This tribute to Tori Robinson, friend, teammate and ski sister, was written for the celebration of her life in Park City on Sunday. When an emergency kept me from making the trip, my teammates stepped in. They divvied it up and each delivered a piece of the message, making the words ours and making sure I was part of an important day. All these years later, we have each other’s backs!
I met Tori at the same age I met a lot of my ski racing friends, at our first JO competition when we were 13. She –and Leilani of course– had bows and flowers in their hair, and always an entourage of boys following in their slipstream. The bows were a clever decoy, because as we slogged through the ranks I realized this cute, social, funny, witty, strong, kind, girl was also TOUGH. On the hill, in the gym, on the court, behind the wheel, on the dance floor— this girl was not afraid take it up a notch and, as they say in Vegas, put it all on red.
BOWS, BOYS and BICEPS
Tori and I— and quite a few other individuals here with questionable judgment—went on to be on the US team together, all of us schlepping around the world, sleeping on top of each other in vans and generally being in each other’s business. This is where Tori took living large to another level…literally. We had these bags called Scott bags, kindly given to us—like everything else we owned except our underwear—by a sponsor. These bags were HUGE, and they had these outer pockets that doubled their size. This was well before the 50 lb limit on airlines, and she always showed up with two of those monsters, packed to the gills with all the required gear, plus critical accessories, like: a blowdryer; possibly a curling iron; small (but very loud) fireworks; heavy metal cassettes; speakers; and always the boyfriend shrine. (Like the bows, the boys were a constant.) Wielding those bags was probably the start of her legendary upper body strength. But they always, magically, had room for more. On one trip we got a big surprise when our new sponsor Mäser invited us to come to their factory in Austria, on the way from Obershnitzel to Untergurgl or wherever. When we got there, we each got a box to fill up. It was a dash for cash through the warehouse aisles, all of us grabbing Christmas and birthday presents, fulfilling our shopping fantasies. We’re getting to the end of the loop and checking out, and Tori is still deep in the maze. When she emerges she has figured out how to liberate the side flaps of her box, essentially doubling its capacity. She can barely lift the thing (and at this point, by the way, she can bench press a Volkswagen) and she has the biggest, totally shameless grin on her face.
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE GNARLY
This tendency to squeeze the most out of every opportunity became a recurring theme—like the time she capped a great day of training in Las Lenas by skiing 50,000 vertical feet (all under the super sketchy Marté lift) in the afternoon. She maximized the good moments and smoothed over the bad. And oh yes, for a while we really specialized in the bad. Tori, the relentless optimist, always extracted humor from our deepest holes, and knew how to blow off negative noise. After many a catfight she’d remind each party that, “She’ll get over it in a week.” She also managed to make the great moments blaze brighter and last longer. No matter who had a good day—even if it was someone from a different country–she was there to celebrate, never ever to sulk in her room. With Tori, there was no problem a good night of dancing could not fix. Even after her very bad pole-dancing incident in Leukerbad, Switzerland, I remember her 21st birthday, in Barton Memorial Hospital, as a cheery occasion. Broken femur, broken back, blown-out knee be damned! Her IV-pole was tricked-out in tinsel and the bow was in place. Later that year she and Eva came to the Olympics—the ones they should have been in—to wave the flag. I can’t think of a good race by any one of us, where Tori wasn’t front row with her pure joy smile, and usually a stuck-out tongue.
THE ULTIMATE TEAM PLAYER
Ski racing is a weird hybrid, an individual sport where you travel as a team. We were a self-centered lot, with our moods and fortunes inextricably hitched. The way Tori set high standards for work and play, and rallied us to meet them as a team, was a reminder that we really were stronger and better together. In today’s coaching jargon, athletes who have the special sauce that makes a team gel are called “elevaters”. They elevate themselves, their teammates and the game. Tori was an elevater way before it was a thing. She went straight at her own hurdles, brokered communication within our own team (a full-time job in itself), and used her charm to expand our borders. She loosened up the Swiss, schooled the Australians on evading curfew, tamed some unruly Kiwis and even managed to warm up the Canadians, who barely tolerated us,
Thinking about those Scott bags, and our relative levels of attention to fashion (it was not unusual for her to rock leather pants and a clean, pressed shirt to the disco in some goat-herding town in the Alps), it seems ironic that I’m the one who ended up with a closet full of fancy lady clothes with coordinating shoes and handbags, while she spent much of her time happily living out of the back of a truck. She was nothing if not versatile, and it was never, ever about appearances. Tori was a teammate in every sense if the word, in sports and in life. Even when she had a situation dialed—be it anything from a Downhill line, to a workout, to a pesky coach, to a sticky relationship issue—she’d ask for and listen to advice, reminding you that you mattered.
Our little group of ski racers, telling our stories, tend to feel like we’re the best thing since sliced bread; and to each other, we are. But as I got a glimpse of Tori’s life in Coloma, first with Marek and then with Stella and Zoe, I saw that she had the river tribe…and the nursing tribe…and then the mom tribe and the martial arts and soccer tribes. She went “all-in” with them as well, not shifting vine to vine, from one to the next, but collecting them along the way, making them all essential parts of her, and she of them. Tori rolled through life like the perfect wet snowball, just becoming more impressive as she grew her body of friends and experiences.
Another thing we always traveled with were movies. We didn’t have many, because they were huge VHS tapes that stayed in Europe, stashed in the big metal gear boxes. But we spent an obscene amount of time with a few classics: Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, Stripes. Throughout adulthood, I can’t recall a single conversation with Tori that went by without some reference to “cinemese”. It wouldn’t be right to talk of Tori without reverting to the comfort of our most formative movies, and the lines that kept us each in our place: “the pool, the pond…the pond would be good for you”; “the world needs ditchdiggers too, Danny.” “Back off man I’m a scientist!”; and the often appropriate “Lighten up, Francis!” The constant that runs through all of these masterpieces is Bill Murray. So, in looking for some higher, Tori-worthy wisdom, I looked up some of Bill Murray’s quotes. And who knew? He’s kind of a Yoda, with all kinds of sage advice. I think this quote from our comic sensei captures the way Tori lived large and the example she set for us all.
“I live a little bit on the seat of my pants, I try to be alert and available … for life to happen to me. We’re in this life, and if you’re not available, the sort of ordinary time goes past and you didn’t live it. But if you’re available, life gets huge. You’re really living it.”
Tori, we love you and miss you. You will be with us always, smiling, sticking out your tongue, and reminding us to live large.