Despite a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), Lindsay Ball hopes to make her Paralympic debut next month in Sochi, Russia, with guide Diane Barras (right).
Lindsay Ball wasn't doing anything unusual.
She wasn’t speeding over moguls or flying through the air doing Shaun White’s Double McTwist 1260.
Ball, a visually impaired skier on the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team, was just making a routine practice run at Winter Park in Colorado on Dec. 29 when she fell.
“It was on one of the easiest training trails they have there,” says Ball, 22.
It had just snowed and the trail was covered by powder when Ball planted to make a turn. But her left knee twisted “the wrong way,” and she felt it pop, something she’d never felt before. Instantly, she knew there was something seriously wrong.
Soon, she was given the verdict: a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
The injury could hardly have come at a worse time. Ball had been pointing toward the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games for more than five years and believed she was skiing well. Suddenly, with just weeks to go before Opening Ceremony in March, she could see the Games slipping away.
“I didn’t really want a torn ACL to stand between me and that,” she said.
So Ball decided to forgo surgery, focus on rehab and strength training for her legs — particularly her quads and hamstrings — and take her best shot at Sochi, while putting off surgery until after the Games.
“I knew if I had had surgery, I probably would not have been able to come back in time,” she said. “So I basically begged and pleaded with the doctors to give me the chance to rehab it and try and ski and go from there. So, they agreed. I ski with a brace and I think I’m pretty strong. It feels good.”
She didn’t ski for four weeks, then returned to the slopes in late January for what she calls “Lindsay 2.0” — a newer, slightly altered version of the original.
After about two weeks of skiing, Ball said she’s been surprised how well her knee is holding up.
“It’s just a matter of building up my confidence, because my knee seems to be holding out and responding well,” she said.
On Feb. 5, Ball learned she’d been selected to the U.S. Paralympic Team for Sochi. Now, she’s officially back on track for her long-held goal.
Still in Colorado and training at Winter Park, Ball — a recent University of Maine at Farmington graduate from Benton, Maine — said she’ll try to ski as much as possible before leaving for Russia, “but not push it.”
And, she’s not weighing herself down with huge expectations. At this point she’s grateful to still have the chance to go.
“Basically I just expect myself to ski and do the best I can, given the circumstances,” she said. Yet she believes if things fall into place, she has a shot at a medal.
“If I can get in some gates (in practice) and concentrate on my form and skiing the way I need to, I think I can still ski well and be in the position I was in December,” she said.
At that time, Ball had just skied well in races at Colorado’s Copper Mountain. She finished fourth in two giant slaloms — her best event, and the one she’ll race in Sochi — and was just hundredths of a second from a podium finish. Plus, she and her guide, Diane Barras, had posted the fastest run in one race.
“But we just couldn’t hold it together in the second one,” she said, laughing.
Ball has been a part of the national team since the 2011-12 season, and has had her ups and downs. She advanced from the development team that season, then raced well in 2012 to become world cup-qualified. She won her only world cup medal, a bronze, at a world cup event for her B1 (completely blind) class at Winter Park. Also in 2012, Ball won the visually impaired downhill and giant slalom at the U.S. national championships.
But last year, Ball said she went through a rough patch where she wasn’t finishing a lot of races. She was struggling. It wasn’t until this 2013-14 season that she felt as if she had regained her form.
Then came her injury.
But Ball — a self-declared “adrenaline junkie” who bungee-jumped off a bridge in New Zealand not once but twice last year — wasn’t about to take the be-cautious approach after she was hurt.
She’s been skiing since the age of 6 in Maine with her parents and with the help of guides and, even though she admits it can be a bit scary at times, skiing down mountains is what she loves to do.
She still has some vision — she can see light, shadows and some shapes she calls “blobs” — so is required to wear black-out goggles while skiing. She and Barras, 35, have been a tandem for about six years, and Ball has complete confidence in Barras, an experienced and strong skier in her own right who had been Ball’s coach for 2½ years with Maine Adaptive Sport and Recreation before becoming her guide.
Barras skis ahead of Ball and has a speaker mounted in a pack on her back. Barras calls out directions to Ball as they ski down a run and through gates. Ball said they've always had good chemistry.
“She just had a natural talent for it and I trusted her and it worked,” Ball said. “I think it’s because I knew her before. … I don’t know if there’s many people I would trust to guide me anymore, just because I’ve had her constantly for the past six years.”
Now, they’re headed to Sochi together. Ball says it still hasn't sunk in.
“I don’t think it will be real until we go to the airport to leave,” she said.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for USParalympics.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.