Be Your Best, Naturally: Ingrid Backstrom

If you don’t know who Ingrid Backstrom is, you are either not a skier or have just crawled out of a monk’s cave where you’ve been meditating for the last 20 years. (We hope it was one with beer.) 

Backstrom is perhaps the single most influential female skier in modern times. She has appeared in 20-some ski films over the past two decades, podiumed in 12 big mountain competitions, and bagged first ski descents in Greenland, Baffin Island, and China. She’s known for her trademark style (which matches her personality)—aggressive yet graceful, fearless yet smart, confident yet modest. More importantly, however, with every backflip and cliff drop, she has stomped out a space for women where there was none before. 

But if you asked her? She’d probably tell you she’s a mom of two adorable girls (currently squealing in the background of our Zoom call) and then give you her latest recipe for homemade ice cream. She is incredibly humble—rare for an athlete of her caliber—which not only makes her immediately likeable, but also helps keep her alive, keeping her ego in check and allowing her to say “no” when she doesn’t feel right about an objective.

How has she accomplished so much and stayed so unassuming? She first deflects the compliment, but then admits she has something inside her, maybe between her heart and adrenal glands, that drives her toward a singular goal: Ingrid Backstrom wants to be the best at everything she cares about. Including making homemade ice cream. And the rest, like unfolded laundry and Legos dumped out on the floor, she tries not to sweat. Turns out she is human, after all.

We interviewed her recently from her Leavenworth, Wash., home, with her kids, Betty and Clover, happily blowing whistles and knocking down blocks in the background.

Q:

You were one of the first women to break out of the qualifier, “good for a girl,” which essentially connotes that women are, by nature, incomparable to male skiers. Did you know at the time how influential you’d become?

Backstrom:

No, not at all. I don’t even know if I am. I was just trying to ski and have fun, and all the other benefits have been an accident.

Q:

Did you have a role model growing up?

Backstrom:

I remember seeing a movie with Jamie Burge in it—the one where she was jumping a train—when I was in a ski shop. I was like, “Whoah, that’s a girl?” And then she backflipped into the Palisades [at Squaw Valley]. She was right in the mix doing the same things as the guys, if not one-upping them. I was, like, “Holy cow, that’s possible?” That’s what made me want to take a year off and pursue that.

Q:

Things have changed a lot for female skiers since you came onto the scene. Where do you think we are now in terms of equality?

Backstrom:

We’ve come a long way, and there’s still work to be done. Social media blew the lid off of everything, because you didn’t have to be in a ski movie—there was no longer just that one woman-slot. It took the gatekeeper out of the equation. Suddenly you could also follow a multitude of women different skiers on Instagram—it didn’t have to just be the hard-charging PBR-swilling back-flipper. The more people could see themselves, the more they realized there’s not just one type of female skier.  

Q:

We love your blog. You share recipes, workouts, and talk about real issues. It feels very down to earth and human. 

Backstrom:

I started it really just for myself. I had all these thoughts swirling when I was pregnant—I was constantly googling, “How hard can I exercise?” “What can I do?” “What can’t I do?” and I figured the more I can share my story, the more people can crowdsource. 

Q:

As an athlete, how did you handle the new constraints of motherhood?

Backstrom:

I’m fortunate that I was older when I had kids, because it was very much a choice. When I’m viewing difficult things through that lens, it makes it much easier because I signed up for this. It also distills your priorities. All the crap that I thought I had to do before I had kids just falls by the wayside. And the more important things, well, I still barely get those done.

Q:

You obviously have high expectations for yourself. What about the new set of expectations that come with motherhood?

Backstrom:

There’s a lot of pressure, and I’m sure everyone goes through this. You start out saying, “I’m never going to be that kind of parent,” and then when you get into it you’re, like, “Oh, that’s not what’s important.” There’s a theory about being “the good enough parent,” which talks about how by striving to be the perfect parent, we’re making it worse for everyone. We just need to try our best. By admitting our mistakes and working through it, it helps everyone learn.

Q:

Do you ever have mom guilt? 

Backstrom:

Of course. But when I actually get out of my own head for second, it’s so much better. There’s a good book called “The Gardener and the Carpenter,” which talks about how parenting became a verb. We try to build the children instead of sitting back and tending the garden where they can grow. I didn’t read the whole thing, but I like the idea.

Q:

Does your drive to be your best ever manifest itself in perfectionism? 

