Steamboat Springs Mike Morse was sure there were whispers.
He was sure there were people - such as doctors, teammates and coaches - who thought the bright-eyed, veteran freestyle skier would never again see the slopes, much less top-level competition.
But Morse refused to listen.
He refused to let a herniated disc in his lower back and severe damage to his sciatic nerve get him down. While the pain at times was debilitating, it's hard to find "quit" in Morse's vocabulary. In fact, it's hard to find anything negative in his thoughts.
"I think I maybe heard it, but if I did hear it, it didn't really register," Morse said Thursday at the base of Howelsen Hill. "I think there was always that notion that it wasn't an awesome idea for me to go back and ski moguls. I never believed that I was going to actually have to stop skiing because of my injury. If they said that, I didn't hear that."
But overcoming the worst letdowns and toughest mishaps has shaped Morse. He nearly gave up skiing at age 21, but realized being an elite athlete was a lifestyle he wanted. He missed the Olympic freestyle team in 2006 by one spot, but continued to train.
And when the back injury and a minor knee surgery put him out for more than a year and half, Morse, now 27, simply came back better than ever.
An underdog and afterthought going in, Morse won the individual and dual moguls titles at March's Sprint U.S. Freestyle Championships at Deer Valley Resort in Park City.
"It was wild, I guess," said Morse, who has been training and living in Steamboat for five years. "I wasn't
thinking about any of the other stuff during the day of the competition. I never dwell on any of the stuff. Injuries are part of the sport. It happens to everybody. I'm probably no different than 50 percent of the athletes out there."
True, skiing and injuries - especially at the elite level - go together like Steamboat Springs and snow.
But it's hard to overlook the severity of Morse's injury. The injury was especially tough on a freestyle moguls skier, who relies on his core and lower back to take much of the compression of bumps and jumps.
"It's kind of awe-inspiring having those injuries and being able to come back," said Erik Skinner, Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club freestyle ski director. "There's no way in heck a lot of skiers could come back from that and be landing jumps like that."
Morse said his back injury was comprehensive. He originally injured it in December 2005 at Winter Park, when he fell 20 feet and landed directly on his back while trying a jump. Because he was trying to make the 2006 U.S. Olympic Team, Morse kept competing. After falling one spot short of qualifying, Morse went to Europe to ski some World Cups. There, he tore his meniscus and decided it was finally time to get his back done, as well.
Morse missed half of the 2005-06 season and all of the 2006-07 season rehabbing.
He spent countless hours at SportsMed in Steamboat and did Pilates and yoga.
Although he admits he was nervous on his first run back, each time, it got a little better and a little easier, he said.
"I think at this point, looking back, I would have to say that it wasn't that bad because everything has turned out pretty well so far," Morse said. "But while you're in it and while you're doing it, it's pretty hard. It's pretty miserable."
Now Morse, originally from Duxbury, Mass., just south of Boston, is aiming for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
But unlike in 2006, Morse doesn't see Vancouver as the be-all or end-all. Instead, it's just one of the many goals he wants to accomplish.
"You have to prepare yourself," he said. "When you're young, the Olympics are the only thing you can see. I was like that, as well. But I think it's important to put everything in perspective."
Perspective is a relative term for Morse. A self-proclaimed old guy on the team, it took him almost 27 years to lay down some of his best runs.
But were those really his best?
"Hopefully," he said, "I'm saving my best for the middle of February in a year and a half."