Marielle Thompson on familiar road to recovery as she pursues another ski cross gold medal in Beijing
29-year-old suffered knee injury in March, echoing her journey to Pyeongchang in 2018
Time was of the essence, and because she had lived this moment before, Marielle Thompson knew it.
That same right knee, specifically that same old ACL, had given way on the slopes of Sunny Valley, Russia, this past March and the former Olympic gold medallist and world champion needed to figure out — just as she had after a crash in 2017 — how she was going to recover in time for the Olympics.
Then, Thompson had four months to recover before Pyeongchang in 2018; she has 10 this time around before Beijing in February. She was able to opt for a riskier repair procedure in 2017, but you only get one bite of the apple on that route. Reconstruction emerged as the only option this time around.
Despite the pain immediately following the surgery, Thompson's main questions keyed around range of motion exercises and everything else she knew she'd be in for because of her experience in 2017.
Racing in the Beijing Olympics was all that was on the now 29-year-old's mind, not the daunting reality of the setback she was dealt and all the work that lay ahead. The work hasn't fazed one of the most naturally gifted ski-cross athletes for quite some time now. It's what she's come to love in becoming one of Canada's greatest skiers.
"With that goal of going to the Olympics, I think it gives me something to chase and to get to," Thompson said, thinking back to the injury recovery timeline she faces now compared to 2017. "I think it really helped with being motivated and really pushing myself to the limit. That was probably as hard as it was going to be, and if I could handle that, I'll be okay."
There was never the sense that skiing was a predisposed path set by Thompson's parents, Rod and Pam, to follow. There can be the parent like Tiger Woods' father who looks at their toddler and envisions the greatest golfer the world has ever seen and steers everything in their life toward that goal. Pam and Rod just wanted to see their children enjoy themselves. It seemed to work.
Marielle's brother, Broderick, is on the national alpine ski team while sister Tess is an elite figure skater. Marielle was happy bringing out her competitive spirit while having fun, too. She never even dreamed of the international stage, not until she watched hometown legend Ashleigh McIvor become the first Olympic gold medallist in women's ski cross at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
"I think when I saw the Olympics and saw the big scale of everything in 2010, that was kind of what made it realistic for me," Thompson said. "I got to go to the men's event in Cypress [Provincial Park near Vancouver] and see it on a big scale and thought, 'This was a blast!'
"Then, I watched Ashleigh win gold on TV and having known Ashleigh since I was little and watching her do well ahead of me made it seem more attainable, seeing someone I've known my whole life win a gold medal. I thought, 'Oh, if Ashleigh can win a gold medal, maybe I can do that!'"
Willy Raine, who was the assistant to national team head coach Eric Archer during Thompson's formative years with the program, was among the first to spot her talent, coaching her as an 11-year-old alpine skier. The talent was evident and for someone who was tall for her age, Raine could tell it was a matter of being able to strengthen her frame to smooth out the raw edges. She was almost too fast for her own good and generated too much speed, something that only physical control could aid.
"When you watch her skiing down the course, if you were able to get inside her mind, the sport is probably relatively slow-moving in terms of how incredibly quickly her brain processes information," Raine said. "All of that is made easier when you're in balance, when you have the strength to not operate at maximum capacity and kind of be in cruise control."
If a teenager was looking for someone who could show her the ropes in the gym, there was none better than Kelsey Serwa.
Serwa, three years older than Thompson, was a terrific example of maximizing her physical ability to make the most of her talent. She served as an eye-opener for others in the program of what training hard was all about. Train alongside her and you were either challenged to keep up and put in a few additional reps when you might normally stop or you were reminded of just how short you were of your physical peak.
"Serwa trains to the edge in terms of maximum effort," Raine said. "That's not uncommon in great athletes but it's probably as inspiring as it is fearful. If you are not in shape, you get your ass kicked every single day. At some point you either step up and say I need to be training and putting as much work in or you sink."
Aiding that message were Thompson's World Cup results in 2010, where there were a handful of races that she failed to qualify for. It lit a fire under her and only increased the determination to get herself in line physically with her competition. Craig Hill, a strength and conditioning coach for the team who continues to work with Thompson, knew little of the then 18-year-old when they first crossed paths in Whistler for the national team's first summer training camp of 2011, but he could see there was tremendous potential to be realized.
Hill also knew that with her free-spirited nature, he couldn't push her too hard too soon and risk pushing her away. The goal wasn't to instantly transform Thompson into a world champion. The goal was to build her up over a four-year period.
"That's when I really recognized that, 'Wow, this girl is giving everything she's got," Hill said. "She totally trusts us and we're on a really good trajectory here. She met all of her benchmarks in terms of her physical goals for the summer and then had a fantastic winter."
