I like to think my mom was like me, but I don’t know who she was or what she loved. Or what made her laugh. I want to know her because I want to know myself better. —Faye Gulini
Editor's note: Deseret News reporter Amy Donaldson is in Pyeongchang, South Korea, covering the 2018 Winter Games. This is the 11th in a series of articles profiling Utahns competing in the Olympics.
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Faye Gulini didn’t have the luxury of easing into life.
“As a young child, you’re just floating through life and you kind of gradually mature,” said the Cottonwood Heights snowboarder who will compete in her third Olympics this week. “My experience was like, overnight I knew how painful life could be, and it scared me a lot.”
Gulini isn’t sure if she fell asleep or if her 5-year-old mind just wandered into some little girl fantasy.
“My first memory is that we were rolling,” she said of the single-car accident that claimed her mother’s life when she was five. “My dad and my brothers were in Flaming Gorge, floating the Green River. My older sister had a soccer game so we stayed home, and we were driving to meet up with my dad and brothers. I don’t know if she fell asleep or what, but it just looked like a tornado in front of me. I couldn’t tell what was going on. Things were breaking, and flying around and then we stopped. I believe we were upside down. I unbuckled my seatbelt and climbed out of my window.”
Little Faye walked around the mangled car to driver’s window.
“I started shaking her,” Faye said. “I wasn’t worried about death because I don’t think I understood what death was.”
She’s not sure how long she tried to rouse her mom, but eventually, she looked around and decided to go to the road for help.
She sat on the side of the road, cross-legged and bloody.
“I didn’t even know I was injured at that point,” Gulini said. “A semi-truck driver pulled up in front of me. He stopped, but he never got out of the car. He was on his phone, and we just stared at each other.”
Two decades later, she knows how bizarre it must have been to see a tiny, bloody child on the side of the road. She didn’t seek his help, and he didn’t offer her any comfort. She assumes he called for help because, eventually, help arrived.
“It felt like hours later, but it was probably only another half hour, and an ambulance showed up,” she recalled. “They took me in one ambulance, and my mom in another ambulance.” They went to the same hospital, but she said her memory is kind of distorted by childhood and trauma.
“I remember crazy details about it,” she said. “Just random stuff, like, you know the neck brace they put on patients as a protocol? I hated that neck brace. I was fighting with them. I ended up getting stitches in both arms, and when they were done, it seemed like a whole day had gone by.”
While doctors tended to Gulini, police officers were searching for her father and brothers on the Green River.
“They ended up pulling my brothers and dad off the Green River,” she said. “They said, ‘Are you David Gulini? Your wife passed, and your youngest daughter is in the hospital.’ It felt like it was a day later, but they said probably wasn’t, probably just several hours after the actual crash.”
Tired of medical care, Faye began asking for her mom.
“Where is my mom? I want to see my mom,” she recalled asking a nurse. “And she said, ‘Your mom is dead.’ I was hysterical. I don’t know if I understood it.”
The ride from the hospital to her Salt Lake home was “the most emotional five hours.”
She, her brothers and father wept a lifetime of tears as they made their way home to where her sister waited with extended family and friends. “It was the most hysterical car ride of my whole life,” she said. “I don’t think one person stopped crying for three hours.”
They had to walk to their house because cars lined the street where they lived.
“Every person we knew was there,” she said. “Every family friend, everyone my mom knew.” It was in the days after arriving home that Faye felt changed.
“What I noticed most was that it made me grow up really fast,” she said. “I was not necessarily this mature kid. I was just so sensitive to everything. I definitely always felt alone, very insecure, very high anxiety at the time. Most nights I couldn’t fall asleep, worried that my dad was going to die. And then, how would I feed myself? Wondering how I would get a job at five or six years old?”
It was as if someone flipped a switch inside her.
That naïve bliss that defines childhood disappeared.
“It was a big change of pace for me,” she said. “My mom was a stay at home mom. My dad worked 60 hours a week. I’d see my dad when he came home at night and tucked me in. Now he’s raising me, and he doesn’t respond when I cry, and he doesn’t put up with my B.S. My mom made every meal did everything for me, our house was always littered with kids. She was the best mommy mom. And now I had this dad who was (about) real tough love and learn the hard way and he didn’t put up with my crap.”
The shift in her circumstance was so complete, so massive, that it took most of her life for her to make peace with it. It took time for her to understand the sacrifices her father made to care for her and her siblings, and the lengths he would go to in ensuring Faye could become an elite athlete pursuing Olympic Gold in far away countries.
Gulini’s parents taught her to ski when she was a toddler. But she begged her father for a snowboard until he finally obliged for her eighth birthday.
The 25-year-old joined Snowbird’s Snowboard team and got very excited about regional competitions. She also played soccer and enjoyed rock climbing but she never saw a future in the sport.
“Even before snowboarding, I wanted to go to the Olympics,” she said. “But it was the same as wanting to be a firefighter. It was a kid’s dream. ... I wanted to be an Olympian.” Her father decided to send her to a Winter Sports School in Vail, Colorado when she was a freshman.
“I was getting in a lot of trouble at school, failing classes, sneaking out, getting suspended,” Gulini said, noting that her father didn’t tell her what he was doing until they were driving to Colorado. “I think my dad was just panicking. He wanted to get me out of the environment I was in. I obviously fought back because I was a punk. I was just the biggest brat in the world.” But it didn’t take long for her to fall in love with a school that allowed her to focus on snowboarding.
“It was a huge transition, but it was absolutely the best thing for me,” she said. “More important than anything, it grows you as a person when you have to move, create new friendships and learn to fall in love with other things.”
It allowed her to focus on snowboard cross, which is a snowboard version of motocross racing, in a way she hadn’t. She ended up making the 2010 Olympic team at 17, finishing 12th.
In 2014 at the Sochi Olympics she finished fourth and said she’s riding more “comfortable and confident” that she ever has. She earned her first World Cup podium as evidence of her maturity as a racer.
Her goals in Pyeongchang are shaped by her life on and off the snow. She wasn’t heartbroken over her fourth-place finish, but it motivates her.
“I’m just working my way up,” she said. “My biggest fear, which is weird, is being on the Olympic stage again. I grow less and less attracted to being on this massive stage. I’m not sure, but it’s a lot of pressure, a lot of eyes. The racing part is the easiest. The press conferences, interviews, it’s just a lot of eyes on us and we’re not used to it.”
Sometimes Faye wonders who Patricia Gulini was because she wants to know herself.
“I like to think my mom was like me, but I don’t know who she was or what she loved,” Gulini said. “Or what made her laugh. I want to know her because I want to know myself better.”
Gulini doesn’t necessarily feel cheated because her father stepped up in such huge, loving ways. In fact, her unique childhood shaped her in ways she needed.
“I am almost thankful now,” she said. “I learned to be independent, and I don’t know strong. I see my friends going through a lot of issues as adults, trying to find who they are, having anxiety and depression, just going through a rollercoaster. It took more time, but I feel like I’ve had to be my own rock for so long, that I don’t feel like I can’t handle this. I was fortunate to get that phase over with early.”
She does wish she could comfort her younger self through those anxiety-ridden nights.
“I don’t think I realized how confused and scared and alone I was,” she said. “Looking back, for example, I started my period, and was just figuring out what I needed to do. My dad was great, he really was. But I never got to talk to anyone about boys or have that mother advice that all my friends had. I had to kind of figure it out on my own.”
“I wish someone had said to me, ‘You’re better than that,'” she said. “’You’re worth more than that. Don’t make yourself small, because you’re not.”