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When freeskiing makes its Olympic debut this month in Sochi, Russia, a handful of skiers will compete with knee injuries that likely should have ended their season weeks or months ago.
Instead of benching themselves during the biggest season of their careers, these athletes have decided to ski on partially or fully torn anterior cruciate ligaments -- or ACLs -- in their knees, a decision that doctors say is risky but will give them perhaps their only chance at Olympic glory.
In January, slopestyle skier Jossi Wells from New Zealand tweeted, "I know of at least 4-5 homies skiing without ACLs. It's scary what this Olympic business is pushing people to do."
Some skiers, of course, have backed out of the Olympics due to knee injuries: Norway's Tiril Sjåstad Christiansen, a favorite in women's ski slopestyle, announced just this week that she wouldn't be competing at the Olympics due to knee pain.
Australian Russ Henshaw and Norwegian PK Hunder have confirmed that they will compete in slopestyle, and Canadian Matt Margetts will compete in halfpipe in Sochi, all with torn ACLs.
Henshaw tore his ACL in 2013 and decided to keep skiing on the injured knee this season. "I've been skiing now a year without an ACL," Henshaw said. "The original thought for me was if I could ski without it, that would be better. Going into X Games and the Olympics, I didn't want to have surgery and get back on snow just before those two events."
Tom Hackett, an orthopedic surgeon at The Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colo., which treats many elite snowsports athletes, estimates that he has around six patients -- skiers and snowboarders from around the world -- who tore their ACLs during the early season and plan to compete in Sochi.
"In some cases, there's an option to keep skiing and get the knee repaired later, but you start rolling the dice once you make that decision," Hackett said. "There are some types of knee injuries where that's not an option at all, but with some of these isolated injuries, you may be able to get through a short period of time, especially with someone who's really strong and adept at what they're doing."
|PK Hunder from Norway will be competing in ski slopestyle at the Winter Olympics after a recent knee injury.|
Of his decision to keep competing, Hunder said, "The doctors told me I am one of the few that can function just fine without an ACL. I've been around enough injuries in this sport that I know when you remove your ACL, obviously your knee is going to be unstable and the risk of getting other injuries increases."
Hackett said he presents his patients with the options and lets them make decide whether to go into surgery or board a flight for Russia.
"The reward is glory," Hackett said. "The long-term risks could be significant and permanent damage to the knee that could eventually prevent them from skiing at that level ever again. But for some of these skiers, they have just one shot at the Olympics. Having that experience is something people don't often get two chances at."
Americans Simon Dumont and Tom Wallisch had hoped to compete in Sochi despite recent knee injuries, but neither qualified for the U.S. team.
In January, Dumont competed in the final halfpipe contest of the Grand Prix in Park City, Utah, the last Olympic qualifier, after tearing his ACL the day before. "I figured it would be worth screwing up my knee for life for a chance to compete in the Olympics," Dumont said.
Ultimately, Dumont's results weren't enough to earn him a spot on the U.S. team. He underwent surgery on Jan. 24 and announced his retirement from competitive halfpipe skiing.
Wallisch suffered a clean-cut tear of his ACL -- no meniscus or cartilage damage -- while training in New Zealand in October.
"I talked to my doctor, and it's not something everyone can do, but this was a year I wanted to go out there and try to perform on that world stage, try to go the Olympics and showcase our sport," Wallisch said in a recent YouTube video he released about his injury. "There are a lot of risks and difficulties involved, but more than anything, I wanted to try to ski this season."
So Wallisch set out to qualify for the U.S. team with one functioning knee. He trained in the gym five days a week to strengthen his weaker leg. His first contest back was the Olympic-qualifying Dew Tour at Breckenridge, Colo., in mid-December -- seven weeks after his ACL tear -- where he placed fifth. After the final two qualifiers, Wallisch was ranked seventh on the U.S. points list. Only four will represent the U.S. at the Olympics.
"I tried to keep it safe and save my knee for bigger runs and better tricks that I was planning for the Olympics, but unfortunately, I'm not going to have that opportunity," Wallisch said in the video. "Regardless, I'm excited to watch my friends and watch the whole U.S. team go out to Russia and slay it."