The old adage, "You have to walk before you can run" pretty much sums up the last year for me. Of course, in my situation it's more like, "Before you can snowboard on an Olympic course, you have to prove that your repaired ACL can handle running." But you get the idea.
Running -- and now, finally, snowboarding -- are much more of an accomplishment these days than at any other time in my life. On Jan. 25, I tore my left ACL and meniscus during a training run at the X Games. I had been in Aspen with one goal on my mind: to become the first woman to five-peat in snowboard cross. Unfortunately, a different kind of first was in store. I overshot the final jump on the course and actually heard my knee snap as I landed (gross, right?). There was no getting away from it: I was done for the season.
In the 10 years I've been on the U.S. team, this is the first injury that's kept me out of competition for a year. I've broken my wrist and collarbone, but each paled in comparison when it came to seriousness, recovery time and, well, the ability to move around the house on my own.
My crutches became my best friend. I spent the first nine weeks after the injury trying to get around Park City -- and since it was winter, it was dangerous to crutch anywhere! Sometimes, I would crutch to the gym and pedal on the arm bike because it was the only thing I could do. It was disheartening watching the body I had worked on so hard slowly disintegrate. Within two weeks, the atrophy on my leg and quad reached what was definitely a "sad" state.
It was especially maddening because I had been doing the best I'd ever done that season. While it normally takes me a little while to get moving in the beginning of the year, I had won my first three World Cup races. It felt like the 2014 Sochi Olympics were just around the corner, and the season was another big stepping-stone toward the Olympics.
So, after the injury, as I did the sad little arm bike at the gym, I'd think, Will I ever get back to the way I was? Will I be able to trust myself to land on my knee like I did before? Will I have a gnarly scar from the surgery?
At some point, I realized how lucky I was. My dad was able to stay with me for months at a time when I was still crutching and completely helpless, while my mom, who had to work back home in Vermont, provided tons of support over the phone. I had awesome physios and trainers who had the recovery process mapped to a science. I didn't even get the gnarly scar -- that five-inch incision down the front of the patella that usually is the official branding of someone who has had ACL surgery. Mine is only an inch and a half or so, and very small and clean.
Now, 10 months later, my knee is healthy enough for me to be freeriding around on my board, though I'm not yet cleared to compete. If I had to put a number on it, I'd say the knee feels like it's about 80 percent. I'm feeling strong, but there's still a lot of work to do. It's still a roller coaster; I have great days, and then plateau and don't feel like I'm progressing. But my numbers and strength are continuously going up and the difference between my right and left knee is shrinking. The atrophied area is steadily being replaced by muscle; these days, only a trainer could look at my legs and know what happened.
Although I'd love to be back out competing again, I'm not in any rush to force anything when it's not ready. The Olympics are still more than a year away, and I'm taking my time and working to a point where I'm really feeling strong and confident, both mentally and physically. My body is going to be able to tell me if it's "go" time or not, and I aim to be back competing in February. With some luck and a lot more hard work, maybe another first I had my eye on -- winning an Olympic gold medal -- will still happen after all.