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My knee brace has six stiff Velcro straps that have to be fastened in a particular order. The first, with my knee slightly bent, is cinched over the lower calf. The second and third are manacled around the back of my thigh, followed by the fourth, lashed to the upper shin below the knee, and then the fifth, trussed firmly around my upper calf. Finally, I shackle the sixth strap over the front of my thigh and yank tightly.
On a good day, the brace is uncomfortable, constricting. But on that day, my first day back skiing, almost a year after I tore my anterior cruciate ligament, the thing was like a medieval torture device. My embarrassment compounded the torture. Just as I was in mid-struggle with the fourth and fifth straps, a group of toddlers swarmed into the room, shouting and crying, along with their instructors.
“What’s that man doing?” one kid asked his instructor.
“Oh, he must have a bad knee,” she told him. “That happens sometimes when you get older.”
Even before the torn ACL, I didn’t think I could feel any older. By age 45, I’d accepted the fact that my hair was never coming back. After two children, I’d transformed into the sad suburban dad who lived just a little too far away from the mountains, and whose skis were gathering dust in the basement. In my youth, I’d lived in Vermont, spent quality time in Utah and British Columbia, and regularly skied some of the most challenging runs in North America. But now I was just full of nostalgia. (“I remember back when Blackcomb’s Couloir Extreme was called Saudan Couloir!”) Worse, I hadn’t even passed on the passion to my boys, Sander and Wes, who were now in middle school.
That’s when I promised myself: This winter I’ll get back into skiing, and I’ll bring the boys with me. Then, while kicking the ball around with Sander’s soccer team on a wet field wearing running shoes—not cleats—I zagged awkwardly. One audible, sickening pop and one sharp snap led to one middle-aged man writhing on the ground.
I had reconstructive surgery a few months later, the doctor installing a cadaver’s ligament where my old one had been. I secretly hoped the previous owner had been a slalom champion. After surgery, I did mind-numbing physical therapy, and finally, one winter later than I’d hoped, the doctor said I could hit the slopes.
While Sander and Wes were in ski school, I rode the lift alone and looked for a gentle blue. As I made my first tentative turns, I could feel the edge of the Velcro strap grinding into my skin. My turns were slow and mechanical. Lost in my head, I was skiing like a 90-year-old. A dude in jeans zipped past me, and then a gang of 8-year-olds on snowboards. With every exaggerated turn, I kept waiting for the painful pop.
But it never came. On my next run, I got more aggressive and took on more speed. No pain, no problem. By the third, I had moved to a steeper, more challenging run, stopped thinking, and let my skis go. My knee still felt no pain. By the fourth run, I tried a few moguls. I was pumped. I met Wes and Sander after their lessons. They were buzzing with excitement after their first day of skiing. Sander, the oldest, wanted to try a blue before the day was over. As we rode the lift, he got more and more nervous. “Relax,” I said. “Take your time and let it come to you.”
The exact advice I had needed to hear that morning. We headed down a gentle blue. At one point, Sander got going too fast and tumbled into a huge wipeout. Stifling a laugh, I resisted shouting “yard sale!” I bent down to collect his scattered skis and poles. “Don’t worry, that’s just the first of many falls,” I said, thinking to myself: Get them over with now, while you’re young.
That’s when it hit me: I hadn’t thought of my brace in hours. Over the course of the day, I had tapped into something instinctual, something my conscious mind had forgotten, but my body had not. I continue to wear my brace, but it no longer shackles me. Instead, it’s a humbling reminder that I’m lucky to still be out here doing what I love.