Before my face even hit in the snow, I knew I’d really messed up my knee. On the toboggan ride down, an embarrassing moment caught by my cousin on his GoPro, I tried to not think about the pain and told myself it’d all be okay. A month after my fall while skiing in Utah, I know it will all be okay, but the road is long — it turns out, I basically ripped apart my knee (ACL, MCL and meniscus) and two weeks after my injury had extensive reconstruction surgery to put it back together.
One part of the injury I didn’t expect to deal with was the psychological part. Beyond just the physical aspect of a sports injury are a flurry of emotions and feelings that aren’t often talked about. Inherently, athletes of any caliber endure pain, both mental and physical. But sudden major injuries, like those common in skiing, are particularly difficult to deal with psychologically. Unlike over-use injuries, like stress fractures that creep up over time, there is something especially heartbreaking when your body goes from ‘perfect health’ to ‘broken’ in an instant.
For me, the emotions associated with my injury are complicated. A month after graduating college, I was riding high on life. Finally, I was free to do whatever I wanted for a few months before starting a new job in Washington, D.C. My injury instantly deflated my enthusiasm. In addition to my pain and immobilization, my mom’s cancer resurfaced and my sister’s health worried the whole family. Normally, when stressed, I ski all day or hop on my bike for hours, but I had robbed myself of that crucial outlet of expression and didn’t know how to cope in a healthy way. My leg atrophied rapidly and with it my strength and identity as an athlete.
Already predisposed to anxiety, leading up to the operation I lay in bed at night trying to fall asleep, replaying my fall and hearing the pop-pop. My body filled with anger. Why did it happen to me? Why now? I love my body, so how could I hurt it so badly?
When Lindsay Vonn tore her ACL earlier this season, knocking her out of the Sochi 2014 Olympics, she put a good face on the disappointment. But her disappointment was still clear, if not in her Facebook statement, then in her actions leading up to her announcement. Rather than taking time to properly rest after last season’s injury and surgery, and rather than acknowledging her pain this season, she pushed through and re-ruptured her newly reconstructed ACL.
To someone who isn’t a dedicated athlete, her process might look crazy and self-inflicted — sort of like when people look at my locked leg brace or scars and say, “that’s why I never tried skiing.” But to an athlete, even if, logically, it makes sense to stop, emotionally it doesn’t for so many reasons.
One reason is because Lindsay Vonn is a ski racer. She doesn’t just do it, she is it. Stopping would rob her of a primary identity.
But Olympians or professional athletes aren’t the only athletes who identify so strongly with one sport.
“I don’t know how to not be a ski racer,” said Kerry Daigle, a junior at Middlebury College in Vermont and member of the Division I Alpine Ski Team. After tearing her ACL, MCL and meniscus senior year of high school and having additional meniscus surgery during college, thinking about not skiing is almost more difficult than skiing with a swollen, painful knee. “To be honest, I’ve never been so good at something other than ski racing. When this [second injury] happened it was so upsetting for me because I knew it was bigger than the other times. My brain wasn’t ready to accept it yet. I knew it in my heart but I wouldn’t let my brain go there.”
Luckily, Daigle is still on the roster for next season, but her path has been difficult and frustrating.
Although Daigle and I basically had the same surgery, because we identify differently with skiing, it would be insensitive to compare the weight of my injury to hers — I’m a “skier,” but that isn’t one of my primary identities.
“The psychology is the same for many athletes, just the identity is different,” said Dr. Valerie Valle, a psychologist who works with sports teams at the University of New Mexico. “There are different levels of identity and resiliency.”
There are pros and cons to these levels of identity and resilience. Even as a “joint compromised athlete,” Daigle is probably still a stronger skier than I’ll ever be. I’m not stellar at any one sport, but I’m all around good at a lot of activities. Growing up, I skied every Sunday, but I also spent every other day of the week playing lacrosse or soccer.
Even with different primary identities, athletics is very important to both of us and we shared a similar mentality during recovery.
“People who have the mentality of extreme athletes and don’t tolerate slowing down very well are often dejected and depressed when they’re first injured because they want to know the whole timeline [for recovery],” said Dr. Brian Gilmer, an orthopedic surgeon with the Taos Orthopedic Institute in New Mexico. “That’s challenging because all people and all injuries are different.”
