Steamboat Springs Caroline Lalive's nightmare began Jan. 25, when she heard a pop and found her left kneecap halfway up her thigh.
Sitting in shock on the side of a downhill course in Cortina, Italy, Lalive thought about her childhood dream -- an Olympic gold medal.
"As soon as I landed and skied to the side and felt that my kneecap was broken, my first thought, more than anything else -- my body or the day or anything -- was I knew I wasn't going to the Olympics," Lalive said Saturday at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore in Steamboat Springs.
The nightmare didn't end there for the three-time Olympian and Steamboat resident. She decided to return to the United States for surgery.
"I didn't want to be in Europe during the Olympics, only because it's such a big deal over there," Lalive said. "It's live, and I would be in this rehab clinic. No way."
Instead, she made a painful 39-hour trip from Cortina to Vail's Steadman-Hawkins Clinic, where Dr. Bill Sterett counted at least 30 knee fragments in Lalive's leg. Her left femur was fractured, and her left quadriceps tendon was torn.
For a 26-year-old who had undergone 16 surgeries, not counting surgeries on her eyes and teeth, this leg and knee injury was the most severe --nd the most bizarre.
"I landed a little bit with my tips up, but not bad at all. Nothing unusual for skiing," Lalive said about the accident. "I don't even understand how I got hurt. They told me what happened when I landed was that my quad muscle contracted so aggressively that this tendon ripped apart my bone, which is so weird. That pulled the bone apart, and that impact broke the femur, and then (the tendon) ripped."
Lalive asked the experienced U.S. Ski Team doctors whether they had seen a similar injury. They told her no, and then they shared the worst news. They were only able to recover three pieces of her knee, which means Lalive is missing more than one-third of her left kneecap. The shards of the rest were too tiny to recover and had to be vacuumed out.
"After surgery, the thought is ... chances are ... it will be really hard and unlikely (that) I will return to competitive skiing," Lalive said. "That was just heartbreaking. In one week, I lose my Olympics, my season and possibly my career. I was like, 'I don't understand this.'"
Lalive was named to her third Olympics team Jan. 25, the same day she was injured. She was the No. 2 qualifier on a deep and young U.S. squad. Her runner-up finish in a downhill race Dec. 17 in Val d'Isere, France, all but guaranteed her the Olympic start.
After a poor showing in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and injuries in 2003 and early in 2005, the podium finish came at a perfect time.
"My dad was there," Lalive said. "It was such a great day. I thought I was
back on track. It had been four years since I was on the podium. I just felt like my changed mental approach and change in my physical training had paid off."
Lalive returned to Steamboat for Christmas and participated in the community Olympic Send-off at Howelsen Hill on Dec. 30.
"I drew so much positive energy from that," she said. "I felt so recharged and was so looking forward to the Olympics."
She made World Cup stops in Austria and Switzerland before heading to Cortina, Italy, in late January.
Lalive tells the story: "Because there wasn't as much snow this year and because they are trying to make women's skiing a little bit more exciting, the jumps were bigger, but most of the landings were really flat, which is super dangerous.
"The forerunner kept telling the race organizers: 'It's great, but you need to do something about the jumps. If you have a lot of speed, you will fly really far and land on the flats.' He kept telling them that. No one listened.
"We had our first training run, and that day is your first day, so you aren't going all out. Still, the jumps were huge. I had no problems, though. The next training day, I started farther back, like 24th. ...
"The first 10 girls went, and eight out of the 10 crashed on this lower part, not where I got hurt. They stopped the training run and brought the snowcats out to try to plow down this one roll that everyone was crashing on. ... All in all, we were standing there for like an hour and 20 minutes waiting to go. Finally, our coaches got on the radio and said in the slower section, 'Throw them sideways' -- basically, slow down your speed. 'It's not worth getting hurt a week before the Olympics. Tonight, we are going to tell the race organizers they have to fix this, but get through today, but still stick with your plan at the top,' which is right.
