Embracing Challenge and Living Life to the Fullest
He probably shouldn’t have been out there. The snow on the 90-meter ski jump at Lake Placid was getting soft, and everyone else had already called it quits and gone home. But it had been a disappointing season on the US development team for 19-year-old Jim Holland, and he wanted to ingrain a few improvements before the end of the year. Approaching the takeoff at 55 miles an hour, Jim’s skis stuck on a wet ice patch and he lunged forward abruptly, his momentum carrying him over the front of the skis That’s about all he remembers. When he finally skidded to a stop at the bottom of the hill he had four broken vertebrae, two cracked ribs, a broken wrist, a bruised lung, a bruised spleen and, facial contusions.
While for many that that day would have marked the end of their athletic career, Jim’s best ski jumping results were yet to come. He went on to win six national championships and competed in two Olympics, finishing 12th in Albertville, France and reaching the podium on the World Cup, a rarity for Americans in this European-dominated sport.
“Ironically, I think that the painful grind that I faced in rebounding from that accident made me stronger and in a way helped to shape who I am today,” he says. “Having to fight back from that shifted my perspective, made me more tenacious, more persistent.”
Jim’s had a lifelong passion for the outdoors and for living life to its fullest. “I’ve been incredibly fortunate,” he says. “I suppose I’ve always sought out adventure … I love not knowing what’s around the corner.”
From mountaineering to kite surfing to biking to backcountry skiing to adventure travel, Jim hits it hard. He’s embraced difficult moments in the outdoors, knowing that the most challenging times are often the ones that allow the peak experiences to happen. He partially attributes this willingness to dive headfirst into new or difficult circumstances to his ski jumping days.
“When I retired as a competitive athlete at the age of 26 I had learned some valuable lessons. Standing at the top of different ski jumps around the world for the first time you have to confront your fear, conjure up some composure and courage and commit, trusting in yourself. There are also many great lessons that come from aspiring to be the best you can be at a sport—any sport. You learn focus, follow-through, tenacity, grit.”
But Jim’s perspective on the outdoors has changed slightly in recent years. He’s realized that experiences in the outdoors don’t have to be difficult to be rewarding.
“Adventures don’t need to involve suffering. While I have had many epics that were rewarding in part because they were so difficult and because we toughed it out and pushed through the blizzard, the thunderstorm, the bushwhack, the endless slog, I’ve also had many fantastic adventures with good buddies on warm sunny days with smooth sailing … like the float trip down the Dirty Devil River in southern Utah, where it was just a leisurely paddle through an unbelievably beautiful and remote desert canyon, good conversation around the campfire, a margarita, and a gourmet meal.”
Whether on a casual river trip or a trying climb, Jim believes that it’s good people that can elevate an outdoor experience. “I can remember so many scenarios where we were in a really trying situation,” he says, “but we never lost our sense of humor and were somehow able to maintain some degree of levity. Instead of crying we’re laughing—about the absurdity of the bushwhacking with the sticks slapping at your face and endless pucker-brush and punji sticks and such. It’s great people with great attitudes that make an adventure truly rewarding.”
So many outdoor experiences stand out in Jim’s mind that he has a hard time choosing a favorite. “Some of the most memorable moments that stand out for me are breathtakingly beautiful ones,” he says, “like waking up on the summit of the Pfeifferhorn as a beam of sun pierces through a cloud on the horizon and lights up the peak and I’m thinking, ‘Holy crap. Look where I am.’ And I’ve had many of those moments.”
Entrepreneurship and ski jumping have a lot in common in Jim’s mind. Both are about assessing and managing risk. “Entrepreneurs tend to be more comfortable with risk,” he says, “and it may not be surprising that I’ve gained some comfort level with risk, but not risk for the sake of risk itself; I prefer calculated risk.” To Jim, entrepreneurship is “… gambling, ideally with the odds in your favor. And if you repeatedly gamble this way, ultimately you should win if you’re making the right decisions.”
This notion was in the back of Jim’s mind after he graduated from the University of Vermont and headed west. He packed a mountain of gear on his car—bike, windsurfers, skis—and headed to Park City, Utah, where he’d spent time training before the Lillehammer Olympics. He loved all Park City had to offer and he had friends already here, including John Bresee, with whom Jim would go on to start Backcountry.
