“Most of the All Blacks don’t have A.C.L.’s (Anterior Cruciate Ligaments).”
This was the advice given to me by the orthopaedic surgeon. At the time, in the early 1990s, he also advised me that recovery from the surgery to put things right would be worse than the injury itself; that he couldn’t reproduce the function of a natural A.C.L., whose structure, in layman’s terms, had ‘differential stretchiness’ between the outside and the core; and that if I got myself a CTi knee brace and kept my muscles strong to support the joint, I would be able to ski again. If New Zealand’s fabled rugby union team could play at a professional level without their A.C.L.s, there was hope for me.
The injury happened at the end of a long day on my second ever ski holiday to Méribel. It was the last day. I had shredded my way down lots of red runs and was thrilled with myself. I giggled on the way home, because I kept falling over for no reason. With hindsight, this was a sign of how tired I was. That ‘one last run’ is almost always a bad idea. I nearly made it back safely, but in flat, fading light on the final stretch of the shallow nursery slopes, I failed to see a small bump and fell over backwards. The back of my left ski caught on the bump and levered my left leg around, so that when I landed, it was facing the opposite way to the rest of my body.
The result was a trip to the legendary and appropriately-named Dr. Schamasch (pronounced ‘Smash’), three seats to myself on the flight home because of my lovely, new leg brace, a ride through Gatwick Airport on one of those electric buggies with a flashing light and bonus pair of crutches.
Sport is my life! Besides skiing, I windsurf, cycle, ride horses and climb mountains. I was determined to get back into action and sheer bloody mindedness got me out of the brace in record time. Nevertheless, after only a week of immobilisation, my left thigh was half the size of its counterpart and would not have looked out of place attached to a sparrow.
Heartened by tales of the All Blacks, recovery seemed to be simply a matter of physiotherapy and saving up for a CTi2 knee brace. Yet, despite my custom-fitted lump of carbon fibre and thighs pumped and worked until they bulged like Chris Hoy’s, all was not well on my next ski trip.
Unfortunately, during that holiday, my husband Mark and I were not the only ones to enjoy a nice break in Italy. During the week, our group sustained a total of fifteen breaks – by which I mean a head count of fifteen. Some of the breaks were multiple; one chap broke his leg in four places.
Although I was not one of the victims, the daily increments in the body count did nothing for my skiing confidence. I left with the belief that sustaining a serious injury was an almost inevitable consequence of a ski holiday.
Close friends of mine know that I don’t like to be thwarted. I am an unlikely sports-person; middle-aged, with no sense of balance; a mountaineer with a fear of heights; a windsurfer with a healthy terror of being under the water. However, the thrill of these sports and the draw of the beautiful places to which they take me has kept me in their thrall. So here, I’m going to talk about the non-physical aspect of injury recovery – The Head Game.
If you had joined me for my fourth week skiing, you might have spotted me weeping on a blue, beginner’s run. Yet scroll forwards a few years from that and you would find me skiing confidently off piste on pretty much anything the mountain can throw at me. What happened?
As a Team Rider in the UK’s National Watersports Festival, I am frequently asked, “Which magic piece of kit should I buy that will transform my windsurfing?”
People seem happy to splash the cash on bright, new toys. Undoubtedly, riding the correct equipment makes life and learning much easier. However, my reply always refers to two areas of frequent under-investment in our sports of choice. Tuition from a professional instructor will make the single biggest difference – followed up by practice. Lots of practice.
My skiing improved much more rapidly when I substituted my summer holiday for an extra week or two on the snow.
I am not dismissing YouTube, tips from magazines or your mate, or even a slither down the slippery slope of disharmony that constitutes tuition from a parent or partner. However, none of these will produce the same results as a professional coach watching you, fine-tuning your technique and conveying the information in a way that is easy to understand and put into practice. Nevertheless, even with professional tuition, you must choose wisely.
A two-hour private lesson with Mario, an instructor based in Arabba in the Dolomites transformed my skiing, both in technique and confidence. What Mario taught me was not rocket science. He simply showed me how to start, stop and change direction in complete control. For me, the ability to ski with this level of precision granted me mastery of The Head Game. Since then, my mantras, “You can never be too good at the basics” and, “It’s not steep if you can turn” have served me well.
However, there is another side to the tuition coin. During our initial visit to the freeride Mecca of Monte Rosa, we booked a private lesson to try skiing off-piste for the first time. In deep powder to the side of the slope, our instructor wiggled down the mountain and shouted over her shoulder,
“You do it like this!”
That was the full extent of her instruction and safety briefing.
On unsuitable, narrow, carving skis, our attempts to do it like that during the lesson failed. We tried to do it like that again in the same place the following day and Mark scored a grade three tear to the medial ligament in his right knee.
I think we can all agree; that was €100 well spent!
Our skiing moved to the next level when Mark asked me, “How would you like to ski down seven Chilean volcanoes on your 50th?”
This was how we discovered the company, Snoworks. Snoworks is a U.K. company run by Phil Smith and his wife, former Olympic downhill skier Emma Carrick-Anderson, along with their team of top-notch British instructors.
Before we booked flights to Chile, we knew that we needed to up our skiing game, gain some extra winter mountaineering skills involving ropes and crampons – and magic up a head for heights, which is a big problem for us both. However, our quest for The Magnificent Seven has driven an unimaginable improvement. We have taken several All-Terrain and All-Mountain courses with Snoworks. I have learned to ski in control in every type of snow condition – and despite our uneasy relationship based on mutual avoidance, I now concede that moguls deserve to exist. I might even be persuaded to admit that they can be fun…
Female downhill legend Lindsay Vonn said, “If you back off things go wrong.” It is a fact that the slow, backward, twisting falls of a tentative beginner are more likely to result in injury. My new-found confidence allows me to ski at higher speeds, which has been another very important step in self-preservation. Some of my wipeouts have been humdingers. However, when you crash and burn at speed, your skis tend to come off and, although I have sustained some Instagram-able bruises, my bones and all the bits of gristle that hold them together have remained intact. (An obvious caveat here is that speed and impact with solid or immovable objects is not likely to end well!)
I am pleased to report that for me, life without ligaments now continues much as it did before. I keep fit and have been able to participate fully in all of my favourite sports. My only limitation now is my advancing age. I haven’t ruled out the volcanoes, although the very nature of things like freestyle windsurfing and competitive mogul riding will always require the elastic ligaments of a twenty-year-old.
The Damascene moment for my return to a full skiing life without ligaments was simply learning to ski in full control. That is a useful skill for anyone to have – and if you are reading this with a full complement of ligaments, it could also mean that you may never need to learn to live life without them!
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Previous posts on taking small dogs skiing can be found in the Ski section of my blog.
This blog was first published as a guest post on Ratoong.