"In Cortina, there is a flat section at the top and then it drops down this really cool chute between the rocks, and at the bottom of the chute you are going like 73 miles per hour or something. I came down there, and that was the first big jump. I went off the jump and was obviously going faster than the day before. ... As soon as I landed, I heard my left knee pop, but I didn't know if it was something from the impact, so I tried to ski like for a second or two longer, and then I knew something was really wrong.
"I grabbed my leg and skied to the side of the course. I didn't crash. I just skied to the side and sat down behind this banner because I didn't want to draw attention to myself. I felt through my suit and I could feel my kneecap up in my quad."
Lalive doesn't remember crying. She just wanted to get to a hospital. Race organizers didn't fly her off the course, as she expected. Instead, they put her on a chairlift down where she waited at the bottom of the course -- without pain medication -- for nearly an hour. It took two hours for her to arrive at the clinic. "I went back to the hotel, and that's when I had to start making my decision," she said.
The what-if game
Lalive, who is known for her sparkling smile and sweet demeanor, didn't want to talk to anyone for nearly two weeks after the accident.
"You go through a mourning phase, and I was just negative," she said. "I don't deserve this. I don't understand. I have a strong faith, so I was like, 'God, why are you doing this to me?'"
Lalive ran the gauntlet of emotions, growing furious with her left leg for letting her down. She was at Euzoa Bible Church when a woman whose son died of leukemia when he was 17 approached Lalive with advice. The mother suggested Lalive stop searching for answers she may never find and being angry may negatively be affecting those around her. "That's great advice," Lalive said. "I changed my perspective. I'm not going to be expecting now to find out why this happened. I'm going to keep looking ahead. Every time I'm home, and I look back, if I could change that day in any way, it's depressing."
Lalive also has role models in her sport of Alpine ski racing to look to as she begins the long road to recovery.
Germany's Hermann Maier was in a near fatal motorcycle crash in 2001. Doctors were minutes from amputating his leg, and Maier was told he might never walk again. He won silver and bronze medals at the 2006 Winter Olympics.
Croatia's Janica Kostelic has won four gold medals and two silver medals in the past two Olympics. In 2000, she had a terrible skiing accident, shattering her knee. She also was told she would never ski again.
"The human body and the human mind is pretty powerful," Lalive said. "If you want something, chances are you can push yourself pretty hard to get back there. I'm back on the page where I want to fight to come back. This will for sure be the longest, hardest recovery I've ever had, but I think I will take it one day at a time."
Day by day
On Friday, Lalive endured three hours of physical therapy with therapist Jen Kerr. "She is like my saving grace," Lalive said.
The SportsMed department at Yampa Valley Medical Center will be Lalive's second home in the coming months -- and likely years. She is looking at three additional surgeries to repair her damaged left leg.
Therapy began the day after her initial surgery when she was ordered to bend her leg at a 30-degree angle. The pain -- and emotional and physical healing -- continues.
"The surgery went really well," Lalive said. "Today is exactly four weeks since my surgery, and I feel really good. The weirdest part is seeing your leg atrophy. You lose every muscle you worked so hard to get. My knee is like a giant sausage or grapefruit."
She wishes she was in Italy and wishes she could have walked through Opening Ceremonies because she did not walk through in 1998 and has no recollection of 2002, but she is happy to be rehabilitating in Steamboat -- her home for 11 years.
"I don't think there is anywhere else in the world I could feel more taken care of," Lalive said. "You genuinely feel like people care about you. That makes you feel so much better. Your value isn't based solely on your performance."
Lalive stands up slowly from a table and stretches her leg. The brace forces her to limp, which clearly annoys her. Three weeks ago, however, sitting in a bookstore, talking about the worst two weeks of her life was something she could not have done.
But the smile has returned. She has ditched her crutches, and she can't wait to ditch the knee brace. She is only 26, and a ski racer's prime isn't until the late 20s and early 30s, and then there is a twinkle in her greenish eyes.
"At this point, I don't count anything out," she said. "It would be stupid to kiss this goodbye."