Backstrom:

Totally. Social media is the biggest challenge for me. I just get off of it because I can’t do it the way I want to. It’s just such a weird world. But then again, I can’t be a complete perfectionist because I don’t fold the laundry or have an organized house.

Q:

Do you see perfectionism in your kids?

Backstrom:

Yes, it’s terrible. I don’t know what to do. I always wonder if that’s something they’re born with or have I already imprinted that? I thought I was getting more chill, but apparently I haven’t been. I see a lot of frustration. Then we talk about, well, “How many times do you think mom had to ski before she got good? How many houses did Dad have to build?” I try to teach them that every time we make a mistake, we have an opportunity to try harder. 

Q:

A lot of people describe parenthood as the most life-changing experience they could ever have—like a burn-it-down-build-it-back type thing. What was that experience like for you?

Backstrom:

For me it was, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?” It was so awesome and fulfilling in a way that nothing else had been. But, yes, I got a whole new appreciation for the way people balance and juggle and show up when they have all this other stuff going on and didn’t sleep and are totally preoccupied. And then, when you’re surrounded by dirty laundry in the afternoon, you have moments when you realize you can do a lot more on very little sleep than you ever thought. I’m a lot tougher than I ever thought I was before. It just changes your whole perspective on everything. Like, what was I doing on long car rides when I didn’t have two kids to entertain?

Q:

We’re always striving to find balance. Tell me what that means for you.

Backstrom:

I ask myself, “Is everyone thriving today, and what can I do to make that happen?” There’s not one set formula for us, but I just try to figure out a moment during the day that everyone gets a little bit of what they need. I’m pretty good about taking some time for me and getting some exercise. Sometimes it’s taking a walk with the stroller, or I do a workout in the living room and the kids coach me. As long as I can say I did something for myself today.

Q:

In your blog, you talk a lot about shifting your mindset. What do you mean by that?

Backstrom:

I went to a group about nonviolent communication, which is all about changing the way we talk and listen. We talked about thinking of things in your life in terms of choice, like paying taxes, which no one wants to do. You could say, “I choose to pay taxes because I value public schools, good roads, and all these things that come with it.” There’s a power that comes with that mindset. 

Q:

Speaking of mindset, when you’re skiing a big line and you have to nail it, what do you do in that moment to get you through the self-doubt?

Backstrom:

That’s a hard one. I try to cut through the noise to figuring out what my true motivation is. Is this my ego? What’s the end goal? Is this the right choice and why? I try to make decisions from facts as much as I can.

Q:

You lost your brother, Arne Backstrom, 10 years ago in a skiing accident. You’ve lost many friends. You’ve had close calls yourself. And now, you’re a mom. What is your relationship with risk, and how has it changed over time?

Backstrom:

Losing my brother played a big part [in my development as a skier]. I was already trending toward being more cautious and risk-averse, and having kids takes that to a whole new level. But I still want to live life. I’m always trying how to figure out that balance. 

Everyone’s navigating this right now with COVID. How do we live our lives and have an acceptable amount of risk? How do we live life in a way that’s true to ourselves but also realizing our decisions don’t just impact us? It would be easy in a way to never go skiing in the backcountry, but this is who I am. I make sure I choose wisely and am OK saying “no.”

Also, I try to stop judging others’ risk-taking behaviors. The more I judge them, the more I realize I have unresolved things within myself. I try to use those knee jerk judgements of others to inform myself about things I haven’t been addressing fully.

Q:

Tell me about failure. Halfway kidding here, but does it ever happen to you? How do you handle it?

Backstrom:

I’ve failed at lots of things. I’ve failed at relationships. I’ve started stuff and haven’t finished it. I’ve gotten hurt. I hurt myself when I was four months pregnant with my second daughter. I owned it and tried to let myself off the hook. I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years, but that doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. I try to figure out what I learned from them and not to beat myself up about it. Or…at least set a limit: “You can beat yourself up for five minutes, and when the timer goes off, it’s done.”

Q:

What’s next for you?

Backstrom:

My friend and I are working on a ski movie in which the filming, art direction, editing, all of it is done by women. I want to collaborate on more projects like that. 

In terms of my own skiing, I want to be strong, not get hurt, and make safe decisions. I also want to help other people stay safe by raising awareness about backcountry safety. 

To read more of Ingrid Backstrom’s thoughts on everything, check out her blog, Mostly Mountains, at ingridbackstrom.com.

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