Gunnison’s Rebecca Dussault goes after Olympic glory, but keeps God first
By Bill Howard/HERALD EDITOR
When Gunnison’s Rebecca Dussault first talked to coaches about training for the U.S. Olympic
cross-country ski team in 2003, she had one condition. “I chose to make it clear to all of my coaches and sponsors that my husband and I are practicing Natural Family Planning (NFP), and if I should happen to become pregnant, then I will be retiring to give life to the child,” she said. They agreed and what has ensued is an adventure — and witness — of a lifetime that has proved that you can
live according to the Catholic Church’s teachings and have a chance at Olympic success. On Jan. 17, she was officially named to the U.S. Olympic team. In the months leading up to the Winter Olympics in Turin, which begin Feb. 10, Dussault, 25, has raced several times across North America and Europe, winning the U.S. National 15K title on Jan. 3 at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Utah. She arrived at Turin on Feb. 2 after participating in a World Cup race at Davos, Switzerland, as a warmup. Should Dussault win a medal in Turin, she will be the first American woman to do so. Her goal is to finish in the Top 15, which would be remarkable in a sport ruled by Europeans.
Dussault began cross-country skiing recreationally at age 9 after her mother learned that, for $60, Rebecca could be on a team with equipment, a uniform and a coach. At 15, she started to race seriously. It’s a period she fondly remembers. “My family, ski team and even my priest helped me
foster a love for the sport. We did things as a group with our families such as weenie roasts in the woods on skis, moonlight Mass in the mountains and ski team soccer in the park with one ski on,” she recalled. “It was these small things which kept me hooked” until she entered the age
for serious competitions, she said. She was considered the country’s top prospect in 1999,
when she retired to marry her childhood sweetheart, Sharbel Dussault, that November. Leading
up to that time, Rebecca had been feeling a tension between her faith and her passion to ski.
“My heart was very torn, not between Sharbel and racing, but between pursuing glory in the eyes
of God and glory in the eyes of man,” she said. “I had a heavy conviction in my heart that ski racing
was slowly suffocating my spiritual life. “I remember very challenging meal times where teammates and coaches would grill me on things like why I wore a chastity ring, why I skipped Saturday night meal so I could attend Mass, why I didn’t believe in pre-marital sex, etc. . . . I felt challenged in a good way, but it was very suffocating to always be on the defense. With all of this stuff mounting higher and higher, I decided that it was time to let go and let God.” She said the decision to retire “was very hard and yet carried such a sense of relief.” Tabor Dussault was born Nov. 21, 2001, just a few months shy of the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. The Dussaults attended the Games, and she cheered many of her former teammates who now represented the United States. Although she had been removed from competitive skiing for two-and-a-half years, her competitive drive never waned. After discussing the matter with her husband, Dussault entered a collegiate 10km race in Crested Butte in February 2003. She tied for the win against two-time Olympian Katrin Smigun, and soon beat Smigun in a 5K skate race. At that point, the Dussaults began to seriously discuss Rebecca making a run at the Olympic team. At issue was their desire to have more children.
“We struggled over the moral issue of postponing pregnancy and took a lot of time to discern God’s
will for us,” she said. “We met with our spiritual director on a couple of occasions and finally were at
peace with our decision to go ahead and pursue this dream for the next two-and-a-half years.”
When the decision was made to move ahead, it was also to do so as a family. Sharbel, who runs a
family business selling and installing tension fabric structures, was able to adjust his schedule with
help from his business partners. Rebecca’s training gave Sharbel the chance to strengthen his
bond with Tabor, and they have watched every one of Rebecca’s races since her return to competition. “The joy in the journey is being able to share this with my family,” Rebecca said. “Our son has an education from this that will benefit him for life.” “(Tabor and I have) had many days out skiing together, playing in parks, visiting churches and chasing mama around the course as she races,” added Sharbel, who also has photographed the experience and kept family and friends in touch with frequent e-mail updates. Sharbel said the experience has made him “appreciate
being a father and a husband more than ever. “The way the Lord has worked all the details has been amazing. From the very beginning, I knew that it was going to take a huge sacrifice on my part to make this Olympic dream come true. Living out the vocation of marriage in this environment has been a continual learning experience. It has forced me to lay down my goals, hobbies
and sports so that Rebecca’s pursuit of the Olympic dream moves ahead as smoothly as possible.”
When the Dussaults committed to chasing the Olympic dream, they named Blessed Pier Georgio Frassati as their patron. Blessed Frassati was born in 1901, lived in Turin and had a passion for Christ and the outdoors. He was constantly performing works of charity and leading his friends
on hikes, challenging them to climb “verso l’alto” (“toward\ the summit”). He died at 24 after contracting polio. In the United States, Frassati societies have sprung up for young adults who want to combine their love of God with the outdoors. “As teenagers, we each had holy cards of this young
mountain man and knew that he was special to our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II,” Rebecca said. “But it wasn’t until we attended an International Frassati Festival in Colorado that we really learned about his life.” The Dussaults once pilgrimaged to her return to competition.
