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After Brutal Crashes, These 3 American Racers Are Back on Course This Season

When ski racers hit the deck, it’s often not pretty. But somehow, they find a way to battle their way back.

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When ski racers hit the deck, it’s often not pretty. Exhibit A: Alice Merryweather’s horrific face-plant in downhill training last fall and Nina O’Brien’s godawful compound fracture sustained at the 2022 Beijing Olympic GS.

What’s inspiring is how they fight back. Like Sofia Goggia last winter. Two weeks before the 2022 Beijing Olympics, the Italian downhiller crashed hard in the Cortina World Cup super-G. Although she skied away from the high-speed crash, the Italian Ski Federation later confirmed that Goggia had “strained her left knee,” with “a partial tear of her cruciate ligament” and “a small fibula fracture.”

Read more: Italian Sofia Goggia races in the Olympics on a broken leg

Unsure if she would be able to defend her 2018 Olympic downhill title in Beijing, Goggia began physical therapy immediately. The work paid off, and she famously finished second in the downhill—in this case, a silver medal that probably felt like gold.

From Beijing, Goggia finished out the 2021-2022 season with three more World Cup downhills. She was not as dominant as she had been in speed races before the knee injury. But at season’s end, she still won her third World Cup downhill title.

This past summer, Goggia was in the gym and on snow, her Instagram posts punctuated by the flame emoji. Look for Goggia to return to her winning ways when this season’s speed races kick off with the new Zermatt-Cervinia downhill, scheduled in early November for the women.

Closer to home, a couple of U.S. Ski Team A-teamers are excited to be back in the game and off skiing’s DL.

Breezy Johnson

  • Injury: ACL and meniscus in right knee
  • Events: Downhill, super-G
  • Projected race return: Zermatt-Cervinia World Cup on Nov. 5, 2022
Breezy Johnson, Val d'Isere downhill 2021
Breezy Johnson on her way to a third consecutive second-place downhill finish in Val d’Isere, France. (Photo: Michel Cottin/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)

Johnson has been open about her most recent injury and rehab, sharing her thoughts on social media. The 26-year-old downhiller missed the 2022 Olympics after injuring her knee last January. She had surgery in early February, then began rehab.

In May, Johnson, 26, laid bare the extent of her knee injury. It wasn’t just torn cartilage. In her first crash—sustained while training for the Zauchensee races—she tore her ACL and had bucket-handle tear in her meniscus. For a number of reasons that she later wrote about in a long Instagram post in May, she told no one about her injury.

“These two injuries often mean people can’t walk, but not only did I walk I skied and planned to compete on them,” she explained in that May Instagram post. “I didn’t tell anyone. Not even my parents… I also didn’t want to tell anyone for fear that they might judge me. I didn’t want to have to defend my actions any more than I already had to to the doubts in my own head.”

When she crashed less than two weeks later in Cortina, she “blew apart the few things left in my knee,” she wrote. “I still had my bucket handle meniscus tear and my ACL was gone but I also put a landing strip through my cartilage and tore both meniscal roots in my right knee. Luckily all of those things were fixed in my surgery in February.”

After a series of serious injuries in the past few years, Johnson is all-too-familiar with rehab, and again, she focused on getting strong. At the end of July, Johnson passed the USST’s return to snow criteria (an athlete must be symmetrical and within 90 percent of their previous personal best to fully return to training and racing).

Back in gates in early October, Johnson is looking forward to the season’s speed opener in early November where she hopes to add to her seven world cup podiums.

Nina O’Brien

  • Injury: Compound fracture, left leg
  • Events: Giant slalom, slalom
  • Projected race return: TBD, hopefully Killington World Cup on Nov. 26, 2022
Nina O'Brien, US Ski Team
O’Brien hopes to be race ready by the Killington World Cup over Thanksgiving weekend. It’s her favorite event on the World Cup circuit. (Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Ski and Snowboard)

O’Brien is also back on snow after her horrific crash in the 2022 Olympic GS. The 24-year-old tech skier opened last season with a ninth-place finish in the Sölden GS and was vying for a top-10 finish in her first Olympic GS when she crashed going around the final gates of the course, suffering a compound fracture in her lower left leg.

