Back in the saddle again
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
The radiant smile has returned.
Three lost years marred by injury, heartache and personal doubt have passed. In their wake, the promise and the possibilities of a new ski season abound.
Sunday, for the first time in more than a year, 25-year-old Resi Stiegler, long one of the country’s most promising technical skiers, will step into the starting gates.
She will be making her first Aspen Winternational appearance since December 2007, when she finished eighth in slalom.
“There’s a little bit of both” anxiety and excitement, Stiegler admitted last week. “I’m excited to race in Aspen. I’m excited just to be racing again.”
The Jackson Hole, Wyo., native’s string of misfortune began in earnest in December 2007.
She opened with three top 10 finishes in the season’s first three World Cup slaloms and appeared poised for a breakout season. Everything changed, however, a month later in Lienz, Austria.
Her skis crossed as she negotiated a curve, sending her barreling through two rows of safety netting and into a tree. Stiegler sustained a broken left forearm and right shin, tore ligaments in her right knee and bruised her face and hip, according to reports.
Seven months into her rehabilitation, Stiegler reinjured her knee during a seemingly innocuous collision during a summer recreation soccer game. She fractured her tibia and strained her anterior and medial collateral ligaments.
The setback kept her out of competition until February 2009, when Stiegler improbably logged a Top 20 finish in slalom at the World Ski Championships in Val d’Isere, France.
She entered 2009-10 with hopes of excelling on the World Cup and securing a second Winter Olympics berth.
Instead, she was stung with more adversity.
One week before Winternational, during the day’s final training run at Copper Mountain, Stiegler caught a ski tip on a gate and went flying.
“I got a little too excited and was overdoing it,” she recalled. “I immediately knew I was done. I was just freaking out. I was so upset because I knew I wasn’t OK. I thought I blew my knee again.
“I didn’t even think it was possible to get injured again.”
Stiegler broke both her femur and tibia in the crash. She did not walk for nearly four months.
The mental struggle was almost too much to bare, Stiegler admitted.
“I really didn’t think about the other crashes – everyone has freak accidents,” she said. “But that changed everything.”
Doubt began to creep in. The animated racer known for her hard-charging, fearless style openly wondered if she would ever clip in again.
Or if she could.
“It was weird. Thinking of skiing down a hill was so overwhelming. … I would think I was going to die, catch an edge and break everything in my body,” Stiegler said.
“I’ve worked with a lot of people. For me, I just wanted to have people understand that I was not just having a normal bad day because I was not confident or was being a wuss. My mind was playing games with me.”
The symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome have lingered ever since, Stiegler said.
Still, she kept going. Kept going to rehabilitation. Kept working toward the day when she would get back on skis again.
That moment came in September in Chile.
“That was actually easy,” Stiegler said. “I just wanted to get back out there. This is what I love to do.
“Whether people are behind you or not, you have a goal and have to go at it again, go every day. I never even thought about what I’d be doing now. I was thinking about each day, about taking baby steps and trying to get better. … The team never once doubted me.”
Last week, almost a year to the day since her harrowing fall, Stiegler returned to Copper Mountain.
“I skied down past where I crashed, and one of the things I realized is that I’m so fortunate that I can keep going,” she said. “I was freaking out that morning … but the day went well. I think that really helped.
“That was a turning point, you know, one little step forward. The more I ski, the more I realize I’m going to be fine. I know it’s going to take more time than anything.”
Stiegler is hoping to take another step forward in Sunday’s slalom.
“I’m just excited I get the opportunity to do this again,” she said. “It’s been too long.”
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The Glenwood Springs Fire Department is battling a small blaze on a ridgeline west of Yampah Mountain High School.