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McKennis Featured in Vail Daily: Unbroken and Undeterred

By U.S. Ski & Snowboard
August, 1 2019
Alice McKennis Back on the Podium
Alice McKennis lands back on the podium for the first time in five years, taking 3rd place during the World Cup Finals Women's Downhill on March 14, 2018 in Are, Sweden. (Getty Images - Alain Grosclaude)

Olympian Alice McKennis (New Castle, Colo.) has gone through her fair share of career ups and downs. In 2013, McKennis landed her first FIS Ski World Cup podium - which just happened to be a victory - on the challenging St. Anton, Austria track. The next season, though, McKennis shattered her right tibial plateau into about 30 pieces in a Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany crash that sidelined her for the remainder of the season. It would take McKennis a ton of hard work and unmatched perseverance to make it back to the podium, which she did at the end of the 2017-18 season in Åre, Sweden, with a third place. 

McKennis grew up on a cattle ranch in New Castle, Colo., but she lived close enough to the mountains for her future career path to make sense. Her father, Greg, took her to Sunlight Mountain Resort in Glenwood Springs, Colo. before she had even turned two. She began racing at age five, following her older sister, Kendra, who later competed on the FIS level for two seasons. When she was nine, McKennis joined Ski Club Vail, the club that was nurturing the all-around skills of Alpine star-in-the-making Lindsey Vonn. McKennis watched in awe and took some valuable mental notes as the U.S. Ski Team phenom, who was five years older than her, tore down the slopes. After several years of bouncing around different ski clubs in Colorado, McKennis landed with the Aspen Valley Ski Club.

Edward Stoner of the Vail Daily recently caught up with McKennis to talk about her progress after her most recent setback - a "freak accident" in 2018, in which McKennis crashed while coaching at a camp for future downhillers in Mammoth Mountain, California. Of course, this would come on the tail-end of one of McKennis' best seasons of her career, with a fifth at the Olympics in Pyeongchang in downhill, and a podium at the World Cup Finals in Åre, Sweden alongside her now-retired teammate Lindsey Vonn (Vail, Colo.). She suffered a transverse fracture of both her tibia and fibula. That was the start of a nagging injury that just wouldn't heal. 

McKennis underwent surgery in Mammoth in May, which entailed getting two titanium rods — one for the tibia and one for the fibula. Doctors were still suggesting that she’d be skiing at some point that winter.

At six weeks, her physician, Dr. William Sterett, of Vail Summit Orthopaedics and the U.S. Ski Team, saw essentially no bone healing in X-rays. She underwent another surgery in July, this time to remove a screw that was potentially slowing the healing.

Six weeks later, there was still little healing. She began to develop a searing pain on the inside of her ankle when she walked. Medical imagery revealed that scarring around the fracture was the source of the pain.

It got to the point where she could barely walk.

“The whole time, my leg was just still broken, and that was really one of the hardest things I’ve had to go through,” she said.

Doctors told her she needed ankle surgery. She’d go home and cry. Then she’d go to the gym push her body to the limit. The rods were effective in stabilizing the bone, allowing her to train relatively hard. But walking was painful. She remembers literally crawling from station to station in the gym at one point.

So, after all of this - you may think to yourself, 'Why keep going?! Is it worth it?' 

For McKennis, it is. She wants to win more World Cup races. She wants to go back to the Olympics. She knows she has more gas left in the tank. The Vail Daily asked her, and here's how she answered: 

“Those are things I still want to achieve and I’m really confident I can, so I’m not ready to give up on that. I’m not ready to stop that dream. I still want to pursue it for a few more years and see what I can accomplish. From when I was young, it was always my dream to do this. So, I’m just not ready yet. I still think I have a lot to give to the sport.”

Keep an eye out for Mckennis, who has returned to snow and will be back with the women's speed team in Portillo, Chile in September. 

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