Steamboat Springs She was on track to become one of Steamboat Springs next big Olympic stars, but after years of dealing with a chronic injury that left her in extreme pain on the slopes, skier Brett Buckles has decided to retire.
Buckles, who started skiing at the age of 3 and was a member of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club at age 6, announced her decision earlier this month.
"She was the top female athlete that I've ever coached," former Winter Sports Club coach Werner Schnydrig said of Buckles. Schnydrig coached Buckles for 10 years before she was named to the U.S. Team in 1998.
"Her work ethic and dedication to the sport was incredible. If she had been healthy there is no doubt that she would have skied in the Olympic Games," Schnydrig said.
The 19-year-old ski racer admits the decision to step down from the team was not an easy one. She has been battling a mysterious shin problem that made it impossible for her to train and compete without being in constant pain since joining the U.S. Ski Team back in 1998. She also battled several other injuries during her short-lived career most of them related to the problems with her shins.
"I woke up every morning knowing that I was going to be in pain. I finally realized that I was never going to be healthy again and it was impossible for me to give 100 percent on the slopes," Buckles said.
In an effort to overcome the problem, Buckles has undergone hundreds of medical tests, tried just about every ski boot on the market and even changed her diet. But nothing has worked.
When asked, Buckles can show the scars from surgery that was was performed as a last resort to relieve the problem. But that also failed.
In the end, doctors, coaches and even Buckles were left baffled by the recurring pain that has interrupted her speedy climb up the U.S. Ski Team's ladder and has now brought the young skier's career to an end.
"They still don't know what is causing the pain," Buckles said.
"But I knew I wasn't going to move up. I spent so much time just trying to ski that I could never work on the things that would make me more competitive on the slopes."
She attended two summer ski camps this year with intentions to keep skiing, but at her last camp she realized the pain was too much.
She said skiing wasn't fun anymore and she knew the time to make a change had arrived.
"I skied well at the camps. Maybe the best I've skied in several years," Buckles said. "But I started to think about this fall and winter and I realized just how miserable I was going to be. It's not that I don't want to be on the hill, but I also know that part of my life is over."
Injuries have plagued Buckles' entire career with the American team. She missed the last half of the 1999 season with her shin problems. She was able to return but was sidelined again after a crash in February 2000 that left her rehabilitating both of her knees.
Despite being sidelined for most of her career, Buckles managed to find a few bright spots.
She collected four podiums in the 1998 Speed Series in Jackson Hole, Wyo., taking a first and a third in super-G events and two silver medals in downhill events. She also placed fifth (third among juniors) in the 1998 National Alpine Championships. The following season, she placed 13th in a Europa Cup super-G race in Haus, Austria.
But even with the top results the pain was never far behind. Buckles would have to take her boots off after each run with hopes the pain would go away. Sometimes she would inspect a course before a race on one ski with her other foot in a tennis shoe. She could not wear a boot because it was too painful.
"I could only take two or three training runs and I would be done," Buckles said. "I was constantly in pain when I was on the hill."
Today, Buckles said she feels like a weight has been lifted off her shoulders. She is excited to step into the next phase of her life, which will not include competitive skiing but will continue to be competitive.
Buckles hopes to keep her edge in the rodeo arena as a barrel racer and team roper. She has been practicing in her backyard and plans to attend several local rodeo events in the next several months.
"I grew up on a ranch and I can't wait to get back to rodeo," Buckles said.
Buckles said there are many similarities in barrel racing and alpine skiing. She is hoping the rodeo events will help her keep the edge as she looks toward a future without skiing.
Buckles said she might consider coaching skiing in the future, but not right now. The pain in her shins only allows her to ski a couple of hours at a time.
Right now, she is planning on taking some classes at Colorado Mountain College, figuring out where she wants to go to college and turning her athletic energy to rodeo.
"I'm comfortable with the decision I made," Buckles said. "I just want to be a normal person for once in my life."