Behind the Gold: The lonely road back
December 22, 2017
It had been 263 days since Laurenne Ross laid on the snow at Sugarloaf screaming in pain. Ski racing carries risks, as Ross knows — broken pelvis, torn ACL, lacerations to her face from a safety fence, plus that fateful crash in the U.S. Alpine Championships giant slalom this past spring just days after she had taken the U.S. super-G crown.
This past weekend, the 2014 Olympian from Oregon tapped her poles and pushed out onto the fabled O-K super-G course in Val d'Isère, France, hoping to find the passion that brought her into alpine ski racing in the first place.
There's nothing lonelier as a world-class athlete than spending a summer alone in rehab, hoping that someday you would be back on snow. Ross' injury was significant. And it came late in the season. It would be against all odds for her to come back in the year ahead, not to mention an Olympic season. The Steadman Clinic in Vail did its magic. Then it was up to Laurenne.
It was a hard summer. It started with pain — excruciating for the first month. But she could work through pain with bravery and courage. What really sank her into the depths of despair was the loneliness.
"I couldn't make myself a cup of tea," she recalled. "I was helpless! And although I had many loved ones around I just felt incredibly alone. That was a very dark time for me. But I got to know myself better and am certainly better for it."
She set a target with her therapists — a simple one — to just be back on snow in October. Together, they made a plan as to where she needed to be every week to achieve the goal. It took hard, physical work. But it was also demanding mentally — six or more hours a day in the gym!
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"I set very lofty goals with my therapists," she said, thinking back to the tremendous struggles. "We pushed the protocol for my injury very hard, and were on the limit of doing too much every day."
She remembers the milestones — first day weight bearing, the day she threw away the crutches and the October morning she clicked into her Marker bindings in Corralco and pointed her Völkl skis down the hill. Goal achieved!
First race back in Lake Louise, she was 30th in super G. Decent — in the points. But a long ways from where she wanted to be. The next weekend, weather wiped out the races in St. Moritz. Now it was on to Val d'Isère, where fresh snow blanketed the jagged peaks across the French Savoie.
The day before the race, she grabbed her powder skis and went off to clear her mind and find some positive energy. Race day morning was frantic. She was starting early — No. 2 — so it was a rush from inspection to start. "I didn't have much time to think," she said. "I got in the start and just decided to let all my thoughts go. I became aware of my breathing and my physical body and just went."
Starting second, she had no course report from a teammate. Her sore right knee was aching as it absorbed the bumpy track at 70 mph but she persevered, crossing the line in first place.
She soon relinquished her spot on the leaderboard, biding her time and waiting to determine the outcome of her run. In the stands she caught eyes with her father Rob, there to cheer her on. And she needed a hug. Together, they watched teammate Lindsey Vonn came down to win — her 78th World Cup victory.
Suddenly Ross realized she was eighth — in just her second race back — a top-10 putting her into a strong Olympic qualifying position.
On her personal web page Ross has inscribed: "I am an Olympic skier. An artist. An explorer and a creator." In her years on the tour, Ross has brought a special energy and spirit to the women's team, nicknamed the Speed Unicorns. She's rallied her teammates as fellow musicians. She's taken motivation from watching Julia Mancuso, Alice McKennis and Lindsey Vonn in their inspiring comebacks. And she's given back to others with her sense of calmness as she forged her career as a ski racer.
That day, though, was about her own family as she embraced her dad. Father and daughter watching a ski race — just like when she was a kid.
"It was wonderful to have him around, as it was a very emotional day for me," she said. "Eighth place felt like first — not at all what I was expecting."
It was a day when it was nice to have a shoulder to cry on. And to have it be her dad's was really special.
"All sorts of things have been going through Laurenne's head — 'Will I ski again? Can I ski fast?'" said her father.
Those questions were answered in Val d'Isère.
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