Alice Mckennis Duran was ready to push herself this season. In a year where the women’s downhill field was consistently changing, Mckennis Duran knew she had the opportunity to go for a downhill title. Her preparation period was strong, and her early-season racing at Copper provided the confidence needed going into the World Cup.
Leading up to the season-ending crash in Val d’Isere on Dec. 18, Mckennis Duran had two strong downhill training runs on the course, finishing first and 11th. She felt confident, well prepared, and excited to race.
It was a tough day for many skiers, with crashes from Nicole Schmidhofer, of Austria, and Federica Brignone, of Italy, to name a couple. Despite hearing course reports of fellow competitors crashing, Mckennis Duran was prepared to trust her plan and throw one down.
She knew it would be bumpy coming out of the compression jump and into the left-footer. When accelerating through the section at top speed, Mckennis Duran’s perception became skewed. Her plan was to stay strong past the left-footed gate, and in her mind, she had. She then hit a hole that had developed, dropping her quickly down to the snow.
“I saw the A-net and I tried to slow myself down and throw myself sideways but there was no room there,” said Mckennis Duran. “I remember for a moment I was on one ski right next to the net thinking I could pull this off, and then thought if I hit this A-net, I might bounce off of it and be OK.”
When she hit the net she was completely encapsulated, tumbling until she came to a stop. The first pain to hit was intense hip and groin pain, so strong she thought her leg was getting ripped off. In addition to that first reaction, she recognized a fair amount of pain in her ankle, but felt she could make it down to the finish on her skis. At first, she thought she would be OK. It wasn’t until trying to take her boot off that she noticed the swelling around her ankle and knew something was wrong.
“I went straight to the clinic in Val d’Isere and had X-rays there,” said Mckennis Duran. “We could see the fractures were lower down in the fibula, so at that point we knew it was broken. The plan was to go home and get a more professional analysis, and go from there.”
Mckennis Duran fractured her fibula from the high-velocity impact when hitting the net, an injury that required a plate and eight screws to repair during surgery on Dec. 23 — but it was expected to heal relatively quickly. She tore her groin, as well, and is receiving platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections and physical therapy to recover. The uncertainty of her recovery lies in her left knee, where she sustained partial MCL and PCL tears that she and her doctor hope remain non-surgical and will heal on their own in six to eight weeks.
Her last injury came just after a podium finish in Are, Sweden, sidelining Mckennis Duran for the 2018-19 season. She had been steadily making gains and felt confident this season, knowing every race was an opportunity for anyone to win. Now, after another devastating injury on the brink of downhill success — and at the age of 31 — Mckennis Duran faces apprehensions about returning to the sport she loves.
“I am a little ambivalent about ski racing right now. It’s hard to think about it,” said Mckennis Duran. “I feel, well, I don’t know. It’s just hard to think about it. I have been through a lot, and to think about everything it takes to get back there again, and to know the risk is not any less, and the same thing could happen again or even worse, is still something I am working through. I am sure at some point, I will feel differently.”
Assuming all injuries heal as her doctors at the Steadman Clinic in Vail expect, Mckennis Duran is hopeful that she can return to skis sometime in March. Her return to gate training is a more distant prospect — one which she’ll have to address on an emotional level. At this point in time, Mckennis Duran would just love the opportunity to free-ski with her husband, Pat, before the season is over.
Outside of Mckennis Duran’s injury and recovery, it has been an exciting time for the U.S. women’s speed team. Breezy Johnson just captured her third World Cup podium, and rising speed skiers Bella Wright and AJ Hurt scored their first WC points in super G. But looming behind her teammates’ success are the injuries of those who have crashed, reminding Mckennis Duran of the sport’s brutality.
“I am certainly crushed mentally and emotionally,” said Mckennis Duran. “I have been on the World Cup over 10 years now and spent at least a third of my career injured. This is the fourth season I’ve had to sit out. It’s exhausting to put in all the work, effort, and commitment, and to have so many people that put a lot of work into it, too. It’s just really heartbreaking.”
While fortunate to be home recovering next to her husband, Mckennis Duran recognizes the emotional healing that will take time before she can get back on her downhill skis again.
More from Alice: Alpine Waxroom with Steve Porino
Alice McKennis Duran was raised by her single father on a ranch along the Colorado River. She is a genuine American cowgirl and a badass. Her season ended in the fencing in Val d’Isere, France on Dec. 18. While it’s a statistical inevitability that a 12-year downhill career like hers will pass through the OR, she has seen her surgeon in nine of those 12 years. I can’t think of a single skier who has suffered so many catastrophic injuries and after each, returned to the top of her sport. We spoke on the eve of the race she won back in 2013 in St. Anton, about the highs and lows of life in the fast lane of downhill, and about whether her sport has become too dangerous. There is also the matter of her future: Will she continue and, come the day, would she pass her love of ski racing on to her kids?