Lindsey Vonn said it best, earlier this season at Val d’Isere: “It’s pretty rare to escape the sport without major injury. If you want to have a long career, you have to have a way to overcome it.”
Vonn, a veteran of the sport and of comebacks, has suffered everything from ACL tears in brutal crashes to an injured thumb from breaking up a dog fight. She has been helicoptered off hills, taken down in sleds and rushed to hospitals.
Teammate Resi Stiegler has had 11 surgeries as a result of ski racing injuries in her career. And, let’s face it, the majority of athletes on the World Cup circuit have also been hobbled at some point.
Nearly 25 percent of World Cup athletes injured between 2009 and 2014 were out for between eight and 28 days, according to a FIS Injury Surveillance System report. An even greater 37.6 percent of World Cup athletes injured could not ski for more than 28 days.
Of those major injuries, nearly 60 percent were knee-related. In fact, knee injuries were the most common type of injury among World Cup athletes, followed by hand injuries at 10.6 percent, and head and face at 9.5 percent of all injuries during that five-year span.
Success in ski racing continues to be about winning races through practice and growth, but the ability to come back from major injury becomes increasingly important for racers who want to have a long career. So, what makes for a successful comeback? Here, Vonn and Stiegler reveal.
Strength is the most obvious of these factors. After a major injury such as an ACL tear or broken leg, strength will atrophy during the recovery period during which an athlete is unable to use the limb. To rebuild the equilibrium, athletes must spend hours in physical therapy sessions and workouts before they can even consider getting on snow.
“You have to work hard,” says Stiegler. “Your body has to be in incredible shape to be coming back from all that. I think a lot of athletes, they get injured and they work out, but they’re not giving it their all. You have to work twice as hard as a normal person in the summer because you’re technically coming back from twice as much.”
World Cup athletes, of course, have access to top surgeons, physical therapists and psychologists. For her most recent knee surgery, Vonn selected Dr. James Andrews, who specializes in fixing ligaments. He helped NFL star Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots come back from an ACL injury and return to the football field in less than a year.
“The main thing is having a good surgeon, but also a having a good therapist and being diligent with your rehab,” Vonn says. “Obviously, you have to do the exercises and do the rehab, but you have to be on the right program to begin with.”
Being on the right program — even for athletes with major endorsement deals — can mean out-of-pocket costs to get the best resources.
“I have a trainer and a physio provided from Red Bull, and then the last two years, I contracted Lindsay Winninger; that was all out of my pocket, personally, and that was a pretty big investment in my career,” says Vonn. “I’m lucky that for the most part I’ve had a lot of support from Red Bull and that’s obviously helped me a lot, but the last knee surgery, that was all on my own.”
Stiegler invests in sports psychologists — and is willing to try more unusual therapies — to help with her mental recovery.
“I’ve worked with every type of psychologist there is,” says Stiegler. “I’m a huge therapy believer.”
After her leg break right before the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Stiegler even worked with therapists to help her with some post-traumatic stress as a result of her crash.
“Mental fitness is a huge part of ski racing,” she says. “It’s not like soccer or team sports. When you’re up there on the hill by yourself, it’s quite a challenge. It’s all in your head and it’s all about you. And you’ve gotten there, so clearly you’re qualified. It’s about what’s standing in your way, and it’s usually your mind.”
Even when your mental game is strong, there are challenges to getting back on snow.
“Alpine really is a unique sport in that the forces are unlike what you can get creating on a soccer field or football field or basketball court or volleyball court,” says Adam Perreault, an athletic trainer at Burke Mountain Academy, and formerly with the U.S. Ski Team.
So, sometimes making a successful comeback comes down to patience.
“It’s something inside them that makes them want to go, and whether or not that means they’re ready to go that’s the medical staff and the coach staff coming together,” Perrault (pictured at left) says.
The passion to come back can overweigh the need for steady strength and confidence building.
“It’s really about the progression,” he says. “You can get on snow and be comfortable on snow relatively early, but getting back into training and getting back into racing — 100 percent of that is a prolonged progression. Throughout the process, the athlete learns a lot and feels that there is a moment where they know whether their passion is overweighing their confidence or if their confidence is lacking. They’ll have a clear indication of that.”
Getting back to the top can take a long time. It took Stiegler eight years to get back into the top 15 on the World Cup — a long, slow grind to rebuild.
She knows better than anyone that moving back onto snow and pushing too hard too soon can hurt athletes in the long run, resulting in more injuries.
Perrault says he agrees.
“You can win a race, and that’s great, but that doesn’t necessarily change the long-term career of you in that sport,” Perrault says. “You can certainly have a negative outcome from one race, and that can permanently remove you from that sport.”
Injured youth athletes are usually beholden not only to coaches and training staff, but also to their parents.
“Whether it’s phone calls or emails or being here on campus face-to-face, that’s an interesting part of the younger program,” says Perrault. “The younger kids have a lot of pressure on them, and family can be one of the bigger ones.”
Perrault urges parents to take a step back, and consider the long-term plan.
“The FIS calendar — there’s always another race, so it’s about patience, and knowing that you want to have confidence when your son or daughter is stepping into the start gate for their next race,” he says. “And if there is the slightest question, I would be urging them to take a step back and to look at a big picture.”
Note: Look for more advice on injury recovery geared towards juniors and their parents in the Premium section of SkiRacing.com later this month.