ENTERPRISING ATHLETES: Team Australia freestyle skier Lydia Lassila

The Australian freestyle skier turned injury into enterprise when she developed the BodyICE range of heat and ice packs. Here, she tells the Olympic Athletes’ Hub how she did it

As an aerial skier, Lydia Lassila is used to taking risks. Her sport sees her perform dizzying twists and flips in mid-air, often up to 20 metres above the icy landing zone, meaning it is definitely not for the faint hearted. This inherent ability to tackle daunting situations head-on has not only benefited Lassila in her sporting career – it also helped her establish a thriving business.

“Being an entrepreneur means being comfortable with taking a risk,” explains Lassila. “Having been an aerial skier and an athlete my whole life, I was already used to that. And as an individual athlete, the responsibility is always on you to perform well. No one else can help you do that. You have to back yourself. You have to have that confidence. You might be scared, but you just do it anyway. I think that’s a really important trait to have in business as well.”

Lassila’s obvious comfort with risk was richly rewarded at the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010, when the Australian landed an audacious triple-twisting triple somersault to win the aerials gold medal. But four years earlier, it had been a completely different story.

Just eight months before the Olympic Winter Games Torino 2006, Lassila ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in a training accident and had to undergo radical reconstructive surgery. The procedure, which saw a cadaver’s Achilles tendon grafted into her knee to replace her damaged ACL, allowed Lassila to return to action in time for Torino. But disaster struck again at the Games as she landed awkwardly on her second jump, tearing the injured knee apart once again.

Aged just 24 at the time, the injury was a bitter pill to swallow for Lassila, but it also proved to be the catalyst for a new endeavour in her life, inspiring her to create a new product to help other people with similar injuries.

“I was sitting in the cafeteria in the Olympic Village in Torino, just after the accident, and I was feeling pretty miserable,” she recalls. “I had this plastic bag of ice balancing on my knee and my leg up on some chairs. The bag was leaking and slipping all over the place, and out of frustration I just picked it up and threw it on the ground. I said, ‘Someone should make a decent ice pack that stays cold and doesn’t fall off my knee!’

“Pretty much at the same time, a light bulb went off in my head and I just started thinking about this idea of trying to make some joint specific ice packs that could help people recover from their injuries. It’s something that I wanted for my own injury, and realised there was just a gap in the market.”

Lassila was soon drawing sketches of product designs on the plane trip home and thinking about how she could turn her ideas into reality. By the time she had surgery on her injured knee, she had already created some rough prototypes and while she was still hobbling around on crutches she travelled to China to find some manufacturers.

Eventually, BodyICE was born, offering a range of products that combine a traditional ice pack with joint-specific neoprene straps to hold it in place. In addition to ice, the packs can also be filled with hot water to be used for heat therapy.

“I just for straight into it using the savings that I had from skiing,” explains Lassila. “My first client was actually my knee surgeon. I walked into his office with a prototype strapped to my knee and when I explained what it was he ordered 500. So I was in business pretty much from Day 1.”

Lassila returned to competition in August 2007 after 18 months out with her injury, but was determined to make BodyICE a success and began taking online courses in sales, marketing, shipping and logistics in order to help the business grow. Sales continued to increase steadily, with interest from orthopaedic surgeons and hospitals, as well as sports teams and athletes, and Lassila soon found that she was earning enough from the business to help finance her sporting career, while also setting herself up for a new endeavour when she finally decided to hang up her skis.

“I had this nice new stream of income, which then allowed me to do the extra things as an athlete, such as hire my own sports psychologist, which I thought I needed to be a better athlete,” she says. “It also removed any financial stress that I may have had and gave me security in the background, knowing that when I did retire, I was going to be fine; I could go straight into a new life with something already established.”

Lassila’s increased investment in her sporting career paid off in 2010, when she won Olympic gold in Vancouver. But despite enjoying an increased public profile, particularly in Australia, Lassila admits that she was slow to use her status as an Olympic champion to help boost BodyICE’s sales – something she believes all athletes should look to do in business.

“I’ve probably been quite bad at connecting my profile or my sporting accolades with the business; I’m not much of a self-promoter,” she says. “My advice to other athletes wanting to start their own business is to use that card. You’ve achieved so much and made it to an Olympic Games, you might even have an Olympic medal, and you’ve reached the pinnacle in your sport. I think that carries a lot of weight in business and with the people that you meet. It shows that you have worked hard and you have achieved something special.”

Since winning aerials bronze at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, Lassila has taken a break from competition and has been able to devote more time to BodyICE, which has resulted in greater sales, although – like an athlete assessing their performance – she admits that there are still areas that can be improved.

“Each year our sales keep increasing, especially in the last two years since Sochi,” she says. “I could really spend more time on my business, so obviously it’s going to take a real spike and grow. That’s what’s happened in the last couple of years.

“Operations still aren’t perfect and I still want to improve and learn, which is how I approach the jumping side of things and being an athlete. You don’t just want to do what you did last year or two jumps ago; you’re always trying to find ways to tinker and improve. That’s how I approach my business as well.”

Lassila is currently focusing her attentions on the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 – having returned to competition in January this year – but knows that her life could have been very different if not for that “light bulb moment” she had in Torino 10 years ago, when she refused to let her injury get her down and instead turned it into an opportunity.

“When something like that [injury] happens, it can go either way; you can sit on the couch and feel sorry for yourself or you can find ways to get on with it and distract yourself,” she says. “BodyICE was the best distraction for me. When I look back on my career, it was the best thing that could have happened to me.”

Want to know more about becoming an entrepreneur like Lydia? Check out the IOC Athlete Career Programme resources on Education, Life Skills and Employment at https://www.olympic.org/athlete-career-programme