Aspen’s Wickes eyeing equestrian glory
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Whitney Wickes used to soar over slopestyle jumps on skis. Now, she negotiates different jumps on a horse.
The former Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club standout and 2008 Junior Olympics silver medalist has taken her talents to a different sport: horseback riding. Wickes, 22, rides for the University of Colorado and won two events at April 7 and 8’s zone competition at Stanford University in California.
The Aspen native will compete against the nation’s top equestrians in Raleigh, NC., on May 1-5.
Her journey to horseback riding has been far from smooth.
Wickes began training in Breckenridge in December 2009 with hopes of securing a spot in the 2010 Winter X Games. During one training run, she fell hard on her right knee but didn’t initially realize the scope of her injury. Breckenridge ski patrol deemed her accident not serious, and Wickes decided to rest it instead of consult a doctor right away.
It wasn’t until she returned home in January that she noticed her knee wasn’t getting better. She finally visited her doctor and learned the bad news.
“My doctor didn’t even have to take an MRI,” Wickes said Wednesday. “He looked at it, and he told me I had torn my (ACL).”
Wickes had to undergo her third reconstructive knee surgery in four years. In 2006, she tore both the ACL and the meniscus in her left knee, and in 2008, she tore the same left meniscus again.
After her January surgery, Wickes thought she was going to be fine and would push through yet another setback. It wasn’t until one day, when she was going through physical therapy, that her therapist delivered an eye-opener.
“She asked me if I realized that I had spent 10 percent of my life recovering from knee surgery,” Wickes said.
Seemingly in the prime of her freeskiing career, the then 20-year-old began to weigh the pros and cons of continuing in the sport she loved. Her mother, Barbara Wickes, along with her father and brother didn’t want to see Whitney endure another serious injury.
“It’s a dangerous sport,” Barabara Wickes said. “After her third surgery, we were hoping she would call it quits. We knew she was talented, but we feared her next injury could be something worse.”
After about a year of trying to decide what to do, Whitney let her dream go.
It didn’t take her long to rediscover a lost love, however.
Wickes began horseback riding when she was 5 years old and continued into her early teens. When she was 16, her parents and skiing coaches told her to pick one or the other.
“I was getting into the prime of my skiing career, and I was traveling a lot and I had a lot of friends,” Wickes said. “I was blinded by all of that, and I chose skiing over horseback riding.”
The next fall, after her surgery, she joined the CU equestrian team. Wickes said it was hard to go back to something she used to be so good at, but she ended up experiencing instant success. She helped the team take second place in its zone competition and then competed at nationals.
While skiing and riding are seemingly very different sports, Wickes said being resilient is a common denominator.
“Skiing doesn’t always go your way,” she said. “That’s pretty similar to horses. The horse may not be behaving the right way or the judges are being tough. They’re both very inconsistent sports, and you have to stick with it every day.”
In two seasons with the CU team, Wickes, a senior, is making her mark on the national level. At Stanford, she finished first in both the intermediate competition over fences and on the flat.
“Every sport is so mental,” Wickes said. “It’s all about mental toughness as much as it is physical.
“Everything I do, I always try to do my best. It’s always a mind game with myself. I set a goal that seems outlandish at the time, and try to achieve it.”
The horse back riding, like Whitney’s slopestyle skiing, still makes her mother nervous. She paces back and forth whenever Whintney competes, but understands that her daughter has a lot of passion for anything she does.
“Whitney is very determined,” Barbara said. “When she makes up her mind, she does it.”
In addition to riding at CU, Whitney Wickes also took up a light running regiment after her surgery.
“You’re not really supposed to do that,” she joked, “but I just started going stir crazy. After recovering for so long, you get a different appreciation for mobility.
“Running changed from being annoying to a privilege. The injury shifted what running was in my mind.”
Her only struggles in running were dealing with sore and aching knees at the outset. Five months later, in May, she ran a half marathon.
Wickes was getting over her skiing career just fine.
Last December, she ran a marathon in Las Vegas and competed in last weekend’s Sun Dog’s K-9 Uphill at Buttermilk.
In June, Wickes plans to participate in an Iron Man in Boise, Idaho.
Just another “outlandish” goal for Wickes to tackle.
“I accomplish one thing, and I move on to the next,” Wickes said. “I’m fascinated by what you can achieve if you put your mind to it.”
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ESPN’s Winter X Games is back in Aspen this week for the 20th straight year, although it’ll lack most of the usual flair. Out of precaution to safeguard against further spread of COVID-19, there won’t be any fans, any music and, well, really anything outside of the main competitions.