Injured Alpine ski racers miss years, not days, at a time


JEONGSEON, South Korea (AP) — Just the thought of being at the Olympics on Tuesday made Swiss ski racer Lara Gut smile broadly, and that had nothing to do with it being the last opportunity to train for the downhill, an event in which she earned a bronze at the 2014 Sochi Games.

No, the reason for Gut’s excitement was much simpler, as she demonstrated with a two-word exclamation of “I’m here!” while kicking up her left leg. Turns out Tuesday is the one-year anniversary of the operation she had to repair tears to the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in that knee, a season-ending injury incurred during practice at the 2017 world championships.

“Everything that was natural, like walking — you have to get used to that again,” Gut said. “One day, you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s natural. I can walk. I can run. I can ski.’”

Coming back was nothing new. Gut missed the 2010 Olympics and an entire World Cup season after dislocating her right hip, but later won an overall World Cup title. Like so many other Alpine skiers at the Pyeongchang Games, Gut has dealt more than once with the rigorous process of recovering from the sort of long-term absence pretty much inevitable in a pursuit that involves hurtling one’s body down the steep and icy side of a mountain at 60 mph or more.

“Maybe we’re crazy,” Gut said after Monday’s training. “Or maybe we just love what we do.”

When it comes to other sports, fans often hear about athletes sidelined for days at a time. A strained muscle here. A sore shoulder there. Not in Alpine racing. Not by a long shot. Like Gut, these Olympians’ statuses are best described as month-to-month or even year-to-year, rather than week-to-week — whether it’s from wrecked knees, assorted types of broken bones or banged-up backs. And they keep returning for more.

“That’s a part of the game. We all understand that,” said Lindsey Vonn, who won the 2010 Olympic downhill but missed the Sochi Games four years later after tearing ligaments in her right knee. “If you’re not willing to take the risk, then you’re probably in the wrong sport.”

Two-time downhill world championship medalist Nadia Fanchini of Italy, who is 31, said she’s had nine operations. The first was when she was 14; the most recent was in June for a broken right arm that took her off the slopes for about 10 months.

“When you come back after being out for a long time, you’re always behind all of the other racers and trying to catch back up,” Fanchini said.

“Your body just can’t do it, and your mind tells you that you have to keep pushing forward and keep trying,” she continued. “You have to work on your body, but you also have to work on your mind.”

The list of 2018 Alpine medalists is filled with folks who know that all too well.

Double gold winner Marcel Hirscher of Austria missed the 2011 world championships with a broken foot, although he otherwise had been remarkably injury free on the way to collecting a record six consecutive overall World Cup titles. Then along came a broken left ankle during practice in August that everyone, including the man himself, figured would hamper his preparations for South Korea, if not force him to skip the Olympics entirely.

“I thought, ‘OK, that’s (it) for the season’ and ‘Next year is another year,’” said Hirscher, who six months later enters Thursday’s slalom a big favorite to become the fourth racer with three Alpine golds at one Olympics.

Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, who at 35 became the oldest Olympic Alpine champion by winning last week’s downhill, missed chunks of time because of various ailments, including ACL and Achilles tendon tears. A violent 2007 crash resulted in a deep gash in his groin area, abdominal surgery and a four-hour operation to repair broken facial bones.

His teammate Kjetil Jansrud, whose two medals this time lifted his career haul to five, sat out the 2007 World Cup season with a bulging back disk. Austria’s Matthias Mayer, winner of Olympic golds in the 2018 super-G and 2014 downhill, fractured a vertebra in December 2015 and missed a year.

On and on it goes.

Austria’s Anna Veith, who added a super-G silver to her 2014 gold in that event, was the two-time reigning overall World Cup champion in October 2015 when a crash during training left her with ACL and patellar tendon tears in her right knee. She missed a full season and the start of the next, briefly returned, then had season-ending surgery on her other knee.

Super-G bronze medalist Tina Weirather of Liechtenstein dealt with four blown ACLs before her 21st birthday, including one that made her miss the 2010 Olympics.

Vonn, the 33-year-old American favored in Wednesday’s downhill, endured a range of injuries.

“It takes literally the tiniest mistake to send you into the fences,” said Lindsay Winninger, Vonn’s physiotherapist for years. “Sometimes, you can get up and walk away from those crashes, but you’re going to have a few bruises. Other times, you don’t get up and walk away — and there’s usually a surgery involved.”

Vonn’s U.S. teammates Alice McKennis (shattered shinbone in 2013) and Laurenne Ross (knee, shin injuries last year) have their own scars.

“We might as well start our own clinic, we know so much about anatomy at this point,” Vonn said.

She could joke about it Monday because all three took runs down the hill. But there isn’t always a feel-good return.

One example: Vonn’s contemporary, four-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso, was hoping for one last hurrah at the Pyeongchang Games after going more than 2½ years between World Cup races because of hip surgery. The American made a brief comeback but called it quits a month ago.

Mancuso, 33, now walks with a limp.

“I definitely went into the surgery, saying, ‘OK, let’s do this surgery, so I can get better to race.’ I was never going to do surgery so I could just be normal,” she said. “Of course, I want to be normal, too.”