Race, Crash, Surgery, Rehab. Then Repeat.
BEIJING — The life-size bust sits on a pedestal just inside the lobby of American skiing’s headquarters in Park City, Utah, a solitary bronze celebration of a singular figure in the sport.
It is not Billy Kidd, a godfather-type figure in American ski racing, or Bode Miller, a six-time Olympic medalist, or even Lindsey Vonn, among the most dominant skiers her country has ever produced.
It is Richard Steadman, a renowned orthopedic surgeon whose only affiliation with the Olympics was as a team doctor.
That the face greeting visitors to the training center for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Federation is not a skier but the stoic visage of a retired surgeon might seem a gruesome commentary on the toll the sport takes on racers.
Plenty of athletes, from soccer players to gymnasts, know their way around operating rooms and rehab centers. But spend just a little time hanging around elite Alpine skiers, listen to tales of their violent crashes, multiple operations, long months of rehabilitation and eventual returns to competition, and suddenly a statue to a visionary orthopedic surgeon begins to make sense.
Injury rates in Alpine skiing have reached their highest levels in a decade, according to the latest statistics from F.I.S., the world governing body for skiing and snowboarding.
“It is a sport that deals injuries to about 100 percent of its athletes,” said Breezy Johnson, the American speed specialist, who is all too familiar with operating rooms.
Johnson, a 26-year-old native of Jackson, Wyo., became a medal favorite after finishing second in her last three World Cup downhill races, but withdrew from the Games last month after tearing cartilage in her right knee in a high-speed training crash, the latest in a string of brutal injuries that was expected to require surgery.
Sunday’s men’s downhill could be especially precarious at the Beijing Games. Skiers trained for the first time Thursday on the blustery slope. The venue at Yanqing was built for these Olympics and the pandemic prevented test events from taking place here.
“It’s something,” Chris Powers, a speed coach for Canada, said Wednesday as he stared up at the narrow, twisting course. “It’s not like anything we have on the World Cup tour.”
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Ryan Cochran-Siegle is shouldering much of the hope for a United States medal in the men’s speed competitions. He broke his neck in January 2021 in a race in Kitzbühel, Austria, slipping his right ski as he tried to land a jump and tearing through the safety nets on the side of the trail. Surgeons fused two vertebrae, and Cochran-Siegle was back on snow by May, a testament to medical advances that keep top skiers on the circuit.
“There’s kind of a moment where you feel like you’re using 100 percent of your mental and physical body,” said Johnson, who never considered retirement, despite waves of depression. “To me, it’s really a feeling of life.”
For Johnson, the highs have also come with crushing lows:
A fractured left shinbone in a World Cup downhill in March 2017 and a partial tear to the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee during training in Chile in 2018. Doctors repaired it instead of replacing it, which allowed Johnson to get back on the snow within months.
The following June, she crashed while training for the safer giant slalom and tore two ligaments and some cartilage in the joint capsule. Johnson said she was lucky because there was little damage to the surface of the joint, a silver lining that Alpine skiers rely on to maintain their sanity.
What makes the best skiers so successful and thrilling to watch, the willingness to seek the razor-thin edge between aggression and recklessness, is also what often lands them under the scalpel.
Nearly every sport in the Winter Olympics carries some significant injury risks, but the rates of serious injury — the kinds of injuries that require months, even years to recover from — happen most often in Alpine skiing, despite efforts by the F.I.S. to alter equipment to make the sport safer.
From 2006 until 2019, the last year for which full-season statistics are available, Alpine skiers suffered 1,083 injuries in races at the sport’s highest level, the World Cup, and likely many more in training, a rate of about 30 injuries for every 100 athletes.
That number has been lower in most years than the rate in freestyle skiing and snowboarding. However, 41.3 percent of injuries in the Alpine World Cup sidelined skiers for more than 28 days. That number was 48 percent on the Europa Cup, the second tier of Alpine competition.
“F.I.S. is always trying to do what it can so that we don’t get hurt with the technology we have, but when you are sliding down a mountain at 90 miles per hour stuff is going to go sideways,” said Steve Nyman, a three-time Olympian for the United States who has battled a torn Achilles’ tendon and a torn A.C.L. in recent years but is still competing at 39.
Nyman’s resilience owes a debt to significant advances in orthopedic medicine during the past several decades. Injuries that once ended careers have become bumps in the road, which brings us back to that bust of Richard Steadman (“Steddy” to those who knew him best) in Park City.
Dr. Steadman started to make a name for himself in South Lake Tahoe in the 1970s, where instead of using hard plaster casts and recommending stationary rest after major joint surgery, he emphasized movement as quickly as possible to prevent muscle atrophy.
In March 1979, Dr. Steadman repaired Phil Mahre’s shattered left ankle with seven screws and a metal plate. Less than a year later, Mahre won a silver medal in slalom at the Lake Placid Olympics, and Dr. Steadman quickly became the go-to doctor for U.S. skiing.
He also is credited with inventing microfracture surgery, which involves drilling small holes in the bone to allow bone marrow to come to the surface and form new tissue that can replace damaged cartilage.
He moved to Vail, Colo., and opened the renowned Steadman-Philippon Clinic and Research Institute, where many of the world’s top athletes have sought treatment. Dr. Steadman is now retired from medicine and public life. Dr. Marc Philippon, a Canadian hip specialist who became his protégé and partner, said Steadman’s breakthroughs and the recent focus on reducing inflammation by attacking so-called bad cells has changed how both Olympians and normal people experience recovery from serious injuries.
“We want guys to ski longer and better, and to age well,” Philippon said.
Felix McGrath, a former Olympic skier and the father of the Norwegian racer Atle Lie McGrath, said he believed the pandemic, which forced a more compact schedule that limited training time early last season, was partly to blame for the spate of injuries last season, including to his son and other top Norwegian skiers.
“It was tiring,” McGrath said of the logistical challenges the pandemic forced skiers to deal with. “No one had ever been through it or dealt with it.”
Cochran-Siegle tries hard not to think about his misfortune the past few years.
A burly, 6-foot-1 Vermonter and son of the 1972 Olympic women’s slalom champion, Cochran-Siegle has a calm temperament but a daring, occasionally reckless style.
He recovered from knee surgeries early in his career and was coming off a World Cup win, in the Super-G in Bormio, Italy, when he crashed and fractured the seventh vertebra, known as C7, at the base of his neck.
“Once he got hurt at Kitzbühel you certainly know the risk is real, but I still have a lot of faith that he’ll ski well and recover from mistakes,” his mother, Barbara Ann Cochran, said recently.
For Cochran-Siegle, the strange thing about the injury and subsequent surgery — silver lining alert — was that he experienced no pain. Doctors did not have to cut into his muscles and cause the kind of additional trauma they had in previous surgeries, allowing him to believe he could quickly get back to the level he had just reached.
“That’s kind of my goal this season, to get back to that competitiveness.”
Bill Pennington contributed reporting.