At the past two Olympic Winter Games, six Team USA alpine skiers have combined to win 13 Olympic medals. Five of six are still competing. But three are returning from injuries and surgery: Ted Ligety, Julia Mancuso and Lindsey Vonn (who was back racing last season).
Adding to the list, two other Americans who had top finishes at the PyeongChang World Cup test events — Steven Nyman and Laurenne Ross — tore ligaments in their knees last season.
The good news: All are back on snow. Here’s a rundown of where they are on their paths to the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018…
A year ago, Lindsey Vonn was making a comeback from a fractured tibial plateau in her left knee — her latest in a string of knee injuries dating back to the 2013 world championships.
But then in November 2016, while training at Copper Mountain before the season-opening world cup speed races in Lake Louise, Alberta, she fractured the humerus bone in her right arm, an injury that was surgically repaired with a plate and several screws. It was, she said, her most severe injury yet. Vonn awoke from surgery with no feeling in her right hand. When she resumed racing in January 2017, she taped her ski pole to her hand.
But the 33-year-old alpine skiing champion has finally put this four-year-long bout of injuries behind her. She spent the early fall in Chile training downhill and super-G with the U.S. men.
“I’m really enjoying being back on snow,” she said in a video tweeted from Chile in mid-September. “It’s really fun to ski fast as always and just preparing for the Olympics.”
Her goal is to win back the downhill Olympic gold medal that she was unable to defend at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi due to a reinjured knee. To date, the three-time Olympian she has won only two Olympic medals, both in 2010 (gold in downhill, bronze in super-G).
Vonn plans on racing one more season after PyeongChang. And her goal is to race the men in the December 2018 Lake Louise downhill — a race that she has won 14 times. She also aims to surpass Ingemar Stenmark in most world cup wins. The Swedish legend won 86 world cups before retiring in 1989. Vonn won one race last season and currently stands at 77.
She will begin the 2017-18 season at the Lake Louise speed races in early December.
Last season, Ted Ligety was making a comeback from his first serious injury — a torn ACL in his right knee, suffered while training in January 2016. He opened the 2016-17 season with a fifth-place finish in the Soelden World Cup giant slalom.
Over the next three months, that was the closest that the 25-time world cup winner and two-time Olympic gold medalist would come to the podium. His knee was fine. But wear and tear on the rest of his body from 14 years racing on the world cup tour was beginning to show. Ligety had sciatic pain from his backside down to his foot.
“It felt like one of those cheese wire knives was running down my leg,” he said, “and someone was yanking it every time I hit a bump.”
He tried non-surgical treatment options. But nothing worked.
“I could make it down courses and do OK, but OK being like 10th or 20th place, which is really not where I want to be,” he added.
In January 2017, Ligety decided to have a microdiscectomy in his lower back (between L3 and L4, and L4 and L5).
Back on snow in March and training by April, Ligety, 33, has enjoyed a full prep period for the 2018 Olympic season.
Now a dad (son Jax was born in late June), Ligety trained in New Zealand this summer and early fall.
“The body is feeling really good,” he said in late September. “It’s probably the first time in a couple years that I actually feel healthy going into the season.”
He begins his season in the Soelden giant slalom this weekend — looking for his fifth win there. The 2015 edition of that race was the last world cup race he won.
PyeongChang will be Ligety’s fourth Olympic Games. But he is not calling it his last.
“I like ski racing, and I still have fun with it,” he said. “So I plan on going for a little while longer. I don’t know if I’ll go another four years, but maybe.”
For the Beijing Games in 2022, Ligety would be 37 years old.
“Didier Cuche won at 36, and Bode [Miller] had some podiums at 37,” Ligety pointed out (Miller won an Olympic bronze medal in Sochi at 36 years, 5 months old but no world cup podiums after he turned 37; Cuche won four world cup downhills after turning 37). “There’s definitely the ability to ski that much longer, so it will be a matter of how I’m feeling.”
Super Jules has earned her nickname for a reason. Just four weeks after she earned her first world cup podium in 2006, Mancuso won the Olympic giant slalom in Torino. In 2010, she won two Olympic silver medals (in downhill and combined) after not finishing on the podium in any world cups leading up to the Vancouver Games. Then in 2014, she again swooped in from off the radar to win an Olympic bronze medal in combined. Her best world cup finish that season was seventh, and the one combined event she had entered, she had not finished.
