The answer, according to those that know her, is simple: Katherine Ingalls is a great athlete with an iron will.
The questions are far more complex.
How could she come back from an injury so devastating it derailed her life for nearly two years?
How can anyone climb to the top of a highly competitive sport by March, let alone an endurance affair such as Nordic skiing, having started from scratch in November?
How can Katherine Ingalls smile and nod her way through another conversation about her life-changing bicycle accident, well aware that it was the one event that put all of her dreams in danger?
"She's got a big heart," her father, Bart Ingalls, explained. "I knew that. I knew not ever to discount her."
Katherine Ingalls still remembers the details of her accident.
She rode her bicycle almost every day in the summer of 2007, and she rode it twice on June 29.
"I worked in the morning on Mount Werner, then decided to get some endurance work in on the road in the afternoon," she said.
She was riding with her mother, Jeanne Ingalls, on Routt County Road 129 when a semi-trailer clipped her.
"My mom yelled, 'car back,' and I tried to go onto the shoulder and I hit the gravel and looked back," Ingalls told the Steamboat Pilot & Today soon after the accident. "And then I felt the two back tires go over."
Her leg was shattered and pelvis broken and what had been a year unlike any other for Ingalls seemed ruined.
She had dominated at the Junior Nationals Nordic skiing championships that March, winning two national championships and earning podium finishes in all four of her races.
She didn't let up in the summer as she shifted from one love to another. She hoped to be one of three U.S. team members for the Junior Worlds mountain biking competition and had the points lead in the women's expert division of the Town Challenge mountain bike series.
Still, even after she was flown to a Denver hospital after the accident, her doctors were talking about a full recovery.
Ingalls attended one of the first Town Challenge races after the accident in a wheelchair, but she had no ambition to watch from the sideline for long.
She worked hard and seemed on the verge of a comeback just several months after she had been rolled into an ambulance on a highway north of Steamboat.
But things just weren't right.
The problem was a titanium rod, screwed into Ingalls' femur to help hold the pieces together. The bar was too long, stretching beyond her bone and into her hip. It dug into her muscle with every step she took and every movement she made.
"By the end of the day, it was just awful," Ingalls said.
She tried to race once that winter. Queen of her cross-country skiing world in the winter of 2006-07, she finished dead last in her only race of the 2007-08 season.
"It wasn't healing right. She still had a broken leg," Bart Ingalls said. "Another surgery wasn't much of a decision. It was a have-to."
A step forward
The titanium rod was replaced by a metal plate in a July surgery and only then did Katherine Ingalls' recovery from the bike accident begin in earnest.
Few were sure what to expect, including the previously optimistic doctors.
"I knew I wanted to come back," said Ingalls, now a senior at Steamboat Springs High School. "If I had decided it wouldn't have happened, I don't know what would have happened to me.
"I needed that hope."
She was on crutches as the first snow fell in Steamboat last fall, but started working out with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club during Thanksgiving.
Although the dull ache of the rod was gone, Ingalls still was weak and worked through pain as her shrunken leg muscles struggled to keep up with her swollen ambition.
"I didn't have a lot of confidence in her ability to make the Junior National team," Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club coach Brian Tate said.
Only the top 12 skiers from the Rocky Mountain Division are invited to the squad.
But slowly the pain trickled away, and slowly Ingalls got faster on her skis. Slowly, she worked her way past uninjured athletes who had been working on their conditioning since spring.
"She kept getting better and faster," Tate said. "And she did it. She pulled it off, raced well and ended up 11th on the list to make the Junior Nationals team."
It'd be easy to say Ingalls' return was complete when she qualified for the Junior Nationals team.
It'd be easy to say it was complete when she managed to overcome her complete lack of conditioning to place at the event, earlier this month in Truckee, Calif.
Ingalls was 10th in the 5 kilometer skate race. She surged from the back of the pack - she was 35th at the halfway point - to place for the first time in two years.
Ingalls, though, is convinced there's so much more.
Her eyes glow when she talks about getting back on the mountain bike this summer.
They turn serious when discussing her college plans.
While training in Wyoming early in the winter, she spoke with a coach from the University of Colorado and is set on landing on the school's varsity Nordic skiing team.
"If I can't get a scholarship, I'll walk on," she said. "If I can't do that, I'll ski with the club team a year and get on next year."
As her family, friends and coaches learned a long time ago, there's no reason to doubt her.
- To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 871-4253 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org