Take 5: RJ McLennan talks state GS titles and ACL tears at 16 years old
The day RJ McLennan won a state title just might go down as the highlight of his young alpine skiing career. And that’s saying something.
In more than a decade of ski racing, including nearly as many with Team Summit Colorado, the 18-year-old senior at Rock Canyon High School on the Front Range has hit plenty of high points: making the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association Rocky/Central Division alpine team with Team Summit, working out at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, earning a spot on the Junior Olympics ski team as a youth racer — the list goes on.
“I’ve done some other cool stuff,” McLennan said when asked how the state title ranks with everything else he’s done on skis, “But this was one of the best.”
And that fateful giant slalom run on Feb. 23 deserves to take the cake. It was the final day of boys GS racing at the 2017 Colorado High School Ski League State Championships, and of course that meant the weather in Steamboat Springs wouldn’t cooperate. The entire boys field skied through a near-whiteout blizzard for the first run, only to battle with gusts and spotty light for the second. Nothing about the day was perfect or pristine, McLennan remembered, but that’s just part of ski racing and the state’s best skiers took it in stride.
The state’s absolute best GS skier did more than that, though. Instead of playing it safe, McLennan charged as hard as possible on his second run of the day for a combined time of 1:37.8 — more than a full second faster than Vail Mountain School’s Michael Resnick in second. Most of that time advantage came solely in the second run, when McLennan improved on his 51.60 from the first run by nearly six seconds to notch a 46.17 and the state title. The win also helped propel his scholastic ski team, Evergreen High School, into first place for the boys state slalom and GS rankings.
What now, then? For starters, it’s lacrosse season. McLennan has split time between skiing and lacrosse for most of his life — he was getting ready for practice on a blustery March afternoon when we spoke — but he’s not quite sure if he wants to continue skiing competitively at the University of Colorado-Boulder next fall. He’s simply enjoying his senior year for the moment, state title and all. He’s even hung up his competition skis for the season.
Before suiting up for practice, McLennan took time to chat with the Summit Daily sports desk about his state title, the Steamboat Springs racecourse and why a two-year-old ACL injury hardly even crossed his mind at the start gate.
Summit Daily News: First of all, congrats on the state title, but this isn’t quite the end of the ski season, right?
RJ McLennan: No, it’s the end of my ski season. There aren’t many races after state for what I’m doing this year.
SDN: OK, so that really was your final race of the season, and of your high school skiing career. How did it feel to go out on top?
RJM: It felt really good. It was a great way to cap off the season and I worked really hard for it. I’m happy with how it came out. This was my first year not using a knee brace or any type of brace. I decided I didn’t need it after the first race or two of the year. Instead of thinking that I have one bad knee and one good knee, I decided that I was going to enter every race with two good knees. And it doesn’t really bother me much. It just gets stiff and tense sometimes.
SDN: Right after the ACL injury, did you think it would be possible to bounce back in less than two years, maybe even win a state title?
RJM: I knew it was going to be a long road. There was a lot of PT — maybe two or three hours, three or four times per week going to a PT — but I knew if I treated it well and took my time things would be fine. It’s better to have two good knees than go back into things too quickly and risk one.
SDN: Not only were you coming back from injury, this was also your first season on a high school team — that’s a big change from Team Summit and a ski club. Was it what you expected?
RJM: I guess I thought it would be more laid-back. But I figured out it was more team-based than individual — I didn’t realize there were tallying scores after every race that showed where teams placed. It was fun that way. With club ski racing I’d get the individual competition, then get the team stuff with lacrosse, but having both sides of that with ski racing this year was fun. Some of my friends skied high school and club and they told me it was a lot of fun, so I committed to it this year and ended up having a blast.
SDN: Was a state title your goal from the beginning of the season?
RJM: I knew I had a good shot at winning states this year, not so much in slalom, but in GS. I was working out a lot, doing Crossfit almost every other day in the off-season. I was also out training just about anytime I could, anytime that school would let me. I just wanted to be prepared.
SDN: Looking back on things, when did you realize you were going to make a real, legitimate run for the state title? Like, when did you skiing feel the best?
RJM: About a week before states I had a GS win at Eldora and I felt like my skiing was pretty good, like it was the best I’ve skied all winter. I’d been keeping my weight on my outside ski and keeping a clean arc on my turn. When we were at Steamboat for state, the top was kind of crummy snow, and then at the bottom it was more bulletproof — they had injected it at the beginning of the year, if I remember correctly. Some of it was hard and set well, but it had been so hot and versatile there (before state). It was all over: the first run was a blizzard, the second run was windy.
SDN: How did you combat those crazy conditions?
RJM: I had to make sure my skis were tuned and that I was focused. I knew the competition, I knew some of my friends would be there, but I also knew my ability and knew I could come out on top if I executed. The first run I was definitely going back and forth — I was only ahead by two-tenths of a second — and I was holding back a bit. The second run I put the pedal to the metal and it was the right decision, I think so. That was pretty much the last race of my skiing career. I might race in college, but we’ll see.
SDN: Even if you never race on skis again, will skiing be part of your life? Or are you a little burnt out?
RJM: I know that I’ll always ski because I love the sport and how fun it can be to rip around. I know that CU has a club team and they’re very solid. We’ll see how I feel when I get up there — see what fits. I also play lacrosse. I have practice in a few hours.
SDN: As soon as one sport wraps up it’s onto the next one.
RJM: Pretty much. I’ve got a busy schedule. The nice part is my school schedule this year isn’t as hard as it’s been.
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