your physical training with other sports. If you like to run, try swimming a few times a week to take the pressure off your joints and support lean muscles. If your new passion is surfing, do some weight training to build up core and shoulder strength.
Words by Kerry McCarthy
First published January 2022
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