Her career was iffy, her self-esteem careening, her spirit shot, and her neck banged up. So what the heck was the Sideways star doing hurling herself down a snowy mountain?
After my son was born in 1994, I was exhausted and depleted—a single mother with undiagnosed postpartum depression and a baby who couldn't sleep through the night. I felt lazy and toxic and had no energy for auditions, and anyway, I was old news in Hollywood. Just when I thought it couldn't get worse, I stumbled off a sidewalk and fell so hard that I injured my neck. The doctor prescribed pain medication and plenty of bed rest.
As I lay there feeling my body and spirit weaken, I knew I had to find a way to feel good again. Defying the doctor's orders, I started doing Pilates and yoga, running and weight lifting. "Easy does it" was always my motto. Baby steps.
Then I was invited, out of nowhere, to a celebrity ski event in Utah. "But I can't ski," I told the organizers. "We don't care!" they said. I wasn't feeling terrific, but I thought I might as well spend a few days sipping hot toddies in the alpine lounge.
The organizers had another idea. Cheerily insisting that I take part in the celebrity race, they presented me with two handsome coaches. Next thing I knew, I was facedown in the snow—my puffy gray coat tangled and my giant hat askew—as television actors flew off jumps in the distance and starlets whizzed by in their pink ski bunny getups. When it came time for the race, I tumbled every three feet. After I had taken a dozen (televised) falls, a man came by on a snowmobile. "Can you get up?" he asked. "I don't think so," I said. I turned over in the snow. To the side, I saw all these spectators ringing cowbells and shouting something. I listened harder, through the heavy wind. "Come on, Virginia!" they were screaming. It was my Rocky moment. I gathered myself up, balanced on my skis, and took off. Suddenly, I was speeding down that mountain, full force. I slid through the end gates, and when I stopped, the people at the bottom of the mountain lifted me up. "You did it!" they cheered. All I could do was alternately laugh and cry.
For the next few days, I waited in the morning for the lifts to open and left at night only after they closed. I learned to aim my body, to work with gravity. Standing at the top of a black diamond run, I looked at my instructor. He smiled: "You learn how to ski this, Madsen, and you can walk into any audition without fear."
When I got home, I hung my racing jersey on the wall at the bottom of the stairs. I wanted to see every day what I'd done. If I could hurl myself down a mountain, I figured, then I could certainly hurl myself back into my life.
From the January 2006 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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