On my way back

Vianney Thibaut/Getty Images

Alice McKennis is back racing after a serious leg injury in March required surgery and extensive rehab.

After a short training period, I’m back into racing! Although not at the level I so wish I was at.

To prepare for World Cup competition, I did some lower-level races at the the NorAm circuit at Copper Mountain, Colo. -- trying to get back into the “race” frame of mind while still focusing on the technical aspects of my skiing that I’ve been working on.

It has been going so-so. Even if it’s not an important race, I’m still just as frustrated when I don’t perform my best as I would be at a World Cup race. It’s also difficult to not be overly critical. I have to constantly remind myself that I have about a third of the gate training as my competitors, and while they were on snow training this summer, I was in the gym fixing my leg. I have to think back to where I was in March -- unable to walk and care for myself -- and look at where I am now. Racing again, even if I’m not skiing as fast as I want to, is a huge accomplishment.

As I try to look at ski racing from an outsider’s viewpoint, I see how incredibly difficult it really is, and with that realization comes the understanding that I am doing pretty well for someone in my situation. Picture our race day: I get up early, eat breakfast and do my warm-up, trying to loosen all the stiff muscles, joints and injured spots I may have. It’s an attempt to make my body feel like everything is functioning normally even when it’s not.

Then I drive to the mountain, get my gear on, go up the chairlift and inspect the course. Every course is different -- the snow conditions, the set of the gates, the steepness or flatness of the hill, the micro-terrain, the light and the temperature. Once I’ve spent 45 minutes to an hour inspecting the course and memorizing every aspect that I can, I may go in the lodge and warm up for a few minutes.

Courtesy of Alice McKennis

Alice McKennis celebrates her first time wearing downhill skis post-surgery.

Then it’s back on the chairlift for a couple of warm-up runs. I work on a few ski drills for these, focusing on every motion in my body, and on whether everything is lining up perfectly to make a great turn. Then I head back to the start and prepare for the race -- the one run where I have to get everything right, where there are no second chances or redos.

Before I go, I visualize the course several times and get a detailed report from my coaches over the radios, updating me on any changing snow conditions or adjustments I might need to make. Then there’s more stretching, jumping, and warming up, getting my body primed for this one run. All the while, I’m continually running sections of the course through my mind, and thinking about the technical aspects that I want to remember.

Finally, I click into my carefully prepared skis, and away I go. I have less than two minutes on course to do everything right. Every mistake costs me time, and even hundredths of a second matter. Every single one.

While I’m on course, my mind is working and I’m trying to be precise and perfect in every movement I make. As I go downhill, I’m trying to turn all of that power and link it smoothly into a turn, and then another, while trying to stay compact and aerodynamic. Every time I stick an arm out of my tuck position or stand up fully, it costs me time.

The run is often a blur, and half the time I’m just reacting to what is happening because I’m going so fast that I don’t have time to think about what I’m doing. I’m just trying to find speed and keep ahead and prepared for the next turn.

Once I’m down the hill, more often than not I think about the section I didn’t execute perfectly and how I should have done it better -- but it’s too late. The race is over and I have to wait another 24 hours or even a week to go again, through the whole process, on a different mountain.

That is how difficult ski racing is. Everything varies. The playing field is different every time. And I can’t go back for another layup if I get shut down, or try to return the ball with more aggression on the next serve. It’s all one day, one run, one chance. Then it’s on to the next race.

As I think about the process of ski racing, it reminds me, though, that it is just a process. Right now I am in the process of returning to my race form. It might take me a couple of races to get there, or maybe more, but soon the process will progress and I will be doing more than trying to “get back.” Soon enough, if I stay patient, I will be in the process of trying to win again.

Check out Alice McKennis' previous blog here.