Injury is sadly a part of all top sport and luckily there is no shortage of inspiring comeback stories.
But how dominant must an athlete be to embrace a broken back as a useful learning experience?
Incredibly dominant. And there’s no other way to describe Canadian mogul skier MikaÃ«l Kingsbury.
He is Olympic champion and reigning world champion. He holds all the records in mogul skiing, including the most World Cup podiums (93) and the most wins (65). He received the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s Most Outstanding Athlete in 2018.
Whether it’s winning against the best in the world or coming back from injury, Kingsbury makes it seem like things are easy.
Next weekend, the 29-year-old Deux-Montagnes, Que., Will play in the season opener in Ruka, Finland, where he broke his back last year.
He’s not nervous; he’s excited.
âI love the course,â Kingsbury says. âJust because I fell doesn’t mean I don’t like it anymore. I think it was just a bump in the road.
It was in Ruka that he wore his first yellow bib as points leader, set several of his records and was seriously injured for the first time in his career. âLots of firsts,â he says.
Last November, during a routine jump in training, he landed farther than expected and “flew like Superman” face first to the boss he should have bypassed. He turned at the last moment to protect his face and neck so that his back took the hit on the icy mound.
When told he had fractured his T4 and T5 vertebrae, he became concerned. Of course he was. Would he return to his peak form? Would he have persistent pain? How many races should he miss?
But as soon as he got home and worked out a rehabilitation plan with his support team, he was already seeing the positives.
âIt’s going to be great for me to learn from this injury,â he said to himself. It will be a good experience to come back from behind to change: âI’ll be the hunter. “
When he returned to competition in February, he was the hunter for exactly one run, just over 24 seconds. Once he got to the bottom of his almost unbelievable qualifying round, he was once again leading the world.
He won the Mogul and Mogul World Cups in Deer Valley, Utah, nine weeks after his injury. A month later, he again won both events at the world championships in Kazakhstan. His first races in Deer Valley are the only time Kingsbury can remember being nervous about his return.
“Don’t crash, don’t crash,” he said to himself at the top of those first few runs.
He believes he was 70 percent of his best physique at Deer Valley, where he still pulled off his tough tricks on the jumps and raced to win. His trainer, Michel Hamelin, thinks he was stronger than that, more like 80%.
It’s an extremely short list of athletes who can win against the best in the world without being at their best.
âWe know he’s special,â says Hamelin.
Kingsbury trains with the help of his ski trainer, his physical trainer Scott Livingston and his mental performance trainer Jean FranÃ§ois MÃ©nard, to give the best of himself. But he’s so far ahead of the field that he often doesn’t have to do his best to win.
âRarely does he have to be full-blast to win an event,â says Hamelin.
If there is any lesson in all of this for other athletes, or for mere mortals trying to overcome their own challenges, according to the Kingsbury team, it comes from all the work that goes on years before the bump on the road.
âThe way he trains makes him a very tough athlete to start with,â says Livingston, who coached Kingsbury for 12 years.
He equates this with learning to drive.
âWe have learned to have a certain number of car lengths between us and the car in front of us so as not to hit the bumper. The same goes for your physical performance. If you prepare in the right way, where you tick all the boxes, you end up having a lot of car lengths, âhe says.
It also helps to have a good injury. Breaking bones in the spine sounds scary enough, but Kingsbury’s injury wasn’t complicated, Livingston says. In fact, it’s the same kind of fracture people get when their feet slide under them on an icy sidewalk and crash onto their backs.
Yet Kingsbury had never been injured before, so Menard worried, albeit briefly, about how he might react.
âThere is always a first time to everything, even a first injury,â he says. “But that doesn’t usually come after Olympic medals, World Cup records and crystal globes.”
As soon as he spoke to him, MÃ©nard could see that Kingsbury, an obsessed winner, was going to âwin in rehab,â so he too went into lesson mode.
âI firmly believe that you get stronger mentally by finding ways, be creative by having the right mindset in times when you are not supposed to have a positive attitude or are challenged,â says MÃ©nard , who published a book titled, “Train Your Brain Like an Olympian.”
âFor Mik, things have gone well in his career, he has good parents, a great education. He never had huge issues to deal with, and it was a big challenge for him. Not only to recover from the injury and get healthy, but to come back (so strong.) He didn’t just win those four competitions, he really dominated, âhe says.
“It’s an extra and very important experience that he now has in his back pocket and that he can turn to, especially this year before the Olympics and say, ‘Hey, I was able to achieve something very difficult. . So there’s no reason why I can’t win the Games anymore. ‘ “
Due to his season shortened by injury, Kingsbury is starting this Olympic season in sixth place. This is the first time he has skied in Ruka without the yellow leader’s bib since the age of 18, it was two, almost three Olympic cycles ago.
âIt’s okay,â he said. âSix is ââcool, this is Toronto. I’ll put on some Drake songs.
If history is any lesson, Kingsbury might be humming into Drake’s 6ix, but he’ll be back at No.1 before long.
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