Injury is an unfortunate part of all high-performance sports and, thankfully, there’s no shortage of inspirational comeback stories.
But just how dominant does an athlete have to be to embrace a broken back as a useful learning experience?
Incredibly dominant. And there is no other way than that to describe Canadian moguls skier Mikaël Kingsbury.
He’s the reigning Olympic and world champion. He holds every single record in moguls skiing, including the most World Cup podiums (93) and the most wins (65). He was awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s most outstanding athlete in 2018.
Whether it’s winning against the best in the world or coming back from injury, Kingsbury makes it look easy.
Next weekend, the 29-year-old from Deux-Montagnes, Que., will race in the season opener in Ruka, Finland, where he broke his back last year.
He’s not nervous; he’s excited.
“I love the course,” Kingsbury says. “It’s not because I crashed that I don’t like it anymore. I think it was just a bump in the road.”
Ruka is where he wore his first yellow bib as points leader, set several of his records and left seriously hurt for the first time in his career. “A lot of firsts,” he says.
Last November on a routine jump in training he landed further forward than expected and “flew like Superman” face first towards the mogul he should have been skiing around. He turned at the last moment to protect his face and neck so his back took the hit on the icy mound.
When he was told that he’d fractured his T4 and T5 vertebrae he was worried. Of course he was. Would he get back to peak form? Would he have lingering pain? How many races would he have to miss?
But as soon as he got home and put together a rehabilitation plan with his support team he was already seeing the positives.
“It’s going to be very good for me to learn from this injury,” he told himself. It will be a good experience to start from behind for a change: ‘I’ll be the hunter.’ ”
When he returned to competition in February he was the hunter for exactly one run — just over 24 seconds. Once he got to the bottom of his qualifying run, almost unbelievably, he was leading the world again.
He won the moguls and dual moguls World Cups in Deer Valley, Utah nine weeks after his injury. A month later he won both events again at the world championships in Kazakhstan. His first races in Deer Valley are the only time Kingsbury recalls being at all nervous about his comeback.
“Don’t crash, don’t crash,” he told himself at the top of those first runs.
He thinks he was at 70 per cent of his physical best in Deer Valley where he still put down his hard tricks on the jumps and raced to win. His coach, Michel Hamelin, thinks he was stronger than that, more like 80 per cent.
It’s an awfully short list of athletes who can win against the best in the world without being at their best.
“We know he’s special,” Hamelin says.
Kingsbury trains with the help of his ski coach, physical trainer Scott Livingston and mental performance coach Jean François Ménard, to deliver his very best. But he’s so far ahead of the field he often doesn’t need his best to win.
“It’s rare that he has to be full-on to win an event,” Hamelin says.
If there’s a lesson in all this for other athletes, or mere mortals trying to overcome challenges of their own, according to Kingsbury’s team, it comes in all the work that happens years ahead of the bump in the road.
“The way he goes about training sets him up to be a very robust athlete to begin with,” says Livingston who has trained Kingsbury for 12 years.
He equates it with learning to drive.
“We learned to have a certain number of car lengths between us and the car in front of us so that we don’t bang into the bumper. It’s the same thing in your physical performance. If you prepare yourself in an appropriate way, where you check all the boxes, you end up having a lot of car lengths,” he says.
It also helps to have a good injury. Breaking bones in the spine sounds pretty scary, but Kingsbury’s injury was not a complicated one, Livingston says. In fact, it’s the same kind of fracture that people get when their feet slip out from under them on an icy sidewalk and crash down on their back.
Still, Kingsbury had never been injured before so Ménard was worried, albeit briefly, about how he might react.
“There’s always a first time at everything, even a first injury,” he says. “But it doesn’t usually come after Olympic medals, World Cup records and crystal globes.”
As soon as he talked to him, Ménard could see that Kingsbury, an obsessed winner, was going to “win at rehab” so he too switched to lesson mode.
“I’m a big believer that you become mentally tougher by having to find ways, be creative in having the right mindset in moments you’re not supposed to have a positive attitude or you’re challenged,” says Ménard, who published a book titled: “Train your brain like an Olympian.”
“For Mik, things have been quite smooth in his career, he’s got great parents, a great upbringing. He’s never had huge problems to deal with, and this was a big challenge for him. Not only to get over the injury and get healthy again, but to come back (so strong.) He didn’t just win those four competitions, he really dominated,” he says.
“It’s an extra, very important experience that he now has in his back pocket that he can look back to, especially this year going into the Olympics and say: ‘Hey, I was able to achieve something that was very difficult. So there’s no reason that I can’t win the Games again.’ ”
Because of his injury-shorten season, Kingsbury starts this Olympic season ranked sixth. It’s the first time he’ll ski in Ruka without the yellow leader’s bib since he was 18 years old — that’s two, almost three, Olympic cycles ago.
“That’s okay,” he says. “Six is cool, it’s Toronto. I’m going to put on some Drake songs.”
If history is any lesson, Kingsbury may be humming in Drake’s 6ix but he’ll be back to No. 1 before long.
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