At the age of 19, Thompson earned six World Cup podium finishes, including her first gold medal in February 2012. A star was born as Thompson became the first Canadian ski cross racer to win a Crystal Globe for the overall points leader in a season.
"The confidence she got from getting stronger and fitter I think is really important," Hill said. "It's the kind of thing that's impossible to measure. When athletes know they've done all the work, they draw an unconscious confidence from it, it's a box checked, they know they've done everything to prepare themselves for the moment in front of them."
McIvor could relate to every bit of Thompson's journey. They both grew up in Whistler and had similar upbringings. Thompson's father was a high school teacher by day and had a deep influence on McIvor's life, carving out time to help her and others who missed time at school because of sports, and especially those who missed time to pursue skiing.
I think everyone kind of had their eye on me a little bit and I took that to be too much pressure ... I wasn't having fun at all.- Marielle Thompson
While McIvor, nine years older, didn't really interact with Thompson when she was young, the similarities were evident once they crossed paths in the national team program. They weren't alpine racers who had been at it for years. They both needed to learn what it takes in the gym, and what sacrificing their lifestyle really meant. McIvor also recognized someone who could use a bit of guidance just as she did when she was coming up through the program, and made sure she was approachable.
"I was very determined to make sure she felt like she could come and ask me anything," McIvor said. "I was there to support her, I did not perceive her as a threat and therefore she shouldn't feel intimidated by me, we were a team for Team Canada but particularly as Whistler girls."
Cementing their bond was one of their earliest races together in France. Thompson and McIvor were neck-and-neck when the opportunity presented itself for Thompson to pass. McIvor could have used a veteran move of "pinching her out" — leave no room between yourself and the gate so the opponent can't pass — but because of their camaraderie and mutual respect, McIvor left room for Thompson to cut. Even in the heat of the battle, they were national teammates and friends first.
The value of their bond presented its biggest moment after McIvor had retired in 2012, when the burden of success transferred to Thompson, now Canada's biggest ski-cross star. Injuries among others on the national team had put even more on her shoulders and the work that went into being the best had started to feel too laborious.
"I think everyone kind of had their eye on me a little bit and I took that to be too much pressure," Thompson said. "I made more pressure than there probably even was but I wasn't having fun at all."
WATCH | In the mind of Marielle Thompson:
McIvor, even from afar, could see that Thompson was becoming a bit more isolated from the team. With the Sochi Olympics approaching, McIvor sought Thompson out for a coffee date at a shop in Whistler. After some laughs and reminisces, McIvor got down to business.
"I just tried to put it all into perspective for her," McIvor said. "I do remember saying, 'Now that I'm retired, I'm acutely aware of how I experience my memories of that phase of my life. You want to think about how, when you're done with it, how do you want to look back on it? What do you want to remember from it?
"You don't want to wish you had enjoyed this more or worried about that less."
One of the key takeaways for Thompson was how to manage her negative thoughts so she could get back to having fun. That's what it has always been about. As much as she had come to appreciate the work that went into maintaining her physical peak, nothing was better than racing freely across the slopes.
Gold in Sochi
Confidence is the elixir of success and as she sought out some positive momentum, the Sochi test event provided all she needed. She finished second, but just the experience of being in a new place that no one on the team had experienced before was a thrill.
Riding that momentum into her first Olympics, she claimed gold and Serwa took the silver. Her mentor, McIvor, watched it all as a broadcast commentator.
This was the ultimate validation for all Thompson had put in over the past four years. A concrete long-term plan had been made to see her be the best she could be over an extended period of time, not World Cup champion within 12 months or qualify for the Olympics. By pushing to her limits and also understanding what truly brought out the best in her, she reached her ceiling at the top of the world.
Injury before Pyeongchang
Her success continued following Sochi, and Thompson looked to be peaking for the 2018 Olympics after winning her third Crystal Globe following the 2016-17 season.
And then she was presented with her greatest challenge to date.
While training in Switzerland in October 2017 — just four months shy of Pyeongchang — Thompson fell and ruptured both her ACL and MCL in her right knee. Her mind went straight to what was at stake as she lay on the ground.
"'There's not enough time,' that was the first thought when I crashed," Thompson said. "'Something's wrong and there's not enough time. What am I gonna do?'"
Her gut said to go for whatever gave her a fighting chance for the Olympics. The traditional route would have meant anywhere from six to eight months of recovery. An artificial graft didn't appeal to her because it would only be a matter of time before it failed.
Behind Door No. 3 was a more innovative method of internal bracing that wold help the knee ligaments grow back together, a much shorter timeline for recovery than a reconstruction. But there was also the unknown of not knowing how long the bracing would last. Thompson decided it was worth the risk of being where she wanted to be — in Pyeongchang to defend her gold medal.
