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The Road to Recovery


By Kimberly Beekman

The sound an Achilles tendon makes when it snaps is the kind of pop a taut guitar string might make if you shot it with a handgun. Rupturing an ACL, on the other hand, sounds like ripping a fistful of grass out of the ground. Once installed, a full knee replacement clicks softly with every step—unless it’s a step down a stair, in which case it sounds like a bike tire rolling through gravel.

I wish I never knew what music a body makes when it breaks. But I am a skier. After years of moshing through moguls, trenching on groomers, and hitting the bottom on too many tracked-out runs, we must pay our dues—which are, in my case, five knee surgeries, heel surgery, a broken thumb, bone bruises, torn muscles, a torn rotator cuff, and bone spurs that come and go depending on the season. After my most recent trifecta—Achilles (pop), ACL (rip), and a total knee (click)—people ask, “You ready to hang it up yet?”

Never. Because whatever skiing has taken from me, it has given me far more.

I learned to ski when I was 3 years old. My brother, Andy, and I had no lessons, just encouraging words and the two strong legs of our parents wedged around us. I don’t know exactly why it hooked me so early—I probably wanted to do everything my older brother did—but I threw tantrums every time the lifts stopped spinning.

Then, when I was 6 and Andy was 9, we stopped skiing. Our dad had taken his own life; and our mom spent her waking hours at her rolltop desk, forehead in hand. I don’t remember missing skiing then—all I remember is wanting to be one of those pretty, happy, side ponytailed girls with Capri Suns in their neatly packed lunchboxes—but I’m sure I did.

Then, a couple years later, I got a brand-new pair of red Rossis, that has been wrapped in a bow and stashed under my mom’s bed, for Christmas. My mom signed us up for Eskimo Ski Club, and, every Saturday, I chased my brother down nonstop bump runs at Mary Jane and came home so tired I slept through dinner.

Gradually, I got better—good, even. I started to hear pride in my brother’s voice as I scouted his cliffs and tried some of them myself. And when I caught my tips doing a backscratcher or landed in his bomb hole, he would hike back up to collect my gear, scrape off my boot lugs, and blow the snow out of my goggles. I felt a bubble of confidence growing inside me.

During my early teens, when I tried on personalities like outfits, that confidence was like a little fishing bobber—always afloat, no matter how rough the water. In high school, while other girls starved themselves, I accepted my strong thighs because I liked what they did for me on the hill. In college, when I struggled to find my path and my self-worth, I knew deep-down I was good at something. And that was enough.

In college, when I struggled to find my path and my self-worth, I knew deep-down I was good at something. And that was enough.

Three years ago, I tore my left Achilles. And while not technically a ski injury, it stemmed from one nearly 30 years ago when I tore everything tearable in my right knee while proving myself to a dumb boy at Mary Jane. I chronically favored my right leg and developed Achilles tendonitis in my left. But when that small yet crucial bridge of tissue finally gave out, I wasn’t arcing a turn or launching a cliff—I was walking to yoga. And that’s not even the most shameful part. I was walking to yoga to stretch it out after tequila-fueled anger-dancing at a family wedding the night before. It was so inflamed, I could hear it squeaking when I moved my foot.

Hear me now and thank me later: Should your family drama lead you to hurl your shoes into a bush and jump up and down on the flagstone patio for hours, and should you wake up the next day to find that your Achilles outranks your headache on the pain scale, please, sit your ass down on the couch. (And buy the book, It Didn’t Start With You, to read while you rest.)

As I crutched around with a hard cast that pointed my toes in the perfect position to catch on doorjambs, stool legs, and the ground, it was impossible to imagine I would be able to walk again—not to mention ski. But one year later, after getting my race boots punched out around my thickened heel, I clicked in again.

I barely made it through a full season before I tore my left ACL ski-testing for SKI and Outside magazines at Sun Valley. It was a huge 14-inch powder day—rare for Sun Valley—and I thought I could sneak in one more run before heading to the airport for a late afternoon flight.

I ducked into some trees I knew from previous days had scary stumps and rotten spots lurking under all that fresh, but the line was untracked, glittering in the sun, begging for my tracks. It was glorious. Until I came around a full pine to find a downed tree blocking my path at femur-snapping height. Time is a funny thing in these moments. A split second expands to allow thoughts about un-notorized wills and one’s child becoming a ward of the state. While my brain was busy catastrophizing, my body slid under the log in a twisting limbo that no knee could sustain. The tear was so loud, I didn’t even hear branches breaking.

I sideslipped down, made my flight, and went to the doctor the next day. With the X-rays and MRI images on the screen, he said something disconcerting. “You tore your ACL and meniscus, which we can fix. But I want to talk about your other knee. That one looks terrible.” Thus I embarked on ACL reconstruction and total knee replacement, six weeks apart.

Skiers are tough, but this tested me. I couldn’t drive, so my 15-year-old daughter and I survived on Chinese food delivery and the kindness of friends. I attached ice crampons to crutches and showered wearing a giant leg condom. In our 850-square-foot cabin, stuff started to pile up everywhere.

“It’s so messy in here,” my daughter said as she walked in the door from school, tossing her backpack onto the pile of clothes on the couch. “The cleanup fairies are on sabbatical!” I may have yelled. Seeing the tears brimming in my eyes, she looped her arms around me through my crutches and then started bringing dishes to the sink.

Injury sucks, but there is nothing like not being able to carry a glass of water that teaches you to be grateful for the small miracles your body does for you every day—and especially grateful for the large ones it does for you on a powder day. And so I kept my sights on skiing. Skiing got me through.

It may seem silly—idiotic even—that I have built my life around this dangerous pastime of sliding down snow. Everything—my friends, community, career, confidence, and hometown—has centered around it. In my 20s I moved to Jackson Hole and worked at the newspaper; in my 30s I moved back to the Front Range to be a longtime editor of SKI and Skiing; and in my 40s, when I lost my brother in the same way I lost my father, I moved to Steamboat Springs. Skiing continues to get me through.

I wouldn’t trade this sport for anything, certainly not an Achilles tendon or a few ACLs. Skiing made me who I am.

This fall, after three years of reliving the sounds of my injuries every time I close my eyes, normal sounds are finally returning—the roar of wind in my bike helmet, the rustling of leaves under my feet, the exhale of my own breath. It’s really good to be back. Just in time too—the snow is about to start flying.

Kimberly Beekman is a freelance writer and former editor-in-chief of the late Skiing magazine (RIP). She writes mostly about outdoor adventures and occasionally about dragging her indoorsy daughter into them.

Photos (from top): the author purrs through power at Revelstoke, BC, during a press trip whiles she was an editor at Skiing magazine (credit Crystal Sagan); the author learning how to ski with her mother; the author, in her red Rossis, with her older brother (courtesy Kim Beekman); the author at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort tram dock (credit Frank Shine)

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