By Peggy Shinn | Sept. 26, 2017, 5:59 p.m. (ET)
Joss Christensen poses for a portrait on April 25, 2017 in West Hollywood, Calif.

 

PARK CITY, Utah — In May 2017, while training in Mammoth, California, Joss Christensen was having such a good day in the super park that he decided to go for one more run.

On that run, the reigning ski slopestyle Olympic gold medalist landed a trick backwards, “a little nose heavy,” he said. The force of the awkward landing pulled his binding’s heel out of his left ski. With all his weight on his right knee, the joint twisted 90 degrees.

“At that point, I knew,” he said at the Team USA Media Summit. “I’ve never torn an ACL before, but everyone around me has. Everyone had explained the pop to me. I heard the pop and knew instantly.”

His first thought: “I hope this doesn't take me out of the Olympics.”

At the 2014 Olympic Winter Games Sochi, Christensen, now 25, led a U.S. podium sweep in men’s ski slopestyle’s Olympic debut. He planned on defending his title in PyeongChang. But would he recover in time?

Christensen had torn the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee. He had two surgeries to repair the damage: the first on May 10, then another on May 18.

Since then, he has spent every working day in the U.S. Ski Team’s Center of Excellence doing physical therapy. He is fully aware of how lucky he is. Were he a “normal” skier with the same injury, health insurance would have likely limited his access to physical therapy to just a dozen-or-so visits per year.

At the Center of Excellence, he has worked with physical therapists, trainers, a nutritionist and other sports science professionals. Christensen lives in Park City but says he would have moved here for the summer if he lived elsewhere.

“If it wasn’t for the U.S. Ski Team and living here in Park City and having access to all the facilities, I don’t think I would even be in the picture for Korea,” he said.

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Christensen had another procedure under sedation in mid-August to restore mobility to his right knee. But he is on track to return to snow at the end of November. He will skip the first Olympic qualifier of the season while he continues to build strength.

Still, he believes his chances are good to make his second Olympic team. After all, he was the final slopestyle skier to qualify for the 2014 U.S. Olympic Team going to Sochi and did it at the final qualifier.

His only moment of doubt came immediately after he fell in May.

“It really was a mental game for a second there,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s going to stop me. I’ve had a lot of injuries. It’s how my career has been. I had a lot of injuries before the last Olympics. We all have to deal with it. What really makes a good skier in our sport and a good athlete, and what gives you the longevity, is dealing with injuries the right way.”

During the 2016 season alone, Christensen had three successive injuries: a broken hand, then chipped cartilage in his left knee, then a separated collarbone. None were as devastating as the torn ligaments in his right knee.

This time around, the freeskier knows that the lead-up to the Games will be vastly different than four years ago. Back then, he was the underdog. His goal had been to make the Olympic team. Anything beyond that was gravy.

“I was able to be so relaxed and focused on what I wanted to do,” he said. “I didn’t have the pressure of sponsors or the U.S. Ski Team or outside sources. I was doing it for myself and for my dreams as a professional skier.”

As the defending gold medalist — and leader of America’s third-ever winter Olympic podium sweep — he will face far more pressure. In a sense, the knee injury has allowed him to step back and regain perspective.

“I’m just trying to put myself in the mindset where I was in Sochi,” he said. “I’m doing a good job of that right now. I’m not trying to think there’s a target on my back. I’m just trying to do it again. I want to win another gold medal.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.