GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Alice McKennis still has the titanium plate and the metal screws that helped repair her right leg following a bad skiing accident in 2013. She even jokes about what she’ll eventually do with them.
“I still don’t know,” the 25-year-old Glenwood Springs native and former Winter Olympian said with a smile on her face. “I’m thinking that when I’m done skiing, maybe I’ll make a wind chime or something.”
That possible future wind chime was used to fuse together McKennis’ right tibial plateau, which by a conservative estimate was broken in 30 pieces following a crash during a World Cup race in Garmish, Germany. The accident happened just two months after she posted her first FIS World Cup victory in St. Anton, Italy, where she was mobbed by her teammates after she claimed her spot atop the podium.
McKennis, however, has had plenty of time to recover from that injury. She made the decision not to rush her comeback in January, announcing she wouldn’t be joining her U.S. Ski Team teammates at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, just weeks before the opening ceremonies.
Eight months later, she doesn’t regret that decision one bit.
“I was playing catchup,” she said, noting she had been on crutches for three months before she began training with her teammates in the summer and, eventually, at Copper Mountain this past November. “I was trying to get back to where I was, and ... I wasn’t even close to being back to where I was.
“I figured that this was the time to take a step back instead of pushing too far and re-injuring myself,” she added. “And I’m glad I did. I am so much stronger now.”
And that strength wasn’t just physical.
When McKennis had her accident in Germany in March of 2013, it was the second time she had suffered a potentially debilitating injury. The first came not long after she’d competed for the United States at the Vancouver Winter Games in 2010, when, during the ensuing World Cup season, she broke her left tibial plateau during a training run in Austria. For that one, she needed a titanium plate and five screws to stabilize the fracture before she spent the next seven months rehabbing and, eventually, getting back on snow three months earlier than expected that August.
She went through the 2011-12 season unscathed and successful, earning season points in six of the eight World Cup events she competed in. Her ascent seemed to be continuing when she won in St. Anton, but she came crashing down — figuratively and literally — two months later in Germany.
It was what she considered the low point of her career — a point where she seriously considered giving up competitive skiing. Most of that feeling came from how intimidating another comeback seemed, knowing how much more severe this injury was compared to the one she recovered from in 2011.
“There was definitely about a month there where I said to myself, ‘I’m not doing this anymore,’” McKennis said. “I knew how much worse my most recent injury was, and I knew how hard it was to come back from the first injury. I didn’t think I could come back from one that was so much worse.”
Then, something changed her mind.
“I went to see some of my friends for training in Beaver Creek [in April of 2013],” she said. “Seeing them, being back in that environment and seeing them training a little bit, I said to myself, ‘I still want to do this. It’s gonna be worth it.’”
She’s made it worth it so far, and not just on the ski slopes. The weight and training rooms at the USSA Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah, have become a second home to her. She also spent some time in June skiing atop Mt. Hood, Ore., fighting off the windy and rainy conditions that come with the late-spring conditions. She went with the U.S. Ski Team to New Zealand in July, where she and her teammates trained on giant slalom courses to relearn some fundamental items needed for competition.
On Sunday, she’ll go with her teammates to Zermatt, Switzerland, where they’ll delve into the super-G and downhill disciplines and give McKennis a chance to re-acclimate herself to the high-speed courses she’s excelled on in the past.
McKennis said she’s “85 percent” back to where she was when she was at her peak prior to her most recent injury, and the short list of items she feels she has to improve include being mentally ready to scream down the slopes again.
“Physically, I’m perfectly fine right now,” she said. “Now it’s just a matter of putting it all together.”
She might have a chance on a local stage, as the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships will be held at Beaver Creek from Feb. 2-15. It’s big for McKennis, since women’s World Cup downhill and super-G — her primary events — are rarely held in U.S. soil.
“My goal there is to win a medal in downhill or Super-G,” McKennis said. “Obviously, gold is the ultimate goal, but I’ll take any color. But after what I’ve been through and knowing I’ve been on the top step before, I’ll do anything I can to get there again.”