This was in the mid ‘90s during the infancy of the internet, and Jim was drawn to the burgeoning opportunities created by so many people networking together. He and John cut their teeth building websites for realtors and other small businesses, forcing them into a crash course along the way.
“We really didn’t have a clue what we were doing,” he says of this time, “but fortunately we knew just a little bit more about websites than some of these people we were pitching, and so it was at the point where you could bullshit through it. Then we would go home to our apartment, scramble, look at other site code and piece it together.”
In the midst of scraping a living together by building these sites, painting houses, and coaching ski jumping, Jim, together with John, built the first Backcountry website.
“John and I wanted to want to go to work in the morning,” he says. “We wanted to do something that we were passionate about and that’s what Backcountry became or … I should say, that’s what became Backcountry. It was the perfect marriage of a few things that got me really excited: gear, outdoor adventure, computers and technology, and another element that really seems to wrap it all up—I’ve always been excited by the challenge of making a business work. It’s fun for me.”
Their first products were the things that helped people get out and experience the outdoors enjoyably and safely: avalanche beacons, a tiny niche market. So niche, in fact, that they didn’t buy any inventory until their first order came a couple of months after the launch of the website.
But Backcountry grew from there, and through years of ups and downs and growing pains and successes, Jim loved the excitement of going to work every day.
He likens achievement in business to achievement in adventure–you don’t get rewarded without taking calculated risks. “It’s human nature to continuously build an environment where you don’t need to leave your comfort zone,” he says, “where you can just do what’s easy, and you don’t get cold, you don’t get wet, and you don’t have to exert yourself. You don’t have to do anything that scares you. And I think that in the same way that adventure is positive, risk and innovation and experimentation is also positive.”
Finding a Cure
Recently, when Jim was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease, he approached it like he’d approached all of the challenges in his life.
“It’s been an adventure in a way in itself,” he says. “Parkinson’s totally sucks–don’t get me wrong–but at the same time, as a result of this problem, and engaging on this problem, and in a way making myself the CEO of this problem, I’ve connected with some of the most fascinating people on the planet and learned about some of the most cutting-edge science that is just remarkable. I’m inspired by the impact that some of these advances that I’m seeing (and helping to move forward) stand to potentially have on the world. It’s a meaningful mission, and I’m doing everything to help us succeed.”
He likens fighting Parkinson’s to climbing a mountain, something he has done plenty of times.
“Am I possibly going to get up that?” he says, the question every mountain climber has asked him or herself at the crux. “…you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and before you know it you’re somewhere. Before you know it you’ve climbed the damn mountain, so that kind of experience is something that I’ve definitely applied and continue to apply to my health realities at the moment. Keep going around obstacles, keep moving forward and upward.”
Of course, the mountain analogy doesn’t apply perfectly to Parkinson’s. “It’s a completely different kind of challenge,” he says. “I see Parkinson’s as a gigantic whiteboard, and all sorts of curious clues continue to trickle in. For example, people who smoke cigarettes and drink a lot of coffee have a lower incidence of Parkinson’s. What a weird clue, and there are thousands of weird clues like that that just trickle in and are part of this puzzle of the pathology of Parkinson’s.”
The science behind his disease clearly fascinates Jim. Ironically he became interested in the brain and in neuroscience before he was diagnosed. He firmly believes there’s a cure for Parkinson’s out there, waiting to be found.
“I might have been a scientist in another life,” he says, “I think scientists are rock stars. But I’m not a scientist. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m an athlete. I would like to be part of the cure for Parkinson’s, and I’m working to enable the smartest scientists on the planet to solve this puzzle, and I believe it can be solved. And that’s analytical, logical thinking. That’s not a pipe dream.”
Becoming an Olympian, building a small online business out of a garage into the world’s leading outdoor online retailer, finding a cure for Parkinson’s: Jim is certainly up for a challenge.
“Challenges are what keep you going, aren’t they?” he says. “I love to have something that I’m striving for, which is not to say that I’m not content in the moment. I think I do generally appreciate where I am, what I have, but I also love to have goals. I get a great deal of satisfaction out of setting goals, making a plan, the process of working toward them and then achieving them, and then setting another one. I think I will always do that.”