If there was ever a comeback kid in ski racing, U.S. Ski Team veteran Steven Nyman would be the guy. On Sunday, the 38-year old downhiller, with three World Cup wins to his credit, suffered a right Achilles tendon injury while freeskiing at the U.S. Ski Team’s training site at Timberline Resort & Ski Area on Mount Hood in Oregon. While it is too early to establish a return-to-snow date, Nyman made it clear that Beijing 2022 and even Cortina 2021 are still on his radar.
Nyman was injured while freeskiing on a training course, just carving turns. The snow consistency changed from a salted to an unsalted section when he fell, sliding into a gate. He had surgery on Tuesday. He is likely to split his rehab time between Park City and his home in Wilson, Wyo. near Jackson Hole.
“It was day one on Mount Hood and I just wanted to make some normal GS turns,” said Nyman. “Mikeala (Shiffrin) was on the training course next to us ripping GS turns and I thought, ‘Hey, that looks fun.’”
He could feel the inconsistency in the snow, sliding out on an unsalted patch. When he hit the gate, his ski snapped up to his nose and he could feel the wrenching on his Achilles — an injury he suffered nine years ago on the other foot.
“When I stood up, it felt like my heel was higher in my boot and maybe my boot board had broken,” he said. “It was like, ‘oh, this is not good.’”
He skied down gingerly, working with U.S. Ski Team staff to coordinate an exam. “I didn’t have the shocking pain I had at Copper (in 2011), so I was hoping that I had just really stretched it.”
The team swung into action to coordinate his return to Park City for an MRI, setting up consultation with Dr. Thomas Clanton of The Steadman Clinic in Vail, along with Dr. Marc Strauss, the Norwegian Alpine Team physician who worked with Nyman on his last injuries while doing a fellowship at the Steadman-Phillipon Institute. Strauss had been one of the keys to Aksel Lund Svindal’s 2014 Achilles injury recovery, helping him return for World Championships just over three months later.
“I really have to thank Gillian Bowers and Troy Taylor for juggling and making stuff happen so quickly,” said Nyman. “I had a lot of options. But ultimately, (Dr. Timothy) Beals told me that if I wanted to come back with strength, surgery was the best option.”
Beals, who had worked with Nyman on his 2011 injury, did the surgery Tuesday at Intermountain Health Care’s Park City Hospital.
Nyman grew up on the slopes of Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort. His family’s ski shop still stands in nearby Orem, Utah. He’s still a hero at the local hill with the big alpine views.
Though known now as a downhiller, Nyman launched his career with slalom gold in the 2002 World Junior Championships at Sella Nevea, Italy. In his nearly two-decades with the U.S. Ski Team, Nyman scored 11 World Cup podiums including three downhill wins on the fabled Saslong in Val Gardena, Italy. In 2016 he took an unprecedented four straight World Cup downhill podiums, including the Olympic test event at Jeongseon where he was third.
His first World Cup podium came in 2006 at Beaver Creek, Colo. where he finished third behind winner Bode Miller. Two weeks later he took his first Saslong victory. Known as King of the Saslong for his domination in the Dolomites, he took wins on the challenging course in 2006, 2012 and 2014.
While his career has been marked by injuries, it has also showcased some stunning returns.
After his Junior Worlds slalom gold in 2002, Nyman broke his leg skateboarding. In a way, that injury helped push him from slalom to speed. “That summer at camp in New Zealand, any short turns hurt my ankle,” he recalled. “So I started doing more GS and super G. That next season I showed promise in speed.”
In January, 2004, he won his first Europa Cup downhill at Zauchensee, Austria. The next day he crashed, breaking a leg and needed a rod inserted. “It was my first big comeback injury,” he laughed.
Just prior to the 2011 season, Nyman tore his left Achilles in a training accident at Copper Mountain, Colo. He came back to win in Val Gardena the next season. In 2017, he started off with a strong podium in Val Gardena and was top-10 at the Hahnenkamm. But in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany he crashed off a jump, injuring his knee. He rehabbed to get ready for the Olympics, but suffered a knee ligament at Garmisch on the eve of the PyeongChang Games. He came back with three top 10s a year later and last season finished ranked 20th in the world in downhill.
The question is, can he do it at age 38? He will be 40 at the time of Beijing. But when asked about the reality, Nyman gets passionate and focused. He leaves no doubt about his convictions as he looks you in the eye with his reply.
“I still believe I can win. I really do,” he said. “I have so much gas in my heart, like, I believe I can still do well and I believe the Olympics are a goal of mine. I keep learning within the sport and I believe there’s more to show.”
The oldest man to win a World Cup is Swiss Didier Cuche. At the age of 37 in 2012, he closed out his career with consecutive wins in downhills at Kitzbuehel, Austria, Garmisch-Partenkirchen and a super-G at Crans Montana, Switzerland.
When asked about Cuche, Nyman laughs. “Didier and I had this running joke. He has the longest gap between World Cup wins. But he only has two days on me.”
Joking aside, Nyman learned from the Swiss athlete. “His resiliency is something that was really admirable. He went through a lot of injuries and strife early in his career. He showed his fortitude at the end.”
Always one with a positive attitude, Nyman was holding out hope still to potentially be back at some point in the season. “I’ll get a post-surgery update from Dr. Beals soon and we’ll make a plan,” he said.
In a way, COVID-19 might be his friend, possibly pushing the schedule into the season. While his plan is unknown, Nyman didn’t rule out making a run at his sixth World Championships team this winter.
Just three days out of surgery, Nyman is missing being on snow at Mount Hood. But it’s also nice to be at home with his family. Three-year old daughter Nell giggles as she latches onto daddy’s knee scooter as they race across the living room floor.
Most importantly, the image of father-daughter fun was punctuated with that trademark Steven Nyman smile. While he speaks with conviction about his continuing opportunity as an American Downhiller on the U.S. Ski Team, what will likely drive him is contentment with his life.
His mind is ready for another comeback.