Aspen skier Galena Wardle overcomes injuries, persists as U.S. ski team member
For more than two years Galena Wardle had to stare at the letters “DNF” on her official International Ski Federation page, the result of the last time she competed. To add insult to literal injury, that “did not finish” came at Aspen Highlands on basically her home course.
“That last race on my FIS profile has been haunting me a little bit,” Wardle said. “The last two months have been really good. It’s definitely been a progression of just trusting my knee and my body and trusting myself. It’s definitely frustrating at times, but I think when I look back from a month ago, I’ve come a long way.”
Wardle, 21, is an Aspen native and fifth-year member of the U.S. ski team. However, few probably know this anymore as she’s missed the past two race seasons recovering from a pair of 2017 knee injuries that have somewhat derailed her promising young career as a ski racer.
Now in her fourth season on the C team, Wardle competed in a Nor-Am Cup race on Dec. 17 in Canada, her first official FIS race since that fateful DNF in a giant slalom at Highlands on April 8, 2017, the day she tore her right anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) to bring an early end to her season.
“I feel good,” Wardle said while visiting home for the holidays. “Every time I step into the start gate I’m still figuring it out. I haven’t quite found it yet — the confidence — but it’s definitely coming.”
That first ACL was only the beginning of a long two years for Wardle. She spent the summer of 2017 recovering and only six days back on snow while training at Copper Mountain she had a small crash and re-tore that same ACL in her right knee, ending her season. She was more or less healed again by spring 2018, but lingering issues — she’s had a total of four knee surgeries — led to her pulling the plug on her 2018-19 race season as well.
“It was pretty brutal,” Wardle said. “I’ve missed two race seasons, but I’ve had skiing in between, just not been able to show it.”
Wardle, who grew up with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club, was 17 when she was first named to the U.S. ski team for the 2015-16 season. Among her breakthrough moments was winning the Alpine combined national championship that spring at the U.S. Alpine Ski Championships in Sun Valley, Idaho.
A developmental team member her rookie season, she moved up to the C team for the next winter, which included a third straight trip to the Junior World Ski Championships.
Unfortunately, thanks in large part to a pair of ACL injuries, Wardle’s career has seemingly plateaued. But getting back in the starting gate last month in Canada was a big step forward.
“I was so happy to find that I didn’t feel anything,” Wardle said of her most recent return to snow experience. “I had power, which was the biggest thing. I just felt that snappiness in my skis and that was the biggest thing for me. If I couldn’t ski — just ski — that would have broken my heart.”
Wardle finished 10th in that Dec. 17 Nor-Am Cup GS, her first FIS race in 32 months. She finished 17th in a slalom two days later, and 28th in a second slalom on Dec. 20.
This past weekend, she competed in three Nor-Am Cup races in Burke Mountain, Vermont, recording a pair of DNFs in two GSs before taking 32nd in Saturday’s slalom.
It’s all part of putting the injuries behind her, although Wardle claims fear of more injury is far from the front of her mind. Mostly, her fears are about struggling to find speed on the course.
“We are just trying to make it through this season successfully,” she said. “I’ve had to have some perspective a little bit. But it’s helped me grow, too. It’s given me some experience in other things and taught me how to recover, take care of my body, take care of myself, know what I want to do.”
Wardle plans to spend the rest of the season competing in various Nor-Ams and college races, mostly here in Colorado, including Aspen. Ideally, she’d also make a return to competition at Highlands when it hosts the U.S. Alpine Tech Championships in March.
After that, Wardle still dreams big. She continues to aim for her first World Cup start and doesn’t think making a run at the 2022 Winter Olympics is all that farfetched. The injuries may have shaken her confidence somewhat, something she plans to get back, but it hasn’t taken away her love of skiing.
“I just hope to keep building every race,” Wardle said. “Hopefully by the end of the season I’ll feel normal again. Feel natural. But what was really cool to see was when I raced last week, instantly after my first run I remembered that this was really fun and I really enjoyed that. It’s different from just training to actually racing. You forget that.”
Fully aware he was in the midst of the mountain bike race of his life, Aspen’s John Gaston said he “tried to not think too far ahead” to prevent the magnitude of the moment from getting to him. He eventually finished runner-up in the iconic race.
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