Unbroken and undeterred: World Cup skier Alice McKennis battles back from injury | AspenTimes.com

Unbroken and undeterred: World Cup skier Alice McKennis battles back from injury

Edward Stoner
Vail Daily

EAGLEVAIL — Alice McKennis could feel her leg twisting, twisting, twisting as she fell toward the snow.

“Oh man, I’m going to blow my knee out right now,” she thought. “Because I could feel the torque coming through my leg.”

She had spent the entire season hurtling toward 70 mph. She was fifth in the Olympics. She was on the World Cup podium.

Now she was barely moving in comparison, giving back to the future of her sport in an off-season ski-racing camp in Mammoth, and she was suffering a major injury.

She had been slipping a course and hit a patch of snow awkwardly.

She flipped and landed on her back.

“My feet were in the air and I could see immediately — oh, my foot is pointed at the wrong direction,” she said. “Instead of here, it was over here, 90 degrees the wrong way.”

A landmark season

At that point, in May 2018, Alice McKennis was still getting better at ski racing. At age 28, she had had one of the best seasons of her career.

At the downhill in Pyeongchang, South Korea, amid the media hoopla of what would be Lindsey Vonn’s final Olympic medal, McKennis quietly notched a big result — fifth place.

She finished just 0.55 seconds from an Olympic medal. She’d never before even completed an Olympic race.

“That was an incredible feeling, to have a performance like that in the Olympic downhill and to ski how I wanted to ski,” said McKennis, who lives in Minturn.

Three weeks later, she took another huge step. She finished third in the World Cup Finals downhill in Are, Sweden, sharing the podium in Vonn’s final victory.

It was McKennis’ first World Cup top-three in five years.

And McKennis, long a downhill specialist, began to excel that season in the super-G, which has more turns and requires a bit more finesse.

She had struggled with injuries for years — suffering a left tibial plateau fracture in 2011, then shattering her right tibial plateau in 2013.

In 2013-14, she sat out most of the Olympic season because of injury.

Following those injuries, she had put in enormous effort into rehab — multiple surgeries, early mornings, countless physical therapy sessions, long hours at the gym.

“It was so gratifying for me to see her succeed because it’s just so much hard work,” said her husband, Pat Duran, a current Ski & Snowboard Club Vail coach, a former University of Colorado ski-racing standout and a former World Cup skicross racer. “You don’t know if it’s going to work. You’re betting that it does for years of rehab. Then to get results like that.”

A crash

But sometimes the path to success is not a straight line.

Just two months after reaching the top stratosphere of the sport, she came crashing down while coaching youth skiers at the American Downhiller camp at Mammoth Mountain, California.

She had suffered a transverse fracture of both her tibia and fibula — the two long bones in the lower leg.

“It was a total freak accident,” she said.

However, she had seen worse. In 2013, her tibial plateau had shattered into 30 pieces; she needed 11 screws and a metal plate to rebuild it.

After the May 2018 injury, a press release from the U.S. Ski Team said she’d be back on snow that fall, with McKennis quoted as saying, “This injury is the least complex of all my previous injuries.”

She ended up missing the entire 2018-19 season.

’Reason with the risk’

Ski racing is a dangerous sport, and injuries are a big part of it.

Just look at McKennis’ teammates on the women’s speed team. Every women’s A-Team member other than Mikaela Shiffrin is coming back from a significant injury.

In February 2018, Jackie Wiles, a 27-year-old speed specialist from Portland, Oregon, crashed in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen downhill, tearing her ACL, LCL, meniscus, and fracturing her tibia and fibula.

This March, Laurenne Ross, 30, a speed specialist from Bend, Oregon, crashed during training for the World Championships in Are, tearing her LCL and meniscus. She had reconstructive surgery on her knee in March.

Breezy Johnson, 23, of Victor, Idaho, also a speed specialist, tore her PCL and MCL on June 13 after catching an edge during giant slalom training at Mammoth.

And Lindsey Vonn, the all-time winner on the women’s World Cup, who was constantly plagued with injuries for the last few years, finally retired this year, saying her body just couldn’t take it anymore.

Why keep doing it?

“You accept that the injuries are part of it and that something will probably inevitably happen,” McKennis said. “It doesn’t make a ton of sense as to why continue doing it — if you know the rest of your life you’re compromising your body in some way. I think at the end of the day, we all love the sport so much and are so passionate about it that you find a way to reason with the risk, I suppose, and accept it for what it is.”

Just not healing

McKennis underwent surgery in Mammoth in May, which entailed getting two titanium rods — one for the tibia and one for the fibula. Doctors were still suggesting that she’d be skiing at some point that winter.

At six weeks, her physician, Dr. William Sterett, of Vail Summit Orthopaedics and the U.S. Ski Team, saw essentially no bone healing in X-rays. She underwent another surgery in July, this time to remove a screw that was potentially slowing the healing.

Six weeks later, there was still little healing. She began to develop a searing pain on the inside of her ankle when she walked. Medical imagery revealed that scarring around the fracture was the source of the pain.

It got to the point where she could barely walk.

”The whole time, my leg was just still broken, and that was really one of the hardest things I’ve had to go through,” she said.

Doctors told her she needed ankle surgery. She’d go home and cry. Then she’d go to the gym and push her body to the limit. The rods were effective in stabilizing the bone, allowing her to train relatively hard. But walking was painful. She remembers literally crawling from station to station in the gym at one point.