Hill, along with physio Mike Conway, devised a timeline with benchmarks of where she needed to be physically every two weeks in order to be ready to ski by January. They let Thompson know just how unlikely and difficult it would be to make it happen and that even one single setback along the way would spell doom on her chances.
That only served as motivation. She spent every other day receiving physio and massage treatment and put in as much work in the gym by herself as she could as well. Working smart was just as important as working hard, and so when it was time to rest, she sat back.
When she had a good day, session, or exercise, she'd get a high five or a pat on the back, but there certainly wasn't a celebration.- Craig Hill, strength and conditioning coach
One checkpoint at a time, Thompson was on her way. Around Christmas, Hill and Conway met to assess where she was. They sat in an office and compared numbers, looked at where she was at in physio, where she was at in the gym, and were now convinced she stood a chance of fulfilling her dream. They knew their athlete, though, and knew it was best to stay locked in. So much had been accomplished, they could ill-afford to throw it away.
"We very much stuck to our process," Hill said. "Despite the fact she was progressing really well, we never really wavered on how we worked with her. When she had a good day, session, or exercise, she'd get a high five or a pat on the back, but there certainly wasn't a celebration."
Thompson then advanced to more explosive work and biometrics, where the risk of injury was going to elevate. Any setback and the dream was dead; it was stressful but exciting. Gradual progression at the gym led to a heap of testing in Whistler, and then even more testing in Calgary. After about the first three weeks of 2018, she was cleared to get on snow with a month to go before the events in Pyeongchang began.
After 13 days of skiing, Thompson went to South Korea not knowing what to expect, but immensely proud of what she had done to get there. She posted the fastest time in qualifying but couldn't make it past the quarter-finals. What she had done, though, to recover from ACL and MCL injuries in just four months to compete at the highest level and on the biggest stage left an imprint bigger than any medal could have. At least it was her friend, Kelsey Serwa, who walked away with the gold.
"Coming out of that, I didn't really realize how far I could push myself," Thompson said. "It showed me how strong I could be. Both mentally and physically, how much I could push my body to the limit. A lot of it was by myself so I had to be very self-sufficient and self-motivated."
Continuing on that upward trajectory, Thompson saw the 2019 world championships as the perfect opportunity to signal she had made a full recovery. The final was a perfect microcosm of all that she had mastered over the years, from making a split-second race-turning decision to having the body control to do it.
She was cracking jokes in the starting gate ahead of the race and ready to take down Swiss rival Fanny Smith, the 2013 world champion, 2012-13 Crystal Globe winner, and a bronze medallist in Pyeongchang.
"Fanny is a unique person," Raine said of the rivalry. "She's going to let you know if she won. Marielle's pretty reserved so you're not gonna see her go crazy. At the end of the day they're both incredible people."
In an incredibly tight race, the decisive moment came near the end. Setting up for the second-last turn, Thompson had come around the outside because she knew she could generate enough whip out of a bank turn to build toward passing Smith. To complete the pass, Thompson stayed low on a jump while Smith opted for some hang time — especially ironic considering Thompson's nickname is Big Air Mar — and the speed along the ground proved enough to land another gold medal.
WATCH | Marielle Thompson wins world championship:
"Fanny didn't make a mistake, she just got beaten," Raine said. "For Marielle to have the patience, because they had a great battle all the way down, there were two or three passes back and forth. That was probably one of the more exciting heats you'd see in a final with two of the best in the sport."
At the end of the race, Thompson let her emotions out. She still had her goggles on so no one could see, but the tears were flowing. All the work that went into rehabbing her knee, all the doubts that came with it, the times she had fallen short at the world championships — outside a silver in 2013 — had been capped off with an unbelievable amount of perseverance.
"To finally have everything come to fruition was, I think, just a lot," Thompson said. "After the Olympics, after I crashed and everything was over, I was just so tired. Just so tired and didn't really realize how much of a toll it had taken."
In the starting gate, Thompson is in her happy place. Not restless, not burdened, nowhere near overwhelmed. Joking with coaches until it's time to get in a stance, that's when you see the wiggle. It starts in the shoulders and goes all the way down the body like a golfer getting set for a crucial putt.
She is the world-class veteran others look up to. Thompson wasn't always as confident as she is now, but her success has brought a steely swagger. She represents all that is right with Canada's ski-cross program, but she won't dare admit it. It's the way she was raised, and the way she still remains to this day.
"I honestly don't know where the time's gone," Thompson said of being the one who's looked up to now. "I do like taking the veteran role on the team and trying to lead by example as much as I can. I try to be my best leader and help everyone when I can."
Having only recently got back out on the ski hills, 2022 is set to cap off another incredible show of resilience. That success story won't be defined by a podium finish because the story of that success lies in the journey to get there. That's why she can laugh and joke in the start gate, she knows the work's been done.