Back on the slopes
New Castle's Alice McKennis returns to skiing quicker than expected after broken leg
After an eight-month uphill battle of pain, surgery, rehab and worry, New Castle native Alice McKennis is heading downhill again.
And that’s good.
A wicked, high-speed crash in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, ripped up the downhill skier’s right leg on March 2. The good news was there was no ligament damage.
But really there was little good news about the injury. She fractured the tibia plateau in her right shinbone and shredded massive amounts of cartilage in her knee. Her tibia was shattered into 30 pieces.
“Yeah, it was bad, but at least there wasn’t any ligament damage,” McKennis said.
Being positive in the face of this kind of adversity wasn’t difficult for the 24-year-old 2010 Olympic Games veteran. She knew she’d return to the ski slopes, but she knew it wouldn’t be easy.
Doctors first estimated she wouldn’t be back on skis until January. That timetable ruled out any chance at the 2014 Olympics. The injury was bad. Doctors used a metal plate and 11 screws to piece the bone back together.
Speaking on the phone after a recent day on the slopes at Loveland Ski Area, McKennis perked up when she talked about returning earlier than expected. Her first day back on the slopes was Oct. 23.
“The fracture healed really well, and I feel great,” she said.
The even better news is she hasn’t had any pain or swelling from her ski training to this point.
“It could be a little soon for me, but I felt really good but nervous on the first day back,” she said.
A bone fracture might be slightly better than ligament damage, but the recovery time is longer.
“It usually takes longer because the first three months you can’t do anything,” she said.
Three months on crutches was agonizing. She started her rehab right after surgery, but the real work came after the bone was ready for the pounding.
In a rather bizarre coincidence, McKennis suffered a similar fracture to her left tibia in January 2011.
“That was super weird. My doctors were very confused,” she said with a laugh.
Focus on the Olympics
McKennis said hard work is just part of the sport and so are injuries. But one goal was the main source of her motivation, and it made her work even harder: the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
“I definitely thought about it quite a bit. It’s on my mind every day,” she said.
The Olympics are the ultimate goal for any ski racer, and that Olympic spotlight is bigger and hotter than anything else.
“There’s maybe 500 to 1,000 people at a World Cup race, and in the Olympics there’s 20,000 people and the whole world is watching,” she said. “And it only happens every four years.”
That’s what motivated her most of all. She doesn’t want to wait another four years for another shot. Obviously, there’s no guarantee she will make the 2014 Olympic U.S. Ski Team, but that’s her goal.
At 20 years old, she got a taste of the Olympics in 2010.
“I learned a lot from Vancouver, and I’d like to improve on that experience,” she said.
A bump knocked her off balance and she skied off the course in her downhill run in Vancouver, but she still soaked in the experience, which is what she considers the key to future success.
To make the 2014 Olympic team she needs to do well and impress, and do it quickly. But there resides the dilemma with returning from injury.
There are seven races before Sochi, but McKennis knows she can’t rush her comeback.
“I’ve still got six to eight years (of racing), so I’m not going to push it too far,” she said. “If I’m ready, I’ll race, if not, I’ll wait.
“It’s harder being an Olympic year. It puts a lot more pressure to perform and do well.”
McKennis joined the U.S. Ski Team for its three-week training camp in Copper Mountain on Thursday.
The first downhill race of the season is in Beaver Creek over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
That race might be too early unless she feels right in training. Currently, she’s targeting Lake Louise, Canada, during the first week of December for her first race back.
The mental game
After spending the summer rehabbing six days a week in the gym at a U.S. Ski Team facility in Park City, Utah, McKennis wants to be cautious about her return. She knows she must be 100 percent ready physically.
But the largest bump will come from the mental side.
As a downhill racer who hits speeds of 75 to 80 mph, any chink in her confidence is dangerous.
“I just want to have my skiing in the right place and be confident again,” she said. “It’s the number one thing. You have to be able to push yourself. You have to have the trust to go fast again.”
Last January, McKennis solidified her place as one of the world’s top downhill contenders when she won her first World Cup race in St. Anton, Austria.
It was the ultimate high to ultimate low for McKennis. Just 50 days after the thrilling win in Austria came the crash and injury in Germany.
As a youngster who started skiing at Sunlight Ski Area, the little slope outside Glenwood Springs, when she was 2 years old, McKennis wants to taste success again. She wants to be an Olympian again.
She’s focused on making the Olympic team, but she’s also realistic about her chances.
“It’s going to be hard for me (to make the team), but I definitely have a shot,” she said.
The face of the U.S. Ski Team, Lindsey Vonn also is recovering from an injury (knee surgery). McKennis said she’s talked to her teammate, and things are looking good for Vonn.
“It’s an individual sport, but our World Cup ski team is very close, and I think that’s why we’ve been so successful in the past,” McKennis said.
It’s been eight months since she hit a bump and went flying out of control on that German mountain. It’s been eight months of painful rehab, and now she’s back on the slopes with six or seven races to prove she’s healthy enough and fast enough to be an Olympian for the second time.
In just 96 days, the world’s eyes will be on Sochi, Russia and the 2014 Winter Olympics.
And the downhill racer who was raised on a ranch outside little old New Castle hopes to return to the biggest stage in ski racing.