In February, just two months removed from her first FIS World Cup downhill win, U.S. Ski Team member Alice McKennis found herself lying on a ski slope in Garmish, Germany.
It was the second to last World Cup race of the season, and she’d just shattered the tibial plateau of her right leg into around 30 pieces. Dr. Bill Sterett of Vail Summit Orthopedics — the U.S. team physician who would later repair her broken leg bone — called that a conservative estimate.
Sitting in the lodge at Loveland Ski Area earlier this week, McKennis recalled the crash. “I came into the turn a little out of balance,” she said.
Going through the turn, her right ski tip caught a rut, twisting her leg and hyperextending her knee.
The force of the impact caused her femur to crush the top of her lower leg bone.
In addition to the damage near the knee, Sterett said that her tibia cracked most of the way down her leg.
Just a few years earlier McKennis suffered a similar, but less severe, injury to her other leg.
“When I was laying on the side of the mountain in Garmish, the thought of going through the rehab process again and recovering from it was like, ‘Oh my god. I’m not doing this again. I’m over it,’” she said.
Missing the final race of the World Cup season, McKennis still finished ranked No. 10 in the world in downhill.
She described the time leading up to her surgery as her lowest point.
After spending a few nights in a German hospital after the crash, she was flown back to the U.S. Given the option to have her leg repaired in Germany, she opted instead to return to the states to have Sterett — who had worked on her other leg — perform the surgery.
“He’s the only guy that’s going to touch my leg,” McKennis said of the decision.
Knowing what it was going to take to come back from such a devastating injury, she said initially she was unsure if she wanted to ever return to competition.
That all changed in the weeks after surgery when she visited with the rest of the team.
“Seeing my teammates again, hearing them talk about skiing, seeing all of my coaches, that was the final turning point.”
Last week at Loveland, after a summer’s worth of intense rehab, she returned to snow for the first time since the accident. And now the 24-year-old has her sights set on returning to the Olympics.
“When we started this in February,” Sterett said, “I wouldn’t have thought she’d be here. If you’d told me eight months after this injury in anybody else, I would not believe it would be possible.”
“It’s awesome,” McKennis said after her fourth day back on snow. “My first day I was so excited I didn’t really sleep the night before. I was waking up every hour like, ‘Is it 6 a.m. yet? Can I get up?’”
If there were a silver lining to the injury it would be that the crash did not damage any of her knee ligaments, which was not the case for teammate Lindsey Vonn, whom Sterett also operated on.
In comparing the two, “The fracture for sure is the bigger surgery,” Sterett said.
But he’s equally impressed with how fast both athletes have returned to snow.
“I would not have predicted that they would be back on snow this soon,” he said.
Now with six days on snow, McKennis said she feels like she’s back to 100 percent.
“I feel good now, the first day I was a little nervous.”
While she hasn’t returned to gate training, she said she’s already made GS turns at close to full speed.
Remarkably, Sterret explained, she’s already almost completely regained full strength in the injured leg.
U.S. women’s team speed coach Chip White said the team will still take a conservative approach to her return to snow progression.
“The most important aspect is Alice McKennis, not getting her back to racing,” White said. “She’s got quite a future ahead of her. We don’t want to jump the gun just because it’s an Olympic year.”
With the possibility of missing her first World Cup race of the season at Beaver Creek, McKennis’ road to the Olympics could be a challenging one.
“I definitely have, I feel like, the hardest road to travel to get there,” she said. “I kind of feel like maybe people think I won’t make it back this year. I’ll just have to rise to the occasion and make it happen.”
Her coaches and her doctor say she has the attitude to make it happen.
White said missing her first World Cup race, and possibly the second, would definitely effect her chances, since results in those events are a big part of qualifying for the Olympic team.
“It doesn’t mean it’s an impossible task,” he said. “Is it difficult? Yes. Is the door closed? No.”
With training at the U.S. Ski Team Speed Center at Copper Mountain opening Friday, White said the next month of preparation will be key.
“With her it’s going to be a day-to-day evaluation. In approximately three weeks we’ll have a better idea of where she is, how she is feeling and what we’re seeing. You can’t just jump off the couch and jump into World Cup.”
The next women’s World Cup race is Nov. 29 in Beaver Creek. McKennis was unsure at this time whether she will be ready for it, but hopes to compete in the following cup race at Lake Louise.
White said that at this point it’s unlikely she will be ready in time for Beaver Creek.
As for the Olympics, McKennis seems to have little doubt that she has what it takes to make it back.
“My goals haven’t changed even though I’ve had a setback,” she said. “I feel confident in it. I’ve come back from an injury before.”
Editor’s Note: McKennis would not have competed in the Nov. 26 World Cup race in Soelden had she been cleared. It was a giant slalom race, she competes in downhill and super G.