The 2014 Winter Olympics are less than two months away and local athletes are preparing. Ski racer Alice McKennis has a good shot at making Team USA if she can overcome a serious injury. Earlier this year the New Castle native crashed at a race in Germany. Late last month in Copper, she made some serious headway. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.
On a recent cold day in Copper, ski racer Alice McKennis suits up. She buckles her boots, puts on a back protector and dons a tight-fitting speed suit.
"It's not very warm, but it’s good for the aerodynamics," she says as she zips up.
She’ll take a handful of runs today at the U.S. Ski Team’s Speed Center. Professional skiers from around the world gather here to train for the Olympics.
Today McKennis is focusing on technique and making cleaner, faster turns. It’s a big day for another reason. She’s planning to ski the entire course from top to bottom, something she hasn’t done since suffering a severe injury in March.
McKennis maps out the day’s training plan with a team of coaches.
McKennis skis two courses here: a Super G and a Giant Slalom. The 24-year-old has been skiing since she was a toddler. She made her first turns at Sunlight Mountain Resort near Glenwood Springs. Now, she skis with the likes of Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin. And, if she makes it to Sochi, it’ll be her second time at an Olympics. She competed in Vancouver in 2010.
At Copper, McKennis makes her way down the course for the first time. The conditions are pretty good.
"The snow’s good today. It’s better than I thought it was going to be. It was cold last night, so it hardened up pretty well," she says.
She takes a few more runs and then readies for her last one, which will cover the entire length of the mountain.
She takes off and flies down the course dotted with gates that skiers zig zag around, so they make a figure eight down the mountain in less than two minutes. Partway down the course, McKennis flies by, going upwards of 65 miles per hour.
At the bottom, she says she’s happy with today’s training.
"The last run of the day, I kinda knew the course and knew where all the terrain was, so I was able to ski more aggressively and push the line more, so it was a good run to finish on," she says out of breath.
Her comeback to the sport is impressive. The crash she suffered in March broke her leg in 30 places. The doctors doubted she’d be training at year’s end.
"I mean, initially, it was kind of like, ‘you’re probably not going to ski next season. Maybe you’d ski next January, but you’re certainly not going to race.'"
But, the surgery and healing went better than expected. Now she has a metal plate and eleven screws in her leg. She says she’s got an edge on the competition because of the injuries she’s endured.
"I’d say I’m pretty tough. I’ve broken both of my legs, essentially, and come back from those injuries. I kinda feel like with that sort of situation, you have to be super tough to do it and making the Olympics is extremely hard, so it takes a certain kind of toughness to do that," she says.
Pascal Hasler is one of McKennis’ coaches. He says she’s improving quickly because she has her sights set on the Olympics.
"With her injury, we saw the pictures and we know what’s in there: plates and screws, and I think it’s amazing, how well she’s doing," he says.
Leanne Smith is on the U.S. Ski Team with McKennis. The team is like family, so she says she’s closely watched McKennis improve.
"Alice is a very hard worker. I think that should be the most important point of her and her ski career. She’s a lot of fun. It’s nice to have people like Alice who you actually get along with and can see yourself being friends with outside of the sport."
Back out on the snow, McKennis feels confident after today’s runs.
"Today I was definitely nervous to run the full length of the course but I got up there and I thought, I’ve got to do this. I just need to go and do it right now. Once I do it, I’m like, alright, let’s just keep moving forward and skiing faster and better."
It’s that kind of attitude that will get McKennis to the Olympic Games. The team will be named before the Games start on February 7th.