A fraction of a second changes everything
For just 25 seconds.
That’s what moguls are about but a career can end in less than 25 seconds, something I found out four years ago.
One thing all top athletes have in common is being familiar with pain, and lots of it. Surgery too. But freestyle athletes – including mogul skiers – do more than just push through it.
If a hockey player or football player blows their knees, they blow their career. Freestyle athletes can blow both their knees several times before they decide to call it quits.
Stupid or brave is up to interpretation.
For my own part, by 16 I had already had two knee surgeries and a small procedure to remove a bone spur off the top of my foot.
My injuries that will haunt me for life have included: 50 per cent of the cartilage between my femur and tibia removed, a strained and partially torn anterior cruciate ligament (a ligament in my knee), knotted iliotibial tract band (a band of connective tissue within the thigh), Patellar Tendonitis, and Scoliosis.
At this point I was going into my second year on the Alberta mogul team.
“The air was electric with anticipation.”
– Bilton said. When looking at those injuries, it’s amazing I stayed on that team another year and a half.
I knew when the season began that my third season on the team would be my last.
I didn’t however; know how my season was going to end.
Having finally fought my way to the top in Alberta, I was looking forward to a season where I could prove that I deserved it.
By then I was 17.
I hadn’t yet made the Canadian development team – the starting point on the path to the Olympics. And if you didn’t make the team by 18, the chances of you doing so just diminished from there.
I was having a tough time as the last training camp before the competition season began.
My jumps weren’t going as well as I knew they could, my speed was only average and my turns weren’t impressive.
To top it off, it seemed to me, some of my teammates didn’t believe me when I would back out of training due to the pain in my left knee.
I had always babied that knee. It was the one where most of my problems were coming from.
But I didn’t have anything to prove to my teammates, other than I was on top for a reason.
Two weeks after the training camp, my team was leaving for the first competition of the year – U.S. Freestyle Selections – scheduled to take place at Winter Park, Colorado.
Once on the plane, I had this overwhelming need to stand up, collect my things and get off screaming, “No, don’t make me go, I can’t do it anymore.”
I ignored it.
That decision ended my competitive career.
At US selections, you have two days of training, one competition day, which starts with qualifiers in the morning, finals in the afternoon. After that first day there is one more day of training, the next two in competition. Those two training days were some of the best training days I’d had all season.
Photo by Adrian TaggartAll my doubts of competing were gone.
The morning of the competition, was even better.
I was more than ready.
The air was electric with anticipation.
Everyone was in their zone, the pressure of expectations was lifted and all that mattered was my skis, the run and me. I had my run memorized, five moguls up top, left turn into the jump, 360, land right mogul, 25 moguls right turn into the next jump, back flip cross, right turn out of jump and four moguls to finish.
Eminem singing ‘Lose Yourself’ played in my ear.
The starter counted me down, “3, 2, 1, go.”
I pushed out, flying down the course.
I hit the first jump, set up my spin and knew instantly I wasn’t landing it.
Even with the weather warming up, I hadn’t expected the snow conditions to change as much as they did.
I landed ¾ of the way through the spin, my ski popped off and all I could feel was shattering pain in my knee and my ears ringing.
Before I allowed myself to register what had happened, my ski was back on and I was making my way down the run trying to get my rhythm back.
I willed myself to ignore the pain and push myself down the run. I was skiing faster than I usually do.
I prepared myself for last jump. I took off, preformed the best Back Cross I had ever done, landed, skied out and – the moment I crossed the finish line – fell to the ground.
I hadn’t even realized there were tears streaming down my face, I didn’t realize it until my coaches came to me, stood me up, carried me out of the gate and sat me down.
One of them was asking me questions that I wasn’t registering.
All I could hear was the ringing in my ears.
My teammates, hung back and watched as my coach kept prodding me.
When the ringing stopped, the pain became overwhelming.
My coaches knew that I had to see a doctor immediately.
After waiting for two hours in the hospital and having had several X-rays, two doctors came into the examining room after I had removed my knee brace and my ski pants.
They each took their time testing my knee, seeing what movements hurt, which movements I couldn’t make.
They both came to the inevitable conclusion. Torn anterior cruciate ligament.
I don’t believe they expected my reaction: I laughed.
Out of all my injuries – and the tears I had spilled over each of them – the most world shattering injury was just too funny to me.
My knee was swollen – blue and purple already – and as I put my knee brace and ski pants back on, they handed me crutches.
I looked at them and handed them back.
I had managed to finish my run on two feet and I was well aware what would happen if I babied it.
“I was more than ready.”
– Bilton said.I was determined to walk a normally as my knee allowed and not to show how badly this hurt me.
When I explained my injury to my coaches, the response I received from one of them was to stop whining I would be fine in two days.
By this point, I was so used to their skepticism all I did was limp away.
My teammate came to bring me ice that night and when she saw the state of my knee, the first words out of her mouth were, “you aren’t making this up!”
Upon returning to Calgary, my surgeon and physiotherapist both declared that my ACL wasn’t fully torn.
As there isn’t much to do for a partially torn ACL, I was given the go ahead to continue easy training.
Ten weeks after the accident at the end of January, my knee remained swollen and got worse after every training session.
My parents had had enough.
They decided to pay the nearly $1,000 dollars for a private MRI. The results were shocking.
It turned out the force of my landing was so hard that it had fractured my femur at the head of the bone where it met the tibia.
After 10 weeks there was still a 5 mm crack that hadn’t healed.
That tiny crack is what ended my athletic career.
That tiny crack is what changed my whole life.
That tiny crack made me redefine the way I define myself – from athlete to average.