When I first saw Dr. Gilmer a week after my injury, that’s exactly how I was. During the exam, I kept asking questions like, “how many weeks until I can run?” “How many months until I can ski?” After my MRI, when he told me it would be weeks until I could even walk normally, much less run and ski, I was temporarily heartbroken. Once I was given goals — full extension of leg in two days, bend knee 10 more degrees every week — I became empowered and finally had a semblance of control.
Already generally goal driven people, when an athlete is first injured, getting back to the sport as fast as possible is essential and goals like the ones I have for myself are helpful mile markers. Yet, even with clear goals in mind, a long recovery is hard to swallow. This is especially true in ski racing where muscle memory — and maintaining muscle memory — is crucial.
When Maddie Leopold, a sophomore at Middlebury College and member of the ski team, broke her tibia and fibula when she crashed at the bottom of a training run her freshman year, all she could think about was getting back on snow as fast as possible.
“I worked my ass of from the get go … and made it a competitive recovery,” said Leopold, who took this year off from Middlebury to further recover. “When you have an injury, getting better is all you can think about.”
Even though her recovery was competitive and she got back on snow in six months (two months ahead of schedule), she wasn’t entirely good to go. The first hurdle was expected — with a metal rod in her shin, getting shin pressure, which is crucial to any kind of downhill skiing, but especially racing, was difficult. The second hurdle was unexpected.
“In January [a year after the injury], I tried to ski a Giant Slalom course and I was just terrified,” she said. “I felt really unstable and flimsy even though I was stronger than I’d ever been. That was hard.”
Leopold isn’t the only athlete with trouble getting back to her previous level of intensity.
“Upon return, it is often really challenging to get that 100% intensity,” said Stever Bartlett, Head Coach of the Middlebury College Ski Team. “It comes down to whether you’re willing to hit the gas pedal or the e-brake … Slight pain in the knee, especially after significant injury, can make hitting the gas pedal hard.”
Leopold realized how difficult it can be to “hit the gas pedal,” even if you want to.
For Daigle, the physical pain wasn’t as big a factor as the disconnect between her brain and body.
“When you have surgery, they cut a lot of nerves and change the feeling [in your knee],” she said. “When you come back to skiing, it really doesn’t feel the same way. I knew exactly what I was supposed to do in my head but I got on the course and I was completely lost because my body didn’t know what to do. I had no control over my body, which is a really frustrating feeling because I knew in my head what to do, but I didn’t know how to get there. I didn’t expect that. There was a disconnect between brain and muscles.”
This, too, is a common difficulty for athletes with major injuries.
“Once you’ve gotten injured, your brain remembers that [injury] and is trying to protect you,” said Dr. Gilmer. “After injury, you spend a lot of time not moving because your leg is immobilized … When you’re not walking on your leg or bending it, that conversation [between mind and body] goes silent. It is like a neglected relationship where you don’t talk to your friend and the first conversation is a little awkward.”
Every step of the process has potential challenges for athletes, but how an athlete deals with it boils down to one thing, according to Dr. Valle.
“All these questions really go back to this,” she said. “How is the individual perceiving the situation?”
For athletes, it is important to balance that perspective with reality and to think about how much time healing will take and whether it is worth the risk — mental and physical — to try to get back to competitive intensity.
“What it comes down to is, are they ready to take a risk and put their body down the hill that fast?” said Bartlett. “If you’re a senior, maybe you’re thinking, ‘am I going to make the US Ski Team? How am I going to walk when I’m 50?’”
Leopold, Daigle and I all have different injuries, perspectives and goals regarding skiing and athletics in general. For me, thinking about never skiing again is hard, but totally do-able. For Daigle and Leopold, the conversation and thought process is different. And, even though they both identify as “ski racers,” their thought processes are totally different.
Daigle has been dealing with her injury for years and is near the end of her college career.
“It is interesting how my mindset has changed over time,” she said. “This year was hard because I kept thinking about senior year of high school. I keep thinking back about how much time it has taken.”
Leopold is still early in her college career, has a completely different injury and has taken her own journey to get back on the snow and in the gates. To do so, she developed her own tricks for putting her injury in perspective and to balance both the mental and physical aspects of recovery.
“You have to acknowledge the pain you’re feeling, respect it, but don’t give it too much respect.”
I’m in the beginning stages of my recovery and her words of wisdom have helped me and echo whenever I come to a point where pain makes it difficult to push through. I respect the pain, but I can’t back down every time I feel it.
Molly Talbert was born and raised in Santa Fe, NM and is a recent graduate of Middlebury College. Her knee is healing well and she plans on biking this summer and preparing to hit the slopes again next winter.