KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — When Mike Kloser looked up from the bottom of the course at his daughter, Heidi, lying on the snow Thursday, he hoped it was just a harmless fall — that she had gotten the wind knocked out of her, that she was getting rid of the jitters in her last practice run before her Olympic moguls skiing debut.
Those hopes faded as the minutes passed and she remained down. The eventual diagnosis revealed a devastating injury: A torn ACL, a partially torn MCL and a small fracture to her femur.
“You wanted to believe it was a bad dream that you were going to wake up from,” Kloser said Saturday from the lobby of the Park Inn in the ski village of Rosa Khutor. “We kept thinking, ‘This can’t be happening, this can’t be true.’ All that work, all that effort to get here, and she doesn’t even get to get into the starting gate officially in the Olympics.”
Heidi said she knew instantly that her Olympic dreams had been dashed.
“As soon as I heard the pop and was sliding down the course, I was just like, ‘Ah, man, I don’t get to compete,’” Kloser said Saturday. “But at least I’m here.”
Inspiring the world
The 21-year-old Vail resident has responded to her ill-timed injury with resilience and optimism that is inspiring people around the world.
Thirty-six hours after her fall, she was marching with the rest of the U.S. Olympic team, on crutches, in the Sochi Olympics’ opening ceremony in front of 40,000 fans.
She has become a darling of the Games in its first couple of days. NBC featured her in its primetime coverage of the opening ceremony, and her live interview with Lester Holt from Rosa Khutor kicked off the “Today” show Saturday, with Heidi vowing to come back to compete in the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“You have been the Olympic spirit for the past 24 hours,” Holt told her.
“It feels so great to inspire people,” she said after the “Today” filming. “I hardly know that I’m a big inspiration because I haven’t seen any of the media (coverage). … One of my friends back home texted me and said, ‘Oh, you were the star of opening ceremonies, you and Shaun White.’ So it was cool.”
Emotional roller coaster
The last 48 hours have been a roller coaster for the Kloser family here in Russia, from the frustration and sadness of her injury to the joy of her participation in the opening ceremony.
Heidi’s mom, Emily, said the tears were flowing when Heidi walked into the stadium. Mike and Emily were guests of Procter and Gamble, which fortunately had lots of their Puffs tissues on hand, and they had great seats, just a few rows behind Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Because we missed getting to see Heidi ski in the Olympics, I feel like I got to see my child in the Olympics, because her walking out was our moment now, and it was just incredible,” Emily said.
Emily said her emotional roller coaster actually has been going on for months. Her sister passed away in December. In January, Heidi made the Olympic team after posting the best results of her career. But then Friday’s injury happened. Emily and Mike went down to the coastal cluster on Friday, and all of the Olympic hoopla was just bringing them sadness instead of hope and excitement.
“Then, all of a sudden, everything turned,” Emily said. “While we were there, we started getting messages that Heidi was going to be picked up on this and that (in the media) and how positive she was. In a phone call conversation I had with Heidi, I was picking up on her strength. She never had any pity for herself, which I just think volumes of her character.”
The ceremony was truly the Klosers’ Olympic moment.
“I would trade it all if she could compete, but she’s making the best out of her situation,” Emily said. “She’s always had a strong desire to inspire others, and if this is the platform she was given to do it, she’ll stand on it.”
Looking to 2018
Heidi was considered a medal favorite in her first Olympics. She said she was skiing well and pushing hard on the course and simply made a mistake.
“It all happened so fast,” she said.
The first question that Heidi asked her dad, while they were in the ambulance, was whether she would still be considered an Olympian. Her dad assured her she would, and U.S. Olympic Committee officials later confirmed that.
It was also a bit of a comfort that two Vail locals, William Sterett and Tom Hackett, were the doctors that were treating her.
“It’s just amazing when you look at how small our community truly is that two doctors that were helping us were from Vail,” Emily said. “You just stop and think, ‘How can it get any better than a community like Vail, when you’re half a world away and Vail is surrounding us, and you knew you had the best.’”
Heidi is set to leave Sochi on Feb. 17. Her surgery will happen in Vail in about two weeks.
She is looking at a recovery time of six to eight months, but beyond that, her sights are already set on returning to the Olympics.
“I’m just so happy that I got to come here and happy that I could be a part of of the Olympics,” she said. “It’s been a goal my whole life. And hopefully I get to go to Korea and actually ski there.”