Tricia Hellman Gibbs, MD, is a member of the 2008 San Francisco Wexner Heritage group and co-founder of the San Francisco Free Clinic, a clinic providing free care to the medically- uninsured. She is also a former member of the United States Ski Team and, along with her husband, Dr. Richard Gibbs, 1998 California Family Physician of the Year. She can be reached at

It was February of 1977, Piancavallo, a ski resort near Venice, Italy. Race day was very cold. The previous days had been rainy, which had made the snow on the downhill course slow, especially for me. In the training runs, I’d been consistently placing near the back. 

The cold had frozen the course into sheets of glassy ice. Our skis made high-pitched scraping sounds as we side-slipped for inspection. One girl from the East German ski team fell and slid all the way to the bottom of the course. She wasn’t hurt, but it was unnerving.

Later, we waited at the start for our turn to race. Girls stood in groups, looking intimidating. Some of them had thighs as big and strong as tree trunks. The favored competitor smoked a cigarette. My friends on the US Team spit chewing tobacco onto the snow.

They didn’t look so tough as they left the starting gate. The frictionless surface resulted in immediate speed yet prohibited any grip. Many of the women turned their skis sideways, standing up to gather air-drag and slow themselves down.

My low ranking meant that by the time I got in the start, the hill was almost deserted. I stood looking down at the shadowy course. A voice in my head said, “You can do this.” I pushed out of the start as hard as I could and got into my tuck, feeling a crazy thirst for speed. My skis clattered and grabbed onto the first turn as my ego melted, leaving only the real “me.” And something bigger.

I often think about that moment, even today, in situations far from the world of sports. I remember it when I might otherwise feel afraid. Like when I ran my first medical “code.” Or began learning Arabic. Or decided to start a free clinic. You have to throw yourself forward and trust that you will connect with the real “you.” And Something bigger.