For all those fighting the good fight, let me share my story of overcoming one of the greatest adversities I’ve ever endured: coming back from a spinal injury that very nearly ended my skiing career. Less than two years after this challenging injury, I went on to win America’s first gold medal in the sport.
I quickly learned that you can have all the focus and commitment in the world, but your hard shell isn’t really complete if you don’t have the ability to overcome adversities. And I ran head-on into that adversity in 1996, two years before my second Winter Olympic Games.
As the 1995-1996 season progressed, I found I could almost re-create those same stellar results I had experienced just the year before, but I wasn’t always the one standing on the top of the podium. Three-quarters of the way through the year, the coveted yellow jersey bib always worn by the athlete leading the World Cup tour belonged to a woman named Veronica Brenner, from Canada.
In February, 1996, at a contest in Oberjoch, Germany, Veronica didn’t qualify for finals. Being so close to her in the standings, I hoped this was my chance to pull ahead of her and regain the first-place ranking.
But as the year progressed, I was experiencing some pain in my lower back from a muscle spasm that just wasn’t going away. I woke up the day of finals in Oberjoch and went up to my coach, Wayne Hilterbrand, and told him the muscle spasm had returned and my back was hurting quite a bit. He told me we only needed to do four jumps: two training ones and two for the contest. I agreed that I could get through them.
I went to the start of the inrun and got ready to go. I skied down the hill and up the kicker, but as I reached the top, I felt a shooting pain in my lower back as if I had just been stabbed by a knife. Though I finished my jump maneuver, I felt another searing pain upon impact.
I managed to ski away, but collapsed when I reached the bottom of the hill. I found that I couldn’t bend forward in order to stand up. Our team physical therapist, Kim Nelson, rushed over to see what was wrong.