Aspen freeskier Whitney Wickes stands tall |

Aspen freeskier Whitney Wickes stands tall

Jon MaletzThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Aspen freeskier Whitney Wickes holds up her silver belt buckle after finishing second in slopestyle at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association's Freestyle Junior Olympics on March 5-9 in Steamboat Springs. (Courtesy AVSC)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. Whitney Wickes said she feels like she’s finally back. For real.After two years replete with injury and uncertainty, the 18-year-old Aspen freeskier stood tall at last week’s Freestyle Junior Olympics in Steamboat Springs, capturing silver in slopestyle. “It was pretty relieving,” the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club member said Sunday. “I’m trying to focus on my skiing now instead of what’s happened in the past.”That’s easier said than done.

Just two short years ago, the then 16-year-old was one of the sport’s brightest young stars. She won the Siver Young Gun Open, sponsorships flooded in and Wickes distinguished herself against international competition.In an instant, everything came crashing down. In April 2006 in Killington, Vt., Wickes attempted a 360 off an unassuming kicker, but couldn’t clear the landing. Both skis ejected and she went sliding down the landing. She would later learn she tore both the meniscus and ACL in her left knee, abruptly ending her season one week before Wickes was scheduled to compete in the Jon Olsson Invitational in Sweden. Wickes was back on the snow in the fall and prepping for the U.S. Open in early January when adversity struck once more. During training, Wickes overshot a 60-foot table jump in Snowmass’ Pipeline Park by nearly 40 feet. The consequences were substantial; Wickes broke two vertebrae in her back and retore her left meniscus. “It was the first time that jump had been open, and I didn’t have my brother to follow into it. I was super scared of undershooting the jump from when I did it the first time. I just overestimated the speed,” Wickes said. “I broke a corner of my vertebrae, and it could’ve slid to the front or back. Luckily, it slid to the front. If it slid to the back, I would’ve been paralyzed.”While she now considers herself lucky, Wickes said she initially felt only regret over losing another season, a fact that hit home in the six weeks after the injury when she was off skis and wearing a back brace.Surgery wasn’t necessary, and Wickes spent the summer in rehab. Repairing her body was crucial, Wickes said, but it was her confidence that took the most time to heal.

“This year was a little harder than last year to get back on with tricks and everything,” she said. “My sport is so mental, and every time I hit a jump, I would think about what could go wrong. It took a lot of focus and a lot of hard work to be able to get past that. … I’d watch girls try stuff they didn’t even know that they could land. I can’t do that. My margin of error is so much smaller because of my knee.”Wickes was back on her skis in early November at Breckenridge and Keystone – her knee wrapped tightly in an ACE bandage and supported by a cumbersome brace. In early January, she competed for the first time in nearly a year, finishing fourth in two United States Ski and Snowboard Association slopestyle events at Buttermilk.Soon after, she suffered another setback. Wickes under-rotated a switch 180 and bruised her femur. As a result, she was on the sidelines during both the U.S. and Aspen/Snowmass opens.”Every time I get hurt, my dad asks ‘Are you sure you want to keep doing this?'” Wickes said. “I think about it, but the feeling of jumping is so much different than any other sport. Especially when you do it right.”That feeling prompted her to return to Buttermilk for a USSA divisional slopestyle competition in mid-February, despite having had just one week of practice. “It’s funny, I do big competitions, but I felt just as nervous, maybe even a little more,” Wickes said. She played it conservatively, throwing a 360 with a safety grab into a 360 truck driver off the final kicker. It still was good enough to take first. At Feb. 22-24’s North American Open at Breckenridge, Wickes cased a jump and double ejected – a scene eerily reminiscent of Killington. She walked away this time.

After everything she’d endured to that point, the incident momentarily scared Wickes but did little to shake her confidence. It was in Steamboat on March 5-9, in arguably her biggest competition in the last two years, that Wickes’ comeback took a giant step forward. It took just three tricks – a clean transfer on and off the trapezoid box, a 360 tail grab and a 540 safety grab.Success.”I wanted to use this year to stay healthy and build my confidence back up,” said Wickes, who will enroll at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business this fall and take winter semesters off to pursue skiing. “When I was 16, I was competitive with the top girls internationally. That’s what my goal is. “My parents have always been supportive. They know I have dreams beyond skiing, but I want to chase this as long as I can to be back on top.”

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