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What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Such sage advice is little comfort to skiers who are sidelined by injury. For them, every snowstorm is an insult. Winter and its teasing can’t be over soon enough. While their healthy compatriots are praying for late-season powder and its promise of springtime corn, the bench-warmers are praying for heat waves and monsoons.
As torturous as injuries are, ironically they can be just what the doctor ordered. In fact, many times you’ll hear athletes say that injuries have helped their careers by making them both smarter and stronger. Marc Girardelli’s string of incredible comebacks built a body of steel that fueled a World Cup career spanning two decades. Phil Mahre’s Olympic silver medal at Lake Placid in 1980, less than a year after he shattered his ankle, was the greatest feat of his career, much more stunning than his gold in Sarajevo. After surviving the grueling comeback trail there is little to fear¿and much to relish. For someone serious about sports¿from World Cupper to weekend warrior¿injuries are unavoidable, so you might as well take a clue from the world-class wreckers and learn to turn your ability to recover into a source of mental and physical strength.
Most people have no trouble recalling the exact moment of their injuries. The “snap, crackle, pop” is the end point for the season and the starting point for the dreaded task of rehab. Summoning the patience to heal is probably the least acknowledged and most difficult aspect of injury. Six months off snow, eight weeks on crutches, a month in a sling¿whatever the sentence, it seems like an eternity. There is nothing particularly difficult about rehab. It is just incredibly tedious, involving endless repetitions of minute movements and hours of sweating on the stationary bike. The very lack of intensity is what leads people to skip it, especially if athletics is not your day job. The next worst move, after blowing off rehab, is rushing it. It’s much more exciting to work your muscles hard, to feel the burn associated with training, than to accept that healing is a slow process. Too much too early only leads to reinjury, a seemingly unrelated injury or chronic problems.
Unfortunately, I know this from experience. I was, during a particularly brutal stage of my career, referred to as the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Poster Child. Three blown-out knees, four broken wrists, two broken legs, a couple of concussions and two herniated discs may have had something to do with it. The first thing I learned was that the physical aspect of recovery was the least difficult. Rehab and physical therapy are actually a welcome routine. Athletes tend toward obsession during rehab, making health and training their first priority. Consequently it’s common to emerge from an injury stronger than before.
The mental part, however, never gets easier, even with experience. All your unwanted spare time can make you bitter and the steady stream of unsolicited free advice can drive you insane. But the time is also an opportunity to adjust your attitude for the better. Rehab is a time to appreciate the gift of health and to treat your body like the temple that it is. Typically, injuries lead to a heightened body awareness, an urge to do the right things, such as stretching, warming up and cooling down¿all the things that take too much time when you are healthy and seemingly indestructible. That awareness, along with a good understanding of body mechanics, helps you make better decisions in the future with regard to your susceptibilities and limitations. By respecting the body’s warning signs¿the swollen knee, the stiff, aching back or the joint-freezing trepidation¿you can back off when necessary and avoid future injuries.
To learn from your injuries you also need to interpret them. In my experience, injuries rarely happen without several contributing factors that only become clear in hindsight. Excessive sstress as well as inadequate physical and mental preparation lead to vulnerability. It is no cosmic coincidence when injuries beset a team like an epidemic. A happy, confident squad rolls on like a locomotive. But with undue stress, unreasonable expectations or a lack of confident leadership, things fall apart.
An injury can also serve as a red flag signifying that you are a bit over your head. Not only the weak and the sick, but also the young and the restless¿those pushing their limits into uncharted territory¿need to beware. This season’s early World Cup leader, 17-year-old Croatian sensation Janika Kostelic, suffered a season-ending knee injury in mid-December while running downhill. Certainly her accident could have been caused by all manner of contributing factors¿or merely bad luck. But it’s also possible that she, like so many rising stars, let confidence lead her too far too fast. That mistake can lead to a rather harsh slap on the wrist.
Whether you’re looking to win titles or just to enjoy the release that ski season promises, there is no good time to get injured. However, it is far better to take the time to fully recover than to limp through the season with Band-Aids. So the Type A “I want to recover yesterday” athletes might as well go big. Ligaments that are stretched but not torn, bones that are badly bruised but not broken, are just as likely to end the season as a full-blown tear or break, and make for a long, frustrating season. A slightly injured athlete with high expectations¿for competition or recreation¿is a ticking time bomb. The natural competitive urges of any athlete drives him or her to err on the side of foolishness, so the challenge is not in pushing, but in holding back. Rarely, a strong coach will override the athlete’s own desires and put on the brakes, forgoing the slim chance of a miraculous recovery for the sure bet of patience. More often, athletes learn that a smart recovery depends on their own common sense. That self-reliance, when realized, is empowering. Once out of commission, you’re essentially out of sight and out of mind, with no guarantees, no handholding and no daily encouragement. The personal isolation fosters independence and the confidence to make good decisions based on your own judgment. The discipline derived through injury can become a final test of sorts. Consider Pernilla Wiberg, who injured her knee as an unknown ski racer and then exploded to the top of the world rankings the following year. She rehabbed by delivering mail by bicycle in her native Sweden. Her dedication to the task, rain or shine, had less to do with her allegiance to the postal code of honor than with her own tunnel-vision plan of a return to skiing.
You may have noticed that the very greatest athletes have an endearing humility about them. It comes, in part, from knowing the role luck plays in all good fortune¿and that injury, among other things, can make them yesterday’s news in a Rice Krispies instant.
Former Olympian Edie Thys lives in New York City and can be reached at email@example.com. Check out her previous Racer eX columns at www.skimag.com.