Injuries common bond among skiers

It was late last winter in the Alps when she pushed out of the start house for her latest World Cup race with cowbells clanging and hopes flying high in her mind. After all, she had a recent World Cup victory and was skiing in top form.

And then she crashed near the bottom of the course. Lying there painfully in the snow while waiting for the medics to fly her off the mountain, she realized, "I have done something horrible to my leg.'' She was correct. Her right knee was severely damaged, requiring involved surgery followed by a long and difficult rehab ... all with the time window before the Sochi Olympics slowly sliding shut.

After long months of crutches and rehab, she still has not returned to competition.

Lindsey Vonn? Well, yes, a very similar scenario does apply to Vonn but actually, I'm talking
about her U.S. Olympian, Alice McKennis.

Like Vonn, McKennis won on the World Cup circuit last season. Like Vonn, she also later mangled her knee in a race, only more severely, and did so one month later in the season (early March in Garmisch, Germany rather than February). McKennis shattered the tibia plateau in her right knee so badly it required a surgical plate and 11 screws to repair.

"I think it was more severe (than Lindsey's),'' McKennis said. "My tibia plateau was in more than 30 pieces and all my cartilage was broken up and gone. Our injuries are different. She tore ligaments and had a little bit of a fracture. My tibia plateau was destroyed, yet I had no ligament damage.

"We kind of stayed in touch this summer and about how our recoveries were going. When we were still pretty laid up, we would send funny messages like, 'I want to throw my crutches out the window and run over them with a car, I'm so sick of this.'"

Both had hoped to compete at the recent women's World Cup races at Beaver Creek and Lake Louise but McKennis' rehab has not advanced enough for her to do so. Vonn, meanwhile, raced at Lake Louise despite reinjuring the right ACL she tore last February. She finished fifth in the Super G on Sunday and 11th in the downhill Saturday.

Many stories in the past month mentioned Vonn's frequent injuries but the gold medalist is by no means alone in that respect. Injuries are what bind top skiers together.

Race down steep mountain slopes faster than some cars drive down highways and you're bound to get hurt. In fact, I remember Picabo Street joking after she tore her left ACL that you're not a world class skier until you've had a major injury because otherwise you probably haven't pushed yourself far enough.

"It's funny with ski racing," McKennis said. "You're almost in denial that you're never going to get hurt but maybe you figure you will. You try not to think about it but it's almost something you sign up for because it's pretty much inevitable that at some point you're going to injure yourself."

There is a delightful scene in "Jaws'' where Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss compare their scars from shark attacks. Skiers can be a little like that sometimes when they're sitting around together.

"There is definitely, 'This happened to me, this happened to you and there are similarities,'" fellow U.S. skier Leanne Smith said. "And 'Oh, I had this happen to me -- here's some advice.' 'You have a bad shoulder, I have a bad shoulder.' Things like that.

"Alice has got one injury that I don't know if anyone can top.''

"I think I have probably some of the largest scars on the team,'' McKennis said. "The thing with ski racing is you can always think of someone else who has had a more severe injury than you. Which is kind of horrifying in a way. There is someone else more hurt than you, so it's like, 'All right, it's not that bad.''

Like in football, some injuries are bad, though. U.S. skier Stacey Cook has suffered three amnesia-producing concussions, including one in 2005 that wiped three weeks from her memory. The accident happened in Europe but she can't even remember being in Europe during that time period. For months after that concussion, she had difficulty remembering numbers, which meant she had trouble remembering what time she was supposed to be somewhere. "I was late for everything.''

Cook continues to compete but said that another concussion would lead to a very serious discussion with doctors about her athletic future and possible retirement.

"There is a lot of head injury data that we're starting to get more of that's not good,'' she said. "I trust the doctors are giving me the information that will keep me healthy. I've been lucky that there's been a long space between my injuries, a lot of time that statistically gives you more comfort.''

The injuries aren't just on the World Cup circuit. Smith tore an ACL when she was nine years old while skiing on Thanksgiving Day. The knee has been an issue ever since.

"Sometimes it's better than other times and I don't even think about it but sometimes it's worse and it's painful,'' she said. "And it's only going to get worse but I should be good until my ski career is through. It's a deteriorating knee.''

Age nine or age 29 – the risk of injury is always there.

Dr. David Altchek, an orthopedic surgeon who has worked extensively with professional athletes (he performed Tommy John surgery on Jamie Moyer and is currently the Mets medical director) likens it to the scene in the movie "Rush'' where a character estimates the chance of being killed whenever they race.

"He is very dramatic and has it calculated to 20 percent every time you get out on the track,'' Altchek said. "There is some number nobody knows that every time you ski down a course at max speed, you probably have a fixed chance, maybe a seven or eight percent chance, of crashing and being seriously injured. I think it's unavoidable.''

Vonn tore the ACL and MCL in her knee at the world championships in Austria last February. A graft from her hamstring was used to repair both ligaments. Then she partially tore the ACL again training in November, though the extent of the tear has not been made public. She says she the knee will require surgery but that she will wait until after the Olympics.

How well the knee holds up remains to be seen but Vonn isn't letting the injury stop her. She will throw continue to throw caution to the wind and risk injury. Because that is what top skiers do.

"You learn so much passion for the sport that the idea of getting hurt isn't really there,'' Cook said. "It happens, we all know it happens, but the thrill and the adrenaline rush and the adventure outweigh the risk.''

Oh, and by the way, McKennis also fractured the tibia plateau in her left knee in 2011.

"Looking back to my left knee injury, that looks so easy now,'' she said. "It was half the time on crutches, half the screws. Everything was half as bad.

"Winning last year was a huge moment for me because I was coming back from injury and I had made it to the top. It gives me confidence that I can still do that again. I just have to work hard and make the steps to get there.''