Ben Berend back on skis after offseason ankle surgery
Steamboat Springs — At just 19 years old, Ben Berend has spent the past few years of his life charging after his Nordic combined dreams.
The Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club-bred athlete has Continental Cup and Junior World Championship starts under his belt and has stood on the Junior National Championship podium more than once.
He has been named to the U.S. Nordic combined development team and uprooted his Steamboat life in May to move to Park City and train with and around Olympians, and he continues to fill out an already-long skiing resume.
Berend’s life largely is consumed by the sport, so when he rolled and sprained his ankle during a routine training session in August, the prospect of missing just a few weeks irritated him.
But when weeks turned into months as the ankle simply wouldn’t heal properly, the athlete’s dreaded “What if?” question wouldn’t leave his mind.
What if he couldn’t train with his roommate Taylor Fletcher or his neighbor Bryan Fletcher, both accomplished Olympians? Could he really miss the entire season?
“I was doing physical therapy then going back to training, but it would just swell up like a balloon,” Berend said. “That’s we started to think something was probably up.”
An MRI revealed Berend’s ankle was packed with scar tissue, requiring arthroscopic surgery to scrape out the excess junk.
Without any real timetable for a return to training and competing, Berend was resigned to the couch, but not his own couch in Park City.
He couldn’t bear to hang around the world-class facilities and watch his friends and teammates train without him. Berend estimates he missed anywhere from 120 to 150 vital training hours between early August and this past weekend.
So after surgery in Steamboat Springs with Dr. Eric Verploeg, Berend stuck around and let his parents watch after him.
“When training and competing is all you do, and all of a sudden you don’t have that, it’s a reality check for sure,” he said.
Without a ton of confidence, Berend circled the Rocky Mountain Division Winter Start competition this past Saturday as his target date for a return.
But until a week ago, he hadn’t even taken ski jumps or put his body to a serious 10K cross country test. Three months off skis or hard training left Berend’s confidence nearly on empty.
A true competitor at heart, he decided that the only way to see if the scope surgery worked or not was to jump on a pair or skis, climb to the top of the Howelsen Hill ski jumps and let it rip.
Last Sunday, he gave it a shot for the first time since August.
“The first day, I took two jumps, and it was bad,” Berend admitted. “I had no confidence, especially landing. And the outruns having those huge jump skis trying to control those with that ankle. Every day, I built up a little more confidence.”
With less than a week of preparation before Saturday’s Winter Start, Berend got some helpful advice from Johnny Spillane’s mom, Nancy, of all people.
She told him the story about how Johnny tore his ACL, an injury that culminated in one of his many career-threatening surgeries, but also one that he didn’t let set him back too far.
“He ended up having another surgery and missed a ton of time, and the second World Cup of the season the next year, he won,” Berend said with a bit of astonishment.
He’s got comeback dreams, too, and it started Saturday with a fourth-place finish at the Winter Start. He had the senior division’s best ski jump but surrendered a midrace lead, still skiing on unconditioned legs.
Saturday was just a small beginning, though. Next weekend, he and many others will be back in Park City for Continental Cup action, and then they’ll head to Klingenthal, Germany, for another Continental Cup competition.
The season is young and Berend’s ankle is still a bit sore, but being back on skis has the 19-year-old as excited — and grateful — as he’s ever been in his Nordic combined career.
“For me, I just know I’m still pretty far behind fitness wise, and I just need to jump into it and start getting races in and get my fitness up,” he said. “I want to be able to do well at World Juniors this year, that’s my goal. I want to be able to show up there and be fit and be able to ski strong. I still have a long way to go. I’m just glad to be out here.”
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