“The joy in the journey is being able to share this with my family,” Rebecca said. “Our son has an education from this that will benefit him for life.” “(Tabor and I have) had many days out skiing together, playing in parks, visiting churches and chasing mama around the course as she races,” added Sharbel, who also has photographed the experience and kept family and friends in touch with frequent e-mail updates. Sharbel said the experience has made him “appreciate being a father and a husband more than ever. “The way the Lord has worked all the details has been amazing. From the very beginning, I knew that it was going to take a huge sacrifice on my part to make this Olympic dream come true. Living out the vocation of marriage in this environment has been a continual learning experience. It has forced me to lay down my goals, hobbies and sports so that Rebecca’s pursuit of the Olympic dream moves ahead as smoothly as possible.”
Rebecca wasn’t sure what to expect when she announced to coaches and sponsors that she and her husband would continue to practice Natural Family Planning, where a couple regulates conception by charting the woman’s menstrual cycle. “There weren’t any sponsors who pulled out, but I think I shocked many,” she said. “I made a firm case for why we practice NFP and I gave an account of its effectiveness. There are just some things we will never compromise on.”
Her U.S. team coach, Pete Vordenberg, had no problems with the Dussaults’ decision.
“For me, it has not created any tension at all. I hope that I accommodated her needs as a Catholic, as a woman and as an individual. I’m sure there are things I can do better, and I will always strive to do that,” he said. The Dussaults’ faith has also helped them through bumps along the journey. For one, traveling as a family has caused a financial strain at times. Second, even though they travel together, they are often on the move. “The extremely busy schedule we live helping to run a business while we are at home and the year-round commitment Rebecca has to cross-country skiing puts a lot of pressure on us,” Sharbel admitted. “There are days when we forget to pray, there are times when we get on each other’s nerves and there are times we ask if this is the will of God. Whenever we come to a point of friction, we offer it to the Lord, and so far he has continued to bless us.” During this journey, the Dussaults consider their witness to the Gospel mostly a silent one. Just having the family around at all times has turned heads among teammates, coaches and other skiers. “It is very rare for a family to be seen traveling on the race circuit,” Sharbel said. “We have been confronted and challenged to share our faith and our reasons for doing this as a family. . . . Nothing is more important than keeping our marriage strong and healthy.” “The continual movement of our lives has brought about many opportunities to meet other people and share with them the joy of being a close family committed to each other and to our Catholic faith,” he added. Rebecca called the cross-country racing community “missionary territory.”
“All I can try to do is to communicate the joy and mercy which God has generously given to me,” she said.
Mixed in with training and races, the Dussaults had certain Catholic events circled on their calendar, like the International Frassati Festival and, last summer, World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany.
“We decided that nothing would keep us from greeting the new Holy Father in his homeland,” she said. On a train ride from France to Italy, she stood in the opening between cars and did squats and other exercises while holding up Tabor. “The best one was to just try to stand on one leg as the
train jostled all over the track,” she said. In Milan, the Dussaults met up with members of the
Frassati Society of Denver. Among that group was a Catholic junior Nordic racer from Gunnison.
One time, when the Dussaults’ van was in the shop, she found a broom handle and partnered with the other Nordic skier to work on their triceps and biceps, and provide resistance for a bench press.
Throughout the World Youth Day event, Dussault would squeeze in training. During the miles of processions and marches to different locations, Rebecca would run and pull Tabor in a jogger or hold him on her shoulders for extra weight as she walked. Vordenberg has known Rebecca for 10 years and coached her for the past three. He said he has noticed a considerable improvement in her conditioning and technique. “She has taken a big step in understanding what kind of commitment to paying attention to her health and body and to rest and recovery hard training demands,” he said.
Vordenberg said Dussault’s strengths are “talent, desire to work hard and a joy for the sport.” He said he has no expectations of Dussault in Turin other than “to be as fast a skier as she can be on that day. I expect her to go home proud of her effort.”
As soon as her final race in Turin is over, Rebecca said she will retire again so she and Sharbel can grow their family. They also hope to use their experience as couple-to-couple counselors for NFP. Whether or not the retirement will be permanent is another issue. “I’ve waited a long time for this retirement. I tell people who ask about it that I am indefinitely retiring because the Olympics are coming to Vancouver in 2010 and I just might come back for one year,” she said. “I have realized through the years that God is the designer of these things in my life, so it is hard to say. I just let go
and let God.” Should Dussault decide to stay involved in racing, Vordenberg said she “is capable of being a very good racer internationally. How good depends on the time she wants to commit to it, not in hours but in years.” At the moment, Dussault is more eager to provide Tabor with a sibling.
“I am getting a list of saints’ names together for what will hopefully be the birth of our second child around Advent,” she said. “God be glorified for these immensely rich years of blessings he has poured on us and those around us.” (Rebecca Dussault will be journaling throughout her Olympic
experience at www.dussaultskis.com.)
Rebecca, Tabor and Sharbel Dussault take a break after arriving for the Winter Olympics in Turin Feb. 2. The Games begin Feb. 10.
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