Out but not down, 2 of Steamboat’s top snowboarders will miss Olympics
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — There are risks to having surgery as a professional snowboarder, and not just the obvious that comes with anesthetics and someone with a knife, and questions that go beyond “Will I be OK?”
Is this really necessary?
Could I compete this year even if I don’t have the operation?
Could I still snowboard at the age of 30 if I don’t? Could I walk at the age of 50?
Will the check from my sponsor still come?
And this year, am I passing up my last chance for the Olympics?
“It’ll be alright,” said Steamboat Springs halfpipe snowboarder Matt Ladley, once an Olympic hopeful and now out for the season with a hip injury. “I’ve fought hard for the Olympics before and not made it. To me, the Olympics are just a part of snowboarding, not all of snowboarding.”
He and fellow Steamboat Springs halfpipe snowboarder Taylor Gold were supposed to be two of the top threats to make the U.S. Olympic team coming into the season, and once they made it, they were poised to be a major factor in the medals discussion.
This was supposed to be one of the most important stretches of their season, too, if not of their careers — 10 days, two competitions, 10 runs that will decide which Americans are going to South Korea next month for the 2018 Winter Olympics and which are going home.
Indeed, Ladley and Gold are doing the same thing this week, but rather that compete for the Olympics, both are largely confined to their homes after having undergone season-ending surgery.
Getting there required a lot more decision making that deciding which doctor to call.
For Gold, his surgery this week was to repair his knee and an injury that’s bothered him since he sustained it two years ago.
It didn’t come on a spectacular, high-flying trick, but rather on a mundane ride through snow. He clipped a rock buried in powder with his board and in the ensuing tumble broke his knee cap.
That kept him out of the 2015-16 season entirely. He returned and rode healthy in just one event last season, the 2016-17 season.
That one went very well. He placed third at the Winter X Games Aspen superpipe event, one spot behind Ladley.
But, he’d aggravated a shoulder injury just before X Games, having dislocated it for the sixth time.
Gold attended several training camps early in the summer, but the pain was mounting as winter approached. He couldn’t train nearly as much as he’d hoped, and as the first Olympic qualifier drew near last month, he decided the best move was to not even start.
“It was really hard,” he said. “I didn’t really know how to go about it, and it’s a hard decision because there’s sponsor pressure and other things like that.”
He knew quite well how sponsors can respond to an injury. After he sustained the knee injury in the 2015-16 season, he said his biggest backer, Monster Energy, pulled its support.
“Pretty much the day they found out,” he said.
He wasn’t completely off his feet this fall. He could have competed and, he thinks now, having watched the first two of four Olympic qualifiers unfold, made the U.S. team, perhaps sliding in for the third or fourth spot.
“But, I wasn’t in a very good position going in, and even if I had made the team, I wouldn’t have been happy because I’m not able to ride the way I want to,” he said.
So, he called his current sponsors, some new, like Clif Bar, and some old, like Steamboat Resort, and discussed his decision.
He was going to take the year off.
He had shoulder surgery three weeks ago, and this week, the operation on his knee.
This time, he didn’t lose a single sponsor.
“I talked them through my decision, and they understood and were willing to support me moving forward,” he said.
“I feel really good about next season being a really good season for me,” he said. “If I tried to go ride this year, I think I would have been in position to go in the last couple of spots, but I just decided my priority was getting healthy.”
It’s a sentiment Ladley’s plenty familiar with.
He came into the Olympic qualifying process on a roll in big events. He won the 2016 X Games — the event neck and neck with the Olympics as the biggest in the sport — then backed that up with a second-place finish last winter.
His hip had been a persistent problem, however, and it went from annoying to season-ending in the first event of the 2017-18 season, a U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix at Copper Mountain.
“It was landing low and the wrong way,” Ladley said. “It crams your femur up into your hip socket in the way you don’t want.”
He ended up with a torn labrum.
“It was just the wear and tear, but it got much worse very quickly,” he said.
He skipped the second event of the qualifying process, the Dew Tour in Breckenridge, still holding out some hope he’d be able to return for January’s two events. It soon became apparent it would be risky to even try, and he scheduled surgery for this week.
“It’s the best thing for my body,” he said of sitting the season out. “The surgery is very efficient and usually very successful, and if I do this, I can avoid some things in my future. It will get me back to full health quickly, and I should come back far better than I’ve been the last few years.”
Coming back far better than they’ve been, when they sat and thought about it, overcame the emotions of the chase for the Olympics.
“The Olympics are only every four years, and snowboarding is so violent,” Ladley said. “The timing just doesn’t match up every time, and so far it hasn’t for me.”
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