So you want to become a U.S. Ski Team physical therapist
When asked to be the U.S. Ski Team’s physical therapist for this year’s World Cup, one goes through an interesting experience. First excitement and curiosity, then fear and intimidation.
I thought it might be with the Nor Am or Europa Cup teams, which are the development teams for the A teams; but then I found out it was with the big boys … the men’s A speed team. These are the athletes who are the equivalent of jet fighter pilots. The speed events include the downhill and the super-G and they combine high speed (70-80 mph) with precision turns. At the same time the racers must navigate treacherous steeps and large jumps that usually occur right before they need to make a turn.
For the average downhill you start out of the gate into something that resembles the start of Sugar and Spice – essentially mild terrain where the racers need to maximize their speed and efficiency. This doesn’t last long, though, as the steep part of the course follows with a pitch of about 40-45 degrees. The rest of the course is more of the same … very steep terrain with gates placed at the most difficult positions to challenge the racers. The super-G simply is more steep, has more turns, but isn’t as long.
As team physical therapist you are part coach, part therapist and part U-Haul. We are talking about a group of eight to 10 racers, six to eight coaches, support staff and a lot of gear. Obviously, this gear needs to be moved frequently, so everyone participates, especially the physical therapist.
My first experience with the team was Nov. 24 to 30 at the World Cup in Beaver Creek, Colo., on the renown Birds of Prey course. Before I arrived in Colorado I took the initiative to consult with Dr. Terry Orr, since he had traveled with the team in the past. I felt that he might be able to help me prepare for what was to come. His main suggestion was that I should focus my training efforts on getting down the course. He advised me to go to Gunbarrel (have the Heavenly staff water down the face the night before) and then try to ski down with a load of gates on my shoulder. I laughed nervously, waiting for him to say, “just kidding,” but he never did. Actually, he was right on.
The Birds of Prey course is considered one of the best and most demanding courses in the world. Watching it on TV doesn’t do it justice. The initial flat start ends abruptly with a drop that gives you that feeling in your stomach that a steep roller coaster does. You actually can’t see over the lip until it’s too late. This would be a lot of fun if there was 2-to-3 feet of powder, but that’s where it gets interesting. You see the course-makers use an injection system to make the course as firm and as icy as possible (Read: speed racing). If you’ve ever watched it on TV, you know what I mean because the ski chatter is unmistakable.
Luckily, the only time I needed to be on the course was during inspection. This is the time that all the coaches and the racers slowly work their way down through each turn, picking out their line and deciding a strategy for each racer. I had to be there because I would be at the start and needed to know how to relay the information to each racer about particular parts of the course.
An average day for the team is more like two days in one: pre-race and post-race. We started each day at 6 a.m. with breakfast. We then would set up that day’s training (usually a super-G course) and train from 7 to 8:30 a.m. From 8:30 to 10 a.m. the racers would freeski or receive therapy if they needed it. Also, during this time my U-Haul abilities were in full effect. It was my responsibility to gather a “finish” bag of all the athletes’ clothing that they would change into after the race. It weighs about 70 pounds and I would haul it up to the finish. After that was done, I would head back up to the start for inspection at 10 a.m. Course inspection lasted about an hour, then I would take the “start” bag and my gear to the start and prepare for my primary job … racer preparation.
At the start I’d focus on maintaining radio communication between the six coaches and the racers. I worked with two ski technicians who would make last-minute wax and binding adjustments, depending on course conditions and temperature. My job was to stay close with the racers, relay course reports, give rubdowns and bring them up or calm them down.
The atmosphere at the start of a World Cup competition is unique. Picture 50 to 60 racers warming up and trying not to look scared, and 15 to 20 physical therapists and technicians trying their best not to make a mistake. Add to that three to four camera crews from the United States and abroad and the race officials. As you can imagine, the air is electric and at times, tense.
The first five or six individuals who go down the course are called forerunners (read: guinea pigs). Their job is to smooth out the course and lay down a good line for the racers. Usually they are members of the development teams who are trying to prove themselves. They also are brought onto the course when consecutive racers have crashed to make sure there isn’t a fault with the course. Interestingly enough, Herman Maier, the current No. 1 ski racer, made the Austrian A team when he was a forerunner because his time for a particular event was the fastest for the entire team.
It can be especially tense when there is a crash. My first experience with a crash came when Wisi Betschart of South Lake Tahoe crashed during training. We had five more racers set at the start and when we heard the stop-start call on the radios, the air became very thin.
The most difficult time for me is when one of our racers crash. As soon as the race was restarted and our last guy was on course, I rushed to the bottom and met the team medical director. We then went to the Steadman-Hawkins clinic to see Betschart. It was tough for me because I see the guys at the start, when they are incredibly focused and ready to go. To see one of our guys pretty banged up and in a lot of pain is tough, especially when the crash was an unfortunate result of a broken binding.
When we arrived at the hospital we were met by Dr. Bill Sterett. He told us the news was good … no fractures. When we went to see Betschart in the emergency room he was in a lot of pain, but holding up good. He then was taken for an MRI to rule out a rotator cuff tear in his shoulder. We looked at the MRI and then sent it to an MRI specialist in San Francisco via the Internet. This was all done in the span of two hours. Pretty amazing indeed, but indicative of the atmosphere around these guys – everyone working at maximum efficiency to ensure their well-being.
Well, Betschart did just fine. No major season-ending injuries and a healthy understanding of just how little protection Lycra gives you when you hit the ice at 80 mph. As Wisi said, “Now I’ve crashed.” In other words, a crash is viewed by most racers as inevitable, but also a rite of passage into the world of professional ski racing.
Day two of an average day begins about 3 p.m. This is when film of the day’s training or competition is reviewed, therapy is rendered (mental and physical), strategies are planned and the athletes proceed with dryland conditioning. We usually had lunch and dinner together at about 6:30 p.m., and then we had more time for therapy. Luckily, the team is pretty healthy, so I wasn’t that busy, but I predict by the time I’m with the team again in January things may have changed.
All in all, the U.S. athletes weren’t happy with their performance at this World Cup. Even though Daron Rahlves of Truckee finished 14th in the super-G, the team is very hungry for a top five. It is difficult for the coaches because what they may view as a huge success and good performance for the team, the media generally views as a non-win. Ski-racing is more than just winning, as each coach will point out. It is about putting together a run where the racers ski up to their abilities, making the best of every opportunity afforded to them. With this in mind, the ultimate goal is to get a spot on the podium.
– Chris Proctor is a physical therapist at Emerald Bay Physical Therapy. He is now in Europe traveling with the U.S. men’s Alpine speed team.
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