Ready to dream again

Courtesy of Alice McKennis

Alice McKennis celebrates her first time back on snow after a devastating injury in March.

For most of my childhood, horses came first and ski racing was a distant second. I was born in Glenwood Springs, Colo., and raised on a cattle and horse ranch nearby. The ranch is about an hour from the closest ski meccas of Vail and Aspen, so I learned to ski at a humble place called Sunlight Mountain Resort -- with a bunch of unruly kids in hand-me-down speed suits and beat-up K2 skis. We terrorized the mountain on a daily basis.

I almost retired from ski racing altogether when I was 16, after a disappointing season. But a coach of mine eventually convinced me to come to one last ski camp at Mt. Hood, Ore., and my first run back on snow gave me so much joy that I knew I couldn't give up the sport yet. Instead, I shifted to one sole focus: becoming an Olympian in skiing.

My father (a single dad), my older sister and I would rent a small apartment in a ski town during the winters so we could be closer to skiing when things were quiet on the ranch. We lived in Vail, Steamboat and Summit County. I remember my dad sleeping on a pullout couch and my sister and I sharing a bed all winter and never thinking anything of it. One year we lived at a Holiday Inn in Frisco, Colo., and made very good use of that hotel microwave!

All that mattered to my sister and me was that we got to go skiing every day. And soon, my dreams started coming true. I made the U.S. Ski Team in 2008, and then I surprised everyone -- including myself -- by earning a spot on the Olympic downhill team in Vancouver in 2010. It was my rookie World Cup season, and making the team was truly a dream come true.

But it hasn't always been fairy tales. A fractured left tibia plateau in 2010 -- surgically repaired with a plate and five screws -- felt like a nightmare. After lots of recovery and work to get back, I had my first World Cup podium last season in a victory in St. Anton, Austria, in January.

Courtesy of Alice McKennis

Alice McKennis was a talented junior skier, but she almost gave up the sport as a young teen.

It was another dream realized. But then shortly after my victory I was injured again -- and this injury was far worse than the last. In a downhill race in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, on March 2 I lost my balance and crashed. My right tibia plateau shattered into more than 30 pieces, and this time, I also fractured my right tibia. I had surgery shortly after, and a plate and 11 screws were put in to hold everything together. I felt like my dreams were shattered. Literally.

The initial prognosis was that I would not ski until January and would not race this 2014 Olympic season. But that estimate meant nothing to me. After three and half months on crutches, and another four months of eight-hour days in the gym, I was able to ski at the end of October.

Injuries are an unfortunate part of ski racing, and I have yet to meet a racer who hasn't had some sort of injury. This time around, I feel like a veteran and know what the challenges are going to be. Physically it is hard -- some days hurt and I feel the screws stabbing me in my bones. Some days I feel like I can win on any hill.

Mentally it is very challenging as well. My body doesn't want to get injured again and tries to only ski "safe" (a.k.a. slow) and protect itself. So I have to override that, and kick in and push myself over that edge. Once I do, I am flying down the mountain again. But it's not easy.

It is the days when everything lines up -- when my body feels good, and I feel strong in my mind, too -- that keep me coming back to ski racing and motivate me to push through the hard days. Ski racing is certainly an addiction for me; it is the only way I can explain why I have come back from two broken legs.

Although I'm not racing yet, each training session on snow brings me more confidence, and with it, the hunger to race grows stronger. I won't be racing for several more weeks but I know one thing: My dreams of Sochi are no longer shattered. Each day brings me closer to my goals, and I know I'm stronger than ever before.

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