She had surgeries in both China and the U.S. and then worked on rehabbing her leg as she continued her studies at Dartmouth in the spring. Her goal this summer was to meet the USST’s return to snow criteria.

In September, she was back on snow.

“I’m in Europe right now and just joined the team in Soelden,” she emailed earlier this month. “I don’t know when I’ll be back in the start gate yet, Sölden seems a bit soon but we’re taking it day by day. Hopefully I’m feeling good to go by Killington—it’s one of my favorite weekends!”

Related: Mikaela Shiffrin and teammates reveal their favorite and most-dreaded World Cup races

Tommy Ford

  • Injury: Concussion; torn ligaments, meniscus, and broken tibial plateau in right knee; torn ligaments in left wrist
  • Events: Giant slalom
  • Projected race return: Already back in action
Tommy Ford, US Ski Team
One of Ford’s career highlights to date is winning the 2019 Xfinity Birds of Prey World Cup GS at Beaver Creek. (Photo: Courtesy of U.S. Ski & Snowboard)

The 2022 Olympic GS wasn’t all bad news for the Americans. In his first race back after a devastating crash in January 2021, Ford finished 12th in Beijing.

Thirteen months earlier, Ford did not know when he would even be on snow again. Competing in the Adelboden World Cup GS in Switzerland on January 9, 2021, Ford crashed hard just three gates from the finish on his first run. He suffered a concussion, two torn ligaments in his right knee, a broken tibial plateau, and torn meniscus. He also tore ligaments in his left wrist.

He had surgeries to repair the damage, then spent the rest of 2021 recovering. Depression set in, brought on by the concussion and the trauma of the brutal crash. He also could not exercise so lacked his usual physical outlet.

In the starting gate of the Olympic GS last February, Ford was “happy, scared, confident, insecure, tired, strong and ski racing,” he noted.

He then helped the U.S. finish fourth in the team parallel event. He finished the season with two World Cup GS races in Slovenia.

“I skied four races this year,” he posted on Instagram. “One of them happened to be the Olympics. That was cool.”

But his adventure was not over yet. In the spring, Ford, 33, had hardware in his right leg removed—”It has done its job,” he noted.

“Just to keep up the trend, I had my wisdom teeth yanked out too,” Ford added. “Anyway, the recovery is relatively short, there is still speed inside of me and I will be skiing by summer solstice.”

He was, and he was skiing during the fall equinox too. This weekend, Ford should be in the starting gate in Sölden.

Alice Merryweather (still sidelined)

  • Injury: Fractured tibia and fibula, torn ACL in left leg
  • Events: Downhill, super-G
  • Projcted race return: TBD, likely 2024 season
Alice Merryweather 2020
Alice Merryweather takes to the air during downhill training at Copper Mountain, CO, Nov. 2020. (: U.S. Ski & Snowboard)

As for Merryweather, the 26-year-old had her fourth (and hopefully) final surgery in July to reconstruct her ACL after her crash last September. In the crash, she broke her left tibia and fibula, with at-the-time undetermined knee damage, and she badly scratched her face. At the time, she had been preparing to return to racing after receiving treatment for an eating disorder.

After the July surgery, Merryweather posted, “turns out I needed a new MCL too, so Dr. Hackett and his team in Vail got both ligaments all fixed up and I’ll be ready to go after one more winter of rehab. This has been a long journey so far and it ain’t over yet, but I am incredibly grateful for all the support I’ve received.”

Merryweather will spend the 2022-’23 World Cup season rehabbing her knee from this latest surgery and hopes to return to snow for the following season.

After reading this list of battle injuries, one might wonder what keeps these racers coming back. There is no guarantee of victory, even for the brave. Johnson summed it up well when she wrote in one of her long, thoughtful Instagram posts, “This sport is brutal.”

At one point during her most recent rehab, Johnson was asked why she puts herself through it — the pain of injury and the pain, frustration, and effort of rehab.

“The truth is that, for me,” Johnson wrote, “the feeling of racing is the feeling of being truly alive, and so I will keep coming back every time. Because that feeling of skiing fast is worth everything.”

 

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