PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — When what happened to Tommy Biesemeyer happens to other athletes, the statements are rote, canned, forgettable. But here is who Tommy Biesemeyer is: an elite Alpine skier with designs on his sport’s biggest prizes. And here’s what Tommy Biesemeyer has endured: a blown-out knee, a separated shoulder, a cycle of compete, improve, hope — and get hurt.
So here he was Wednesday in a downhill training run at the Olympics. The &%$#@ Olympics! And disaster.
Forget the canned quotes, Tommy. Cut open that vein and let it bleed.
“It’s times like these where you’re supposed to be creating a puff piece,” Biesemeyer said Thursday. “You’re supposed to say, ‘I’m going to fight. I’m going to come back stronger than ever.’ It’s bull----. I hit rock bottom yesterday in my career.”
At the PyeongChang Olympics, like any other Olympics, we will hear the tales of the medal winners who have stared adversity in the face, who have spat upon setbacks, who have persevered despite trials both personal and professional. So often we see those stories through a lens that has focused and refocused over the years since these struggles. Photoshop the story and make it the best version. How those athletes talk about how they handled their problems might not match their actions in real time.
But here was Biesemeyer, in real time, analyzing his shattered dream. When he was diagnosed with a ruptured Achilles’ tendon Wednesday, the U.S. Ski Team issued a statement declaring him out for the Olympics. This is standard operating procedure. They included some of his words. Same: SOP.
But damn if the words weren’t jarring.
“I wonder why this happens,” the statement read. “It is hard to not think if there is a deeper meaning to it all. You are supposed to be optimistic in times like these and say something like, ‘I will come back stronger than ever.’ But I just can’t bring myself to do it.”
Slaps you across the face. People know Lindsey Vonn and Mikaela Shiffrin. But to walk in the Opening Ceremonies, as Biesemeyer did last week, any athlete had to put in work, had to sacrifice untold joys. Obscurity isn’t a cover for less diligence, less passion. That those qualities are fostered anonymously doesn’t make them less important.
“When you hear about the Olympics, all you see is the success stories,” Biesemeyer said in a half-hour phone conversation Thursday before he left South Korea. “And that’s not what it’s about in the bigger picture. For all the success stories, there are all the people that fell short that could have done it. . . .
“Anybody that puts their heart and soul into anything in life or accomplishing a goal, and when you don’t achieve it due to outside forces, you can’t help [but] feel sorry for yourself.”
Biesemeyer is 29, a native of Keene, N.Y., 20 minutes outside of Lake Placid. This is a fresh wound, and he can treat it as nothing but. He has skied professionally his entire adult life. He has never reached a podium on the World Cup circuit. The Olympics are the pinnacle of his pursuit.
“I’ve always had this feeling that I’d be one of the best in the world,” Biesemeyer said.
Does he expect to feel sorry for himself going forward? No, not in the long term and not in the big picture, because he lives a privileged life. Will he bail on his sport, on his career? Of course not, because he believes in himself and his potential.
But in the moment, why pretend that the pain isn’t real? Why wait for six months, a year, only to look back and admit that it was nothing short of devastating?
“There’s so many cliche lines: ‘Whatever doesn’t break you makes you stronger,’ ‘No pain, no gain,’ ” Biesemeyer said. “Those catchphrases, they’re easy to say. But it doesn’t make me feel any better hearing those things.” He paused. “I don’t think there’s a lot of people that can relate to a situation like this.”
I don’t want to fall into the everybody-gets-a-trophy, “You’re all winners!” dynamic that is so prevalent in 21st-century youth sports. But because we have been conditioned to believe that, say, favorites such as Chloe Kim and Shiffrin are successes only if they come home with gold, we tend to forget the people like Biesemeyer.
For him, that final training run on Wednesday — a training run that was optional, a training run about which NBC viewers had no idea — that was serious work. He went after it with some intensity — not race-day intensity, but with purpose. There was wind, and then came flat light. His inside ski knocked his outside ski, and he was down. His head hit, and hard. He was knocked out.
“I don’t remember it at all,” Biesemeyer said Thursday. “When I came to at the side of the hill, I was trying to piece everything together. I was having a hard time understanding why I couldn’t feel my foot.”
Biesemeyer has been through this sort of thing enough that he knows what’s next: surgery in Vail, Colo., later this week, then the lonely, exasperating prospect of rehab. There’s just no way to consider his fate here and not process it with the shredded knee ligaments that cost him a season, with the dislocated shoulder.
That day, in a super-G at the world championships in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Biesemeyer was perhaps 20 seconds from the finish and in line to reach the podium. But he planted a pole, and his shoulder gave out. He skied to the bottom in abject pain but registered, officially, a DNF.
“People were like, ‘What happened? You were on our way to your best day ever,’” he said.
What do you say in a case like that? There’ll be better days? Live to fight again? Cliche after cliche.
Biesemeyer is done with that. He knew what was ahead after the shoulder injury. He knows what’s ahead now.
“You’re still in the light of it all now,” he said. “But when it’s a week from now and I’m home and I’m on crutches and the storm has sort of calmed down and settled, that’s when the reality of it sets in. And that’s the really difficult part. It can send you into a dark place. That’s what I’m scared about, and that’s why I’m trying to move forward and do the best plan.”
Please watch the rest of these Olympics and celebrate the champions; they have worked hard, and they are worthy of your praise. But in all that, keep in mind the Tommy Biesemeyers of the world. There are others with disappointments here. It doesn’t mean their effort, their commitment, their determination doesn’t match those who win gold.
“This is my all-time low,” Biesemeyer said. “This trumped everything that I’ve been through.”
This isn’t asking for pity. He is an Olympian who couldn’t compete in the Olympics, and he deserves to be in our thoughts, now and going forward.
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