“When I looked at my legs, my left leg was bending in the middle of my shin,” Merryweather said. “That was kind of the moment that I knew: ‘Okay, my leg is broken.’ ”
The Beijing Winter Olympics are less than five months away. Merryweather, a medal hopeful not long ago, won’t be skiing in them. The 25-year-old from Massachusetts made it to the 2018 PyeongChang Games, then took off the entirety of last season to grapple with an eating disorder that left her body frail and her mind wondering whether she loved skiing anymore. She fought her way back onto the mountain — and then found herself sliding down that glacier in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, the victim of what could be described only as an absolute fluke of an accident in training. She faces at least nine months of rehabilitation just to get back to where she already was.
“It sucks,” she said last week by phone. “It really, really sucks.”
If and when you flip on the Olympics, remember that for every athlete who shows up, someone else was left home. There are dreams that will be realized and dreams that will be dashed. But there are also dreams on pause, replaced by the isolation and anonymity and monotony of physical therapy and rehabilitation, the next World Cup season a hope, the next Olympics so far off in the distance.
Know this: Last week, when Merryweather went into U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s 85,000-square-foot performance center in Park City, Utah, for her first physical therapy session, the reality of what she was dealing with — a broken fibula, broken tibia, torn ACL, torn meniscus and partially torn medial collateral ligament — hit her, and hard.
“That kind of was the moment it really sunk in for me of just what the next nine to 12 months are going to look like,” Merryweather said. “I mean, I just cried. I cried for a lot of that PT session. I think I’m going to have to do a lot more grieving before I can process the idea of a lost season and a lost Olympic season — a lot of dreams and goals that I’m not going to have a chance to go for this year.”
But more importantly, know this as well: In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Paul Kristofic, the head women’s Alpine coach, and Torey Anderson, her physical therapist, were with her for support. Either right before or right after she went in for surgery — she can’t pinpoint which — Merryweather looked each in the eye and said, “I’m going to f---ing do this.”
In that moment, with all she has endured, she had remarkable clarity. Her journey already had been unique. Now there’s another layer.
How we got here: Merryweather and her U.S. teammates traveled to Saas-Fee for a training camp on the glacier there. It was, in some ways, a perilous spot for Merryweather. At this camp in 2020, she just about bottomed out. She was depressed. She wasn’t eating enough. She was weak.
“I was nervous going into this camp,” she said.
What she found: bliss. When she took her first run, when she carved her first turn, when she skied past her first gate, it was clear her relationship with her sport had been restored — and maybe strengthened.
“In a weird and really positive way, that whole year and the whole breakup I had with skiing for a little bit, it was like that never happened,” she said. “I had the full joy and passion that I had had before — if not more, with a little bit deeper appreciation, having lost it at some point.”
She was in a rhythm in Switzerland: 4:15 a.m. alarm, tram to the glacier at around 5:45, ski until 10:30 or so — when the surface was still cold and hard — and then have enough energy for lunch and an afternoon, off-mountain workout session with her teammates.
On Sept. 8, that’s just how her day started. She took a slow trip down the mountain to inspect the course. She took a warmup run. And then she hit the snow for a nice, solid training run.
“You’re just working on getting a good line, having solid tactics, not necessarily trying to push it anywhere,” Merryweather said. “It wasn’t an aggressive run by any means. I wasn’t taking any risks.”
An Alpine skier defines “risk” differently from the rest of us. That day, Merryweather and her teammates were training for downhill, skiing’s fastest discipline. Near the bottom of the course, Merryweather would have been traveling at around 80 mph. At 80 mph, hitting an unexpected, tiny bump — well, there’s risk.
“All we’re trying to do is prevent the possibility of having situations like that,” said Mikaela Shiffrin, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time World Cup overall champion. “Alice has been working so hard this summer, and it was such a fluky thing. No matter what you do, there’s always that risk. This, it was just dumbfounding.”
Video of the crash shows how something minor became major. Merryweather was making a turn using her left foot to carve toward the right. Her right ski, on the inside, caught something — a hardened piece of snow, a chunk of ice — sending her off-balance. She nearly saved herself, but her ski tips crossed. She was down, hard and awkwardly. A bone pierced her skin. Her face scraped across the glacier. By the time she stopped sliding, there was just so much blood.
Shiffrin was training slalom on a nearby slope that finished at the base of the downhill course. Two teammates, Bella Wright and Jackie Wiles, took runs after Merryweather but were shooed away from the crash site by the quickly arriving coaching staff and ski patrol. Shiffrin arrived at the finish area to find Wright and Wiles absolutely stricken.
“They looked like they had seen a ghost,” Shiffrin said. “I was like, ‘What … what happened?’ ”
What happened: Merryweather’s plans for a comeback season were derailed. Instead: a helicopter ride to the hospital, three or four hours of surgery, five days in a bed, a 22-hour trip from Zurich to Vail, Colo. — aided by her father, who flew in to help — for more tests on her knee, and now all the work ahead to prepare for the 2022-23 season, which will amount to a double comeback.
“Everyone on the mountain at the crash site, they said that Alice was insanely tough,” Shiffrin said. “It’s a lot of pain involved. But she, she just has a way of getting through those kinds of things.”
On the last day of training, before almost all of Merryweather’s teammates and support staff flew home, Shiffrin texted to check in. Merryweather’s response from her hospital bed, her face nearly unrecognizable: “I’m okay. The pain’s not too bad. How was your day of training?”
She will get through this, because she has gotten through worse.
“The passion never went away,” Merryweather said. “Just the feeling I had during training camp before the accident is still so much stronger than the pain I felt in the moment and even the uncertainty of the next nine months. Skiing is my number one passion. It’s the love of my life. And I am going to do everything in my power to get back to racing again.”
When the Olympics come on in February, there will be ski racers and lugers and hockey players and figure skaters, and they’ll all have stories about how they got there. But remember, too, how fragile this all is. Remember the athletes who have the talent and have put in the work but are left back home anyway, the road ahead uncertain and unglamorous.