Comeback kids: U.S. skiers healthy and ready to race
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in 2015 magazine. Vail/Beaver Creek hosts the 2015 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships Feb. 2-15.
VAIL — U.S. Ski Team member Tommy Ford’s season-defining injury didn’t happen on the racecourse. Instead, he was out enjoying some new terrain in France during January 2013, just like any other skier, when he took a huge jump and crashed into some rocks and trees.
The resulting injury — a broken femur — cost him the next two seasons. Doctors put a rod in his leg, and nearly a year later, he had to have another extensive surgery to remove the metal. This past November, he was enjoying his first training days back on snow and was excited to enter a new season as a healthy racer.
Ford is one among many U.S. Ski Team members who are returning from the sidelines after various season-ending injuries. While injuries are common in ski racing, it seems the American team has been plagued with more than its fair share in recent years, the most publicized ones probably being Lindsey Vonn’s knee injuries.
This winter, however, it looks as if those days might be behind the team, as its refreshed and repaired skiers look to make comebacks to the sport.
PART OF SKI RACING
Vonn is returning to racing after blowing out her right knee at the 2013 World Championships, then re-injuring it at Copper Mountain during preseason training.
She certainly seems to be back in 2014-15 — she won her second race of the season, a downhill in Lake Louise, Alberta, and placed second in the super-G the following day. She won again Dec. 20 in the downhill in Val d’Isere, France.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been racing and racing healthy, and I’m a really competitive person, so I really need to get back in the starting gate again,” she said during the preseason.
Other team members returning from injuries include Andrew Weibrecht, who has dealt with multiple surgeries in either the spring or the fall of the past four years. It’s been 18 months since his last surgery, and he said he’s finally entering the beginning of the season strong and healthy.
Also on the men’s side, super-G specialist Tommy Biesemeyer tore his ACL during the first race of the 2013 season and returned to competition this year. Bode Miller, who had been dealing with a bulging disc in his back since a crash last season, missed the beginning of the season to get surgery.
The women’s return-from-injury list is extensive. Anna Marno and Katie Ryan both blew out their ACLs in 2013. Alice McKennis shattered her tibia and tibial plateau while racing in Garmisch, Germany, in March 2013. Abby Ghent also fractured her tibial plateau in May. Leanne Smith was sidelined last season due to a chronic ACL injury that has plagued her since childhood.
Perhaps the most comforting part for the athletes is that almost every single one of their teammates has been through the same thing.
“The risk of injury comes with the sport,” Ryan said.
“The unwritten word is that that’s the risk, and we’re signing up willingly.”
THE MENTAL TOLL
Weibrecht, who returned from his injury last February to win a silver medal at the Sochi Olympics, will tell you that recovering physically is only half the battle. Many athletes will struggle with coming back too early, risking re-injury or long-term damage.
“The first mental hurdle is taking the time and not trying to rush back into things,” Weibrecht said. “Even if you feel pretty good, it’s telling yourself that you’re not ready yet and giving it a couple of weeks. A lot of times I rushed back too quickly and gave myself lingering issues and never healed completely.”
Once back on the snow, Weibrecht calls the mental challenges “an uphill battle.” It’s hard not to think about how other skiers have been out skiing and improving while you’ve been off the snow and even taking steps backward, he said.
To feel comfortable and to race aggressively after an injury can take months.
“It’s such a process to get the comfort back on skis and give it 100 percent at high speeds, not shying away from anything,” Weibrecht said. “That takes a super long time. I didn’t feel that last year until the end of January, going into the Olympics. That’s when I actually felt strong enough to charge a run.”
Vonn talked about the uncertainty of returning to competition after a long absence.
“Having not have raced in so long, I don’t really know what to expect,” she said at the beginning of the season. “I’m not nervous at all — I just don’t really know where I stack up. Every year, ski racing changes, equipment changes, some athletes get better and some get worse. Now all of a sudden there are new girls out there who are faster than they were before.”
At times, the injury doesn’t have to be season-ending to leave a mental scar.
Laurenne Ross crashed on what she called the “fastest part of the fastest course in the world” at the Lake Louise World Cup in December 2011. While she had no serious injuries, she suffered lacerations to her face that left scars still faintly visible today.
“That one got into my head and was one of the most difficult to overcome. I still am not over that — I’m not sure I ever will be,” she said. “There’s something with having facial injuries that you could see every time you looked into the mirror that really brought me down.”
And there’s no trick to breaking through that mental block, she said — it just takes time.
“Not many people can just talk themselves into it,” she said. “Fear is a substantial part of our sport. I think part of mentally maturing is knowing what fear is, and I’m trying to befriend that instead of pushing it away.”