Could Super Jules — now married to Dylan Fish from Fiji — find herself on the podium for a fifth time in PyeongChang? If her body allows it. Hip problems have kept her from competing since March 2015.
Born with hip dysplasia, Mancuso first had hip surgery after winning Olympic gold in 2006. But the pain returned, and in November 2015, she underwent a five-and-a-half-hour operation to repair cartilage damage and a torn labrum and clean up bone spurs. Almost two years post-surgery, she still walks with a limp.
“That’s the most deceiving part of the injury, skiing is a lot better and a lot easier than walking,” she said, then added with a laugh, “so don’t be fooled.”
But skiing has not exactly come easily. She is still regaining strength and is not pain-free.
“At this point, I’ve come to a realization that it’s not going to be perfect,” she said. “So I just have to manage the pain.”
Now 33, Mancuso plans to compete in only downhill and super-G this winter, starting with the speed races at Lake Louise in early December. But as of late September, she had yet to ski full-length courses with timing.
“The good thing is, when you’re far behind, it’s easy to get close really fast,” said Mancuso, who’s known for her positive outlook.
She will be competing against a stacked speed team for a spot on the 2018 U.S. Olympic Team. Vonn, Jacqueline Wiles, Laurenne Ross, Stacey Cook, Leanne Smith and Alice McKennis have all earned world cup podiums in downhill and super-G races. And Mikaela Shiffrin will be gunning for one of the four super-G spots in PyeongChang.
“That’s the great thing about the Olympics,” said Mancuso. “It’s not just about the favorites who can win. It’s about having faith that you’re a great athlete.”
Since the Sochi Games, Steven Nyman, 34, has stood on the world cup podium seven times — and 11 times total in his career, including three wins. At the 2015 world championships, he came within three-hundredths of a second of winning a bronze medal in downhill. And perhaps most promising, he finished third and was the top American at the PyeongChang World Cup, a test event for the 2018 Olympic downhill.
But on Jan. 27, 2017, as he was leading a treacherous world cup downhill in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, Nyman flew far off a jump and crashed hard. The force ripped apart the ligaments in his left knee.
Eight months, two days after the crash, Nyman was back on snow, making easy turns on a glacier in Austria in early October.
“Sometimes you have to back up and start from zero again!” he posted on Instagram. “But it felt so good to ski! I have to take it super easy and take it step by step and build a solid foundation once again. The knee is really tired after today but pain wise it felt good. #backinthesaddle”
Nyman has been patient through rehab, in part thanks to his baby daughter, Nell, who was born in mid-June.
“She keeps me from pushing too hard,” he said. “I have to be there for her and slow life down. If I didn’t have her and had all the time to do rehab, I would probably be doing too much.”
Nyman will likely be cleared to ski gates in early November. From there, he hopes to compete in the full world cup tour of speed events, starting with the downhill and super-G in Lake Louise in mid-November.
He also hopes to qualify for his fourth Olympic team. Nyman said he likes the PyeongChang downhill course and South Korea’s cold, dry snow.
“Knowing what the snow is like and knowing that I really communicate [well] with the hill, I have some high expectations,” he said of the PyeongChang Games. “But I have to keep the expectations low and really stay focused on the task at hand.”
In the women’s PyeongChang test event in February 2017, Laurenne Ross finished fourth in the downhill — just a half-second off Vonn, who finished second — and sixth in the super-G, again behind Vonn in second. It was some of her best skiing since she finished second in a world cup super-G the previous year.
In late March 2017, Ross ended the winter with her second national super-G title. It looked as if she would catapult herself into the 2018 Olympic season as a medal contender.
Then two days later, on a stormy day at Sugarloaf, Maine, she crashed in the national championship GS race and tore the ACL in her right knee.
“From the day I got injured, I knew that it was going to be a huge, huge challenge to race this winter,” she said. “I knew it was going to be a huge challenge just to ski ever again.”
Though difficult, recovery has gone well for the 29-year-old speed skier. On Oct. 15, 2017 — less than seven months after surgery — Ross was on snow again.
She hopes to compete in the downhills and super-G in Lake Louise in early December.
“With the way that things have gone so far, I feel confident that I’m going to be capable of racing this year,” she said. “We’ll just see how long it takes me to get back.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.