By Gabbi Hall
NASTAR racers may not travel the globe like Lindsey Vonn, but they can learn a lot from the World Cup star when it comes to racing a lifelong sport for life. As she said 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 injured thumbs breaking up a dog fight. She has been helicoptered off hills, taken down in sleds and rushed to hospitals.
Fellow U.S. Ski Team racer Resi Stiegler has had 11 surgeries as a result of ski racing injuries in her career. Success in NASTAR racing continues to be about improving times through practice and growth, but the ability to comeback from injury becomes increasingly important for racers who want to keep competing into their 80s. So, what makes for a successful comeback? Here, Vonn and Stiegler reveal.
Strength is the most obvious of these factors. After a major injury like an ACL tear or broken leg, strength will atrophy during the recovery period where an athlete is unable to use the limb. To rebuild the equilibrium, athletes must spend hours of physical therapy sessions and workouts before an athlete can 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 pecializes in fixing ligaments. He helped NFL stars Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots comeback from an ACL injury, returning to the football field in less than a year.
“I think the main thing is having a good surgeon, but also a having a good therapist and being diligent with your rehab,” Vonn said. “They are the two most important things. 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 Winnenger and 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. I feel like those people got a degree for a reason.
After her leg break right before the 2010 Olympics, 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—and someone will probably totally criticize me for saying that, but I think when you’re up there on the hill by yourself it’s quite a challenge, you know? 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 you’re mental game is strong, there are challenges to getting back on snow.
“Alpine really is a unique sport that the forces are unlike what you can get creating on a soccer field or football field or basketball court or volleyball court,” said 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 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 you’re comfortable on snow relatively early, but getting back into training and getting back into racing, 100 percent of that is a prolonged progression. I think 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 8 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 not just beholden to coaches and training staff, but also, their parents.
“Whether it’s phone calls or emails or being here on campus face to face, I think 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, and I think 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 patience and to look at a big picture.”
Look for more advice on injury recovery geared towards juniors and their parents in the Premium section of SkiRacing.com.