Morgan Schild’s Lucky Left
Morgan Schild has never completed a FIS World Cup tour from start to finish. Though trauma has kept her stats low, what Schild has overcome and accomplished during her professional skiing career is unfathomable to most: sustaining and recovering from not one, not two, but three season-ending injuries.
Schild grew up skiing in Rochester, New York, at Bristol Mountain and credits coach Johnny Kroetz for her passion for skiing bumps. She skied with the Bristol Mountain Freestyle team until she was 16, when she moved out west to take her place on the U.S. Ski Team. “As a little 9, 10 year old, I was this little spitfire chasing after the boys. Johnny took all of that and translated it into something positive.”
Schild made the U.S. Ski Team in 2014 and had her first World Cup start at the end of that season in Dual Moguls in La Plagne, France. She came dead last. She joined the international World Cup tour in 2015 and started to find success. Schild won her first event, Dual Moguls, in Japan in 2015. However, just two and a half weeks later, during training in Italy for Junior World Championships, she blew her left knee for the first time. “I had just won Rookie of the Year on the World Cup. I was having my big break moment. And then all of those things came to a halt. I remember it was the first time I thought that I wasn't necessarily invincible from skiing.”
About a month a half later, Schild underwent her first surgery and moved out to Park City, Utah, full time to rehab. It took her 22 months to get back into competition from that first injury, including a second surgery. She made her triumphant return on home snow at the Lake Placid World Cup in 2017 and earned her second-career World Cup podium with a third place finish. Carrying the momentum from such a stellar start, Schild went on to win the Deer Valley World Cup.
The 2016-17 season set Schild up well for the 2017-18 Olympic season. “[That] season came around, and it was going to be the first World Cup tour I did in good health.” In January at Deer Valley, Schild solidified her spot on Team USA with a pair of third places on the Champion course. “The Olympics were a lot of ups and downs. I definitely have some unfinished business. I went from qualifying in third to a 15th place finish.”
Schild’s world came to another halt when she tore her left ACL for the second time during training in Tazawako, Japan in March 2018.
“I knew right away. Even though I had torn it before, I didn’t think it would ever happen again. It’s one of those things, you think you’re done with your [injury] chapter, writing the end... then all of a sudden - plot twist - and you have to start all over again. I had heard of people coming back from two ACLs, but I was so nervous that my knee wasn’t going to work ever again or that I wasn’t going to be able to come back.”
About a month post-injury, Schild went under the knife to repair her left knee again. The rehab process for her second injury was smoother and shorter. Schild blew through her rehab milestones, a stark contrast to her previous experience.
In January 2019, Schild made her second comeback on the Lake Placid course. She placed fifth. “I had been training for about two to three months. I felt healthy. I hit all of my rehab milestones and strength tests. I felt ready to go.” However, somewhere between training and competition, Schild no longer had a left ACL, again.
“I remember pushing into the gate and being pretty nervous. It was my first competition back, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I competed through qualies, and thought ‘okay made it through, did well.’ I qualified well enough for super finals, I didn’t see that coming. I think in my super finals run I competed without an ACL. I think I blew it before then because I knew something was off in that run. I skied it all on my right leg. I didn’t understand what or why I was skiing weird. I got fifth that day, I don't even know how I did that.”
The Lachman’s test confirmed Schild’s worst thoughts. “I would say that day was possibly the worst day of my life.”
“You start to go down this woe is me path. I needed something to kick me in the butt. Looking up at my teammates and friends crushing it on Champion it was like, ‘If that’s what you want to do, go do it. Go fix yourself and do it.’”
“What’s another ACL recovery?” she added sarcastically.
Schild decided to do a two-part surgery to fix her knee for the third time. The first part of the process was to fill the holes in her bone the previous surgeries created, take bone grafts, and let everything heal for about three to five months, which actually turned into seven. She also had her meniscus repaired. “I was not really prepared for not having an ACL for seven months. That really got me as an athlete. I didn’t have control over whether I was getting better or healing. Time was a huge part of my recovery, and I felt like I was just watching it go by at a very slow pace.”