Doing work

Jimmy Pritchard, director of strength and conditioning with Ski & Snowboard Club Vail, guided McKennis through workouts during that time period. He recalls McKennis hobbling around the Minturn Fitness Center with a cane — but that didn’t stop her from putting in enormous effort daily.

”I’ve never worked with an athlete in my life that put as much time and effort in as her,” he said — and he’s worked with a lot of athletes.

Her husband described her work ethic this way: “If she did anything more, she’d be in an insane asylum. It’s absolutely crazy.”

And her coach, Chip White, said, “She’s someone who looks in the mirror first and doesn’t point fingers when things go bad.”

McKennis grew up on a cattle ranch in New Castle, and started skiing at age 2 at Sunlight near Glenwood Springs. She later raced with Ski Club Vail and Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club.

As a 20-year-old, she burst onto the World Cup scene with a top-10 finish in just her third start. She competed in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver but skied off course in her only event, the downhill. She was a top-20 downhiller in 2009-10, and top 10 in 2012-13, when she won her first and only World Cup, a downhill in St. Anton, Austria.

But after she returned from sitting out most of the 2013-14 season due to injury, she struggled to break through.

A second chance

By the end of the 2016-17 season, she was ranked 33rd in the downhill, the lowest season-ending ranking of her career. Her spot with the U.S. Ski Team was in danger.

“I had figured after 2017, I’m probably going to have to retire just because the U.S. Ski Team wouldn’t name me again,” she said.

But surprisingly to her, she was invited to train with the U.S. Ski Team that April. She saw it as a great opportunity — a chance to turn around the trajectory of her career. But she also felt pressure — it was a make-it-or-break-it situation.

White said, going back to McKennis’ previous injuries, he and the other coaches saw a determination in her that made them not want to give up on her.

“I just saw the tenacity in her comeback from (her 2013 injury), that this girl is the real deal, and she is a fighter and not one that’s going to give up,” White said. “That type of attitude is something you don’t teach. It’s ingrained in someone. When I saw that in her, that’s what made me fight for her.”

McKennis found a new focus, intentionally improving her fundamentals, including her start. She realized that her start was giving away three-tenths of a second in every race.

The effort paid off. McKennis had the fastest start split in the Olympic downhill.

“How ‘bout them apples?!” she wrote in her blog.

Another fundamental was just making good turns. And she got better at that, too. She finished 2018 with the highest super-G ranking of her career.

“A lot of it was her mindset — just her belief in her herself that she could do it, and it changed her skiing,” White said. “Instead of just surviving, she was looking to get better while going faster.”

A new low, then a miracle

Back to the summer of 2018 and the leg that wouldn’t heal — McKennis went ahead with another surgery to remove another locking screw in August. And then the ankle surgery to remove the scarring around her tendons in September.

She was hoping for a miracle.

But the X-ray results were crushing: still not much healing. Her leg was, essentially, still broken.

She hit a low point. She gave up on skiing that winter. She wondered if she would ever walk normally again — much less ski.

“I was like, if I never ski again, that’s OK,” she said. “I just want to walk, and if I live out my life normally without skiing and ski racing, I’d be OK with that. Because it got to a point where I just don’t know how I would be able to live like this if I couldn’t stand up and walk across the room without pain.”

She finally decided to undergo an invasive “nail exchange” surgery to try to jump start the healing process. In the surgery, which Sterett performed in Vail in December, the rod was ripped out of the fibula so it could heal on its own. The other rod was ripped out of the tibia, and a thicker rod was inserted in a bid to stimulate healing.

Six weeks later, the bones were healing, and the ankle pain was gone. McKennis used the word “miracle.”

Finally, good news — the surgery seemed to work.

By April, she was back on snow in Vail. In June, she attended a team camp in Mammoth.

“She’s looking like a real skier again, which is why we’re all excited about her future,” White said.

She and Duran also got married in May in a ceremony in Moab, Utah.

“It was a great wedding, and I definitely had more time to plan for it, which was the silver lining to this whole thing,” McKennis said.

For the rest of the summer, she’ll be working out with Pritchard in Minturn. She’ll go train with the team in Chile in September.

A veteran’s wile

McKennis, now 29, may no longer have that youthful athleticism and recklessness that can translate to speed. But she has years of experience; she knows how to push limits but not go past them.

“And that makes me really comfortable knowing that I don’t have to risk everything, but I have to risk a lot,” she said.

White expects McKennis to begin to approach podium potential again this season.

Duran also said he has high expectations for her this winter. He’s also expecting her to still be the hardest worker out there; to wake up at 3 a.m. if she needs to start preparing then.

And if even if she wins World Cup races, she’ll probably still keep coaching at camps such as American Downhiller, teaching young skiers how to go fast, her husband said.

“She’s as normal as you can be in the ski-racing world; the most down-to-earth person you can be for being in that environment,” he said. “She stayed true to the person she wanted to be.”

More to give

For McKennis, as she’s gotten older and battled injuries, she asks herself these questions:

Is it worth it?

Do I want to continue doing this?

But she knows she still has potential. She wants to win World Cups again. She wants to go back to the Olympics.

“Those are things I still want to achieve and I’m really confident I can, so I’m not ready to give up on that,” she said. “I’m not ready to stop that dream. I still want to pursue it for a few more years and see what I can accomplish. From when I was young, it was always my dream to do this. So, I’m just not ready yet.

“I still think I have a lot to give to the sport.”