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Shannon Griffin: Building a Life Out of Snow

Monday Dec. 31st, 2018


When she was a kid, Bridger Bowl Snow Sports Director Shannon Griffin didn’t really like skiing—in fact, she hated it. Struggling with depression throughout her teenage years, Shannon was constantly afraid of failure, which made her supremely unenthused to ski. 

“Everyone else was so excited for powder days, and I was like, ‘Can I just stay home?’” Shannon said. 

Now, skiing is an inseparable part of her day-to-day life. At 29, she served as President for the Rocky Mountain Division of Professional Ski Instructors of America. A few years later, she tried out for the U.S. Ski Team, and six years ago, she began chasing winter around the hemisphere by instructing in Chile during the North American off season. How did the girl so apathetic to new snow transform into this woman who’s made winter her life? 

It began with her mom. When Maureen Collins, a.k.a. “Mo,” was hired as a Bridger Bowl ski instructor, 14-year-old Shannon began tagging along with her on clinics. She felt accepted by the other instructors and loved riding the lift in between runs with her mom, listening to her practice movement analysis techniques on unassuming skiers below. 

“The clinics were what first made me interested in ski instructing,” Shannon said. “I thought that if I just made enough money for gas, it’d be worth it to go to clinics.”
So at age 19, Shannon began instructing too. She still didn’t really like skiing, though, until she began training for her Level 2 Certification when she was 25. 

“Skiing just became more fun as I just kept getting better and better,” Shannon said. “And watching my students have the same realization was so cool.”

To Shannon, skiing has always been about overcoming something—depression, fear of moving, fear of not being good enough. 

“I know what it’s like to be a scaredy-cat,” Shannon said. “Skiing helped me overcome my fears, and that’s what has made helping other people overcome theirs so powerful.”

Shannon wasn’t really inspired to turn skiing into something more than just a hobby, though, until she watched her friend Josh Spuhler completely transform his skiing through training for U.S. Ski Team tryouts.

“I thought, ‘Wow, maybe if I set a goal, I can actually get good at this,’” Shannon said. 
So one day, on the chair lift with her coworker and new best friend Kate Howe, she did set a goal. She said, “I have this crazy idea,” and Howe said, “Me too! Let’s share?” 

Turns out, they had the same dream—to try out for the U.S. Ski Team. Kate tried out five years later, Shannon nine. That day on the chairlift, giving herself something to work towards, became a defining moment in Shannon’s ski career. 

Although tryouts were a long way off, Shannon kept working her way up the mountain of PSIA, going for her Level 3 exam three times before passing. With only a month before her second try, she realized with a sinking feeling how far she had to go. 

And then the number 300 popped into her head, maybe sent from above, maybe sent from the PSIA children’s manual, which says it takes 300 repetitions of a movement to make it muscle memory. So Shannon started wedge turning all the way down the front run at Bridger, however many times it took to get to 300. 

“Going into the exam, I knew I was really close, and depending on the days I had, I would either pass or fail,” Shannon said. “But during that exam I was so proud, ‘cause I didn’t allow myself to get down on myself.”

When the second day came around and she didn’t pass, Howe and her three primary coaches all cried.  

“I was her training partner,” Howe said. “I know I cried, because I passed that time and she didn’t, and she taught me how to ski.”

Not an emotional type, Shannon’s college friend and former PSIA Examiner Josh Spuhler didn’t tear up. But as part of the staff who oversaw Shannon’s development, he too found it hard when she didn’t pass. 

But then, Shannon had more to overcome in her training than other people, he says—her go-to thing used to be to explode on her first run, double ejecting pretty much without fail. It was a confidence thing, Spuhler says. 

“In all honesty, she struggled for a number of years,” Spuhler said. “She kept getting knocked down and kept getting back up, but that’s why she improved. I’m always proud of Shannon.” 

A week after their sixth wedding anniversary, Shannon and her husband split up. Needing to get away, she applied to Portillo, Chile on a friend’s recommendation. The director, Robin Barnes, didn’t have a spot for her at first, but a few weeks later, one opened up, and Shannon was asked to be in Chile in three weeks.

“I was definitely nervous going down there the first time,” Shannon said. “But even though I only had about 250 words of Spanish down that first year, it was amazing to watch how communication still happened.”

However, it’s been a pretty slow learning curve, she says, because so many people in Portillo speak English. But it wasn’t really until last year that Shannon had her first stumbling block of an encounter. 

One of the guys running the gym in Portillo walked up to her in the hallway and said, “Whenever you speak Spanish, I can’t understand you,” and turned and walked away. This might seem like a pretty non-eventful interaction, but for Shannon, who used to have dyslexia of words as a kid, it was shattering. She thought she’d outlived those days where she’d see a strange look in people’s eyes and realize that she said something wrong, without knowing what it was.

“When that guy said that, it hurt so much,” Shannon said. “It put fear back into me, and it was really hard to overcome.”

But she’s worked hard to overcome this fear—she makes it a point to speak Spanish with her clients, even if she doesn’t have to. And even though she’s only in Portillo four to five months out of the year, one of her goals this winter in Bozeman is to host Spanish-speaking dinners. 

“[Shannon] is such a wonderful asset in Portillo,” Snowsports Director Robin Barnes said. “She went through a period where she wasn’t as confident as her skill set might have allowed her to be, yet each guest that she spent time with absolutely loved her and benefited from lessons with her.”

Barnes says it was Shannon’s ability to care for and connect with people of all ages, personalities, skier abilities, etc. that allowed her to overcome any language barriers that may have existed.

“She welcomes people not only into her world for top notch lessons, but she welcomes them into her life in Portillo and brings them into the culture and makes them feel like old friends,” Barnes said. “It’s a unique skill blend that she has, and it absolutely comes from the heart.”

Back in Montana, Shannon leads Bridger Bowl with a mix of fun and depth. 
“Sometimes I worry, ‘cause I feel like I’m being too much of my dorky self, but at the same time I have to be me,” Shannon said. “I learned through my depression that I have to honor who I am; I don’t always have the capability to hold up this mask.”
Even so, coming back to Bridger Bowl to be their Snowsports Director, she was afraid of not being taken seriously. 

“I’ve known these people 20 years—they knew me from when I was a teenager and even before,” Shannon said. “But they were all so excited to have me back, after I’d gone out and grown and gotten more experiences.”

And grown she has—Barnes calls Shannon a student of the sport who climbs each year up another notch of the performance ladder. Six years ago, Barnes says, Shannon’s skiing was very solid, but now, it’s really, really great: disciplined, accurate, playful and beautiful. And her improvements in this area have had a ripple effect throughout her entire life—Spuhler says it was all the work that Shannon put into her skiing that helped to give her the self-confidence she has now. 

“Her self-esteem was born and bred with skiing,” Spuhler said. “She’s found her roots with it—it’s helped her in every aspect.”
Shannon says she wants to stay at Bridger for at least a few more years, barring an injury or the arrival of a knight in shining armor. 

“My biggest dream in life is really to be a wife and a mother,” Shannon said. “My qualification is that they must love a snow sport.” It doesn’t have to be skiing. But one way or another, winter must always be a part of this skier’s life.    
Caroline Araiza is a journalism major at Colorado State University, and a ski instructor at Winter Park Resort, which is where she got to know Shannon Griffin. She plans to go into magazine writing or global ski instructing (or both!) after graduating in May of 2019. She can be contacted at ceaaraiza@gmail.com.