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John F. Russell: Comeback kid proves herself

Words such as confident, intelligent and talented come to mind when you first meet Olympic ski racer Caroline Lalive.

The other words — such as tough, resilient and determined — come when you get to know her and her background in skiing a little better.

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t put Caroline into the “Tougher than Nails” category at first glance. It’s not standard practice to compare the grit of a 137-pound skier from Steamboat Springs to athletes such as hockey star Peter Forsberg or quarterback Brett Favre.

But we should.

Her long blond hair, larger-than-life smile and her down-home personality have fooled more than a few people through the years and don’t accurately reflect just how tough the 24-year-old ski racer really is.

Her eyes will not tell you that she saw more emergency rooms, surgeons and doctors last year than a rodeo cowboy on a bad run. Her hands will not reveal that they’ve hit more slalom gates than a Lennox Lewis right hook, or that the bones in her fingers seem to break more often than a Pedro Martinez curve ball.

Her expression doesn’t reflect that she is one of the few people in life who knows what it feels like to reach 80 mph without the benefit of a seatbelt. Or that she is one of the few people who can describe the pain of hitting the rock-hard snow of a World Cup course at those same speeds.

But some of Lalive’s most painful crashes have not resulted in broken bones or torn ligaments — they simply have broken her heart.

Most of the excitement and the glory of the Salt Lake City Olympics were lost to Lalive, who struggled to reach the finish line in all of her events.

She arrived at the games with high expectations but left two weeks later with a suitcase full of disappointment.

When she rebounded with a second-place finish in the downhill at the World Cup Finally a few weeks later, it proved she had been bruised but not broken by her experience at the 2002 Olympics.

She opened the 2003 season on the sideline after breaking her index finger in a training accident. In a super-G in March, she took a tumble that injured both knees and broke two ribs. Lalive spent the summer dealing with pain, surgeries and rehabilitation. But by August, she was back on snow.

During her career, Lalive has learned to deal with the falls. In 2002, she broke a bone at the base of her left thumb, and in 2001, a crash at the World Championships kept her off the slopes for a month.

But several years from now, when Lalive is done skiing, she will not be remembered for the falls or the disappointment of the Olympics.

No, Lalive will take her place in Steamboat’s skiing legacy for her ability to overcome the challenges she has faced in a style that has become a Steamboat tradition.


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