U.S. Ski Team downhill ace Leanne Smith, the only member of the women’s national team to ascend the World Cup ranks after pursuing a collegiate ski racing career, is facing a second straight setback season following her planned comeback from a muscle tear last winter. On crutches and in a knee brace, Smith toughed it out through the media rounds during the U.S. Ski Team First Tracks event this past week in Copper, where she talked to SkiRacing.com about her latest surgery and a timeframe for her return.
The Granite State native, who spent a year at the University of New Hampshire before being named to the U.S. Ski Team in 2007, had the best season of her career in 2013 with two podium results (at Val d’Isere and Cortina d’Ampezzo) on the grand stage. Smith was hopeful of moving further up the rankings in 2014-15, highlighted by the World Championships on home soil, but her World Cup campaign last year was dashed before it even started after she suffered an early-season injury which she can trace all the way back to one sustained when she was a young teenager.
“About a year ago from now (last November), I tore my quad muscle and the reason that I tore my quad muscle was because of the knee pain that I was having in my joint. … It was shutting my quad down,” said Smith. “But the root of the problem is when I was (13), I tore a bunch of cartilage and meniscus. Back then, they just snipped it. … If you do the math, it’s about 15 years of (my) knee trying to protect itself. It grows all of these bodies to make a more stable knee as it starts to deteriorate. Most people are having those injuries in their late teens or 20s, and (surgeons) are suturing them back up all nice. The problem was I had it as a little kid, and it’s been years and years of skiing hard on it and beating it into the ground.”
After only two FIS starts at Copper Mountain last year, Smith sat out the entire 2014-15 World Cup season while planning a cautious and calculated return to full health. She missed the chance to race in the home World Championships but wanted to prolong her skiing career at a level where she could compete for more podiums, and that required surgery last year.
“I just want to be able to push as hard as I can, ski the line that I want, and I’m a happy camper,” she said.
Smith made the decision to undergo surgery to clean out the joint but then experienced pain in a different area of the knee during her rehab and return to skiing over the summer. She was advised to have patience with the pain during her return, but a tough dryland camp in October proved problematic and Smith’s suffering only increased as she pushed herself harder. When she arrived in Copper for speed training earlier this month, the pain was debilitating.
“The snow was pretty soft at first because we were getting some weather at the time, and I still couldn’t push out of the start. I didn’t really want to stop on my right leg,” Smith admitted. Medical treatments including injections and a range of therapies offered no relief, so a frustrated Smith was insistent that doctors explore if a further surgical procedure could resolve the pain.
“Sure enough, they were able to suture some tissues back together and remove a few other bodies again and I should be good to go now,” Smith said as her spirits raised. “I look forward to being back to a level that I can be at.”
Right now Smith is staring down a 2-3 month recovery after her most recent surgery this month before she can return to strenuous exercise. She’s working toward a return to snow in March to assess how she’s feeling which will then determine her dryland program for the preparation period heading into the 2016-17 season.
“It’s been a long road of pain and the fact that we didn’t really know where it was coming from a lot of the time,” Smith said in summary of her past year. “Pain to me is fine, it’s necessary in being an athlete, but there’s a line. And I’ve just been been way over the line for far too long.”