On October 8, 2019, Schild underwent the second part of her third surgery process. “I was so nervous, I didn't know if i was ever going to feel like a ‘normal’ athlete again. Being able to compete was such a crucial part of my identity. As much as you do outside of sport, for example, I tried school (I’m almost done with a psych major and angled to go pre-med), but it wasn't as satisfying. The one thing I really wanted to do was ski.”
With her third ACL injury repaired Schild could focus on the task at hand and build herself back up to World Cup level skiing. “That final surgery made everything settle. I was back at the beginning again. It was such a relief to know I could start working towards skiing again."
In between her final two surgeries, Schild admits she was not in a great place and credits her wide support system for keeping her going. “I was really in my head. I was not in a good place as an athlete or a person. I had tremendous help from my sports psychologist, and without my physical therapists and doctors telling me I could do it, I certainly would not have had the confidence to keep rehabbing.”
Being open about injury and the toll it takes on the body both physically and mentally does not always gel with being an elite athlete. There is a contradiction in showing vulnerability when being held to a certain standard of performance. Schild reflects, “It hasn’t been easy to share all of the moments that aren’t so great. For example, social media is a place where you try to promote yourself in a positive light. That can feel like such a big weight when you’re just trying to keep yourself together day to day. But I realized in the last year and a half I was holding all of this in and not allowing myself to feel everything, and it was just hurting me. I also came to the realization that so many more people, athletes and girls especially, are going through really hard emotional times in sport that we aren’t even aware of.”
Through an almost inevitable conversation - driving for hours will do that - with a fellow athlete, Schild realized that they were both going through the same thing. Having that camaraderie in that moment was everything. “I could only imagine if I could have had that conversation with my younger self, what a game-changer that would have been.”
“That conversation opened my eyes to things I felt I needed to ignore as a competitive athlete. I realized I wasn’t the only female athlete to be depressed.”
Though difficult for her to say publicly, Schild knows this is an important part of her story. “I was diagnosed as depressed and despite my efforts I could not fix myself, and I needed help from a professional. Luckily I had resources through the USOPC that helped me address my mental health. It’s important to me that the social stigma that clouds mental health within my sport community can be broken. It’s the reason I was so hesitant to seek help. None of my role models were depressed, so how could I possibly be?”
Even through the darkness, the pain and struggle, Schild still believes everything happens for a reason and chooses to see the light at the end of her injury tunnel. Injury, although devastating, provides an opportunity for self-reflection through the healing process.
“Only when the dust settles and everything stops moving, can you look around and see. That moment is very revealing. I don’t know if any athlete is really ready for it. Despite how many times I’ve been injured, that moment is always the hardest thing to deal with.”
“That’s one reason why I feel like I need to talk about it. When I was 16, 17, going through injury, I just came up with my own coping mechanisms trying to figure it out. It wasn’t the healthiest way to do things. I wish I had had someone to look up to, someone to tell me it’s okay to be bummed about being injured. If I could have told myself that then I think I would have been much better equipped to deal with the trauma and hardships now at 23.”
Countless hours in the gym, relentless mental gymnastics and 661 days after blowing her “lucky left” for the third time, Schild put boots in bindings and skis to snow in November 2020. She is taking things slowly and day by day, and will focus on building a strong foundation to get her feet underneath her once again.
She credits her PT crew, including Jen Kimball, Chuck Williams, Dave Quammen, and Gillian Bower, for “literally picking me up and piecing me back together.” Schild is grateful to Dr. Robert LaPrade for solving the puzzle of her knee for the third time and Dr. Alex Cohen for keeping her mentally strong. She knows she owes a huge thank you to her Olympian boyfriend, Emerson, who “put up with my ups and many downs during these injuries.” And last but not least, Schild points to friend Greek Olympian Alexi Pappas for being a source of inspiration and strength.
In the next few months you can catch Schild working her way through the mogul course. She plans to listen to her body and let it guide her training back to full speed and tricks. Her eyes are on competing at a second Olympic Winter Games and that puts everything else into perspective.
“My hopes are that I can return to the 2022 season with confidence and a healthy body and mind. As long as I stay on track with that, I feel like I should hit that Olympic qualification process with nothing but wind under my sails.”
Follow Morgan’s road to Beijing 2022 on her Instagram @morganschild