Are the Olympics forcing athletes to push too hard?

Skier Bobby Brown sat out X Games due to injury but he'll still compete in Sochi. Photo: Tamara Berger
Skier Bobby Brown sat out X Games 2014 due to injury, but he’ll still compete in Sochi. Photo by Tamara Berger

When Simon Dumont, one of the winningest halfpipe skiers in the world, stood at the top of the pipe for the final Olympic qualifying event last month, he was hurting and down to just his right anterior cruciate ligament (ACL); he’d blown the left one the day before. He put down a less technical run than he normally does and finished 12th.

That run will probably be his final competitive trip down the halfpipe.

Dumont’s knee injury kept him off the podium, which meant he didn’t have enough points to qualify for the first-ever freeskiing Olympic team—something he’d been working toward for nearly a decade, and which the world will meet for the first time this week. And he’s not the only one competing while injured, or while rehabbing injuries: Halfpipe skier Bobby Brown sat out the X Games in January with an injured medial collateral ligament (MCL), but will still ski in Sochi. On the snowboard side, Canadian slopestyle rider Mark McMorris, who broke a rib at the X Games less than two weeks out from Sochi, still rode to a bronze medal despite nagging pain. Torin Yater-Wallace, who broke two ribs and collapsed a lung in December, was given a discretionary spot on the ski halfpipe team despite the fact that he sat out the last five weeks of competition season. Women’s ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson, the reigning world champion, was named to that team, even though she just started jumping again after rehabbing a reconstructed ACL, MCL, and meniscus.

The rate at which athletes are getting hurt, and the regularity with which they’re competing with broken bones, missing ligaments, and concussions, is starting to make skiers and snowboarders wonder if they’re focusing too hard on competing. And a lot of people blame the Olympics for encouraging them to keep training while they’re hurt. Mike Douglas, one of the first freeskiers, argued on Twitter that having athletes focus so hard on an event that happens once every four years forces them to push their bodies too hard and compete even when they’re injured. In freeskiing and women’s ski jumping in particular, where the road to the Olympics has been long and emotionally draining, a lot of athletes are ignoring injuries because they’ve worked so hard to get to the Games for the first time.

A few athletes have had to make the hard call to pull out of Olympic contention because their bodies weren’t up to the test. Jen Hudak, who had been one of the most vocal proponents of getting freeskiing into the Winter Games, had to end her nearly decade-long Olympic quest after injuring her meniscus and ACL in Breckenridge, Colorado, in December. She’d already had five knee surgeries. Gretchen Bleiler, a silver medalist in snowboard halfpipe and a multi-Olympic athlete, didn’t make the Olympic team this year after dealing with coming back from a shattered eye socket. Tom Wallisch, arguably the most dominant male slopestyle skier in the U.S., tried to ski the whole qualifying season without an ACL and failed to earn one of the coache’s discretionary spots, which had a lot of skiers up in arms.

These athletes’ absence from the team, along with Dumont’s, is bitter, because it’s unlikely that they’ll be competitive in four years. There’s a relatively short window of time where you can be a viable halfpipe or slopestyle athlete, and Hudak and Dumont in particular knew they were hitting the end of it. That’s also why they pushed themselves so hard this year. Wallisch just released a video about his decision to try to ski through his knee injury, even though the ski team doctor advised against it.

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Torin Yater-Wallace was named to the U.S. Olympic freeski halfpipe team even though he’d been out with an injury for five weeks. Photo by Tamara Berger

Brita Sigourney, who made the women’s ski halfpipe team after coming off of three seasons of being injured, says that she thinks most of the athletes are professional enough to know when they’re too hurt to compete, but that the drive to win is strong too. They’ll push through a lot of pain for the chance to chase gold. “I worry about how my body is going to feel in 20 years, but you only get a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” she says.

Men’s ski halfpipe debuts at the Sochi Olympics Tuesday, Feb. 18, at 5:45 p.m. local time. A complete viewers’ guide is available through NBCOlympics.com.

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