Alice McKennis is pretty sure she has undergone more surgeries than anyone on the U.S. Ski Team, including now-retired Lindsey Vonn.
“I think I might be winning for this generation,” McKennis says of the most-surgeries designation. “I’m definitely on the podium.”
Growing up on a ranch in New Castle, Colorado, McKennis (nicknamed, “The Aligator”) learned to ski with her father at Sunlight Mountain Resort, which recently named a trio of steep glades “Aligator Alleys” in her honor. After her mom passed away when McKennis was 5 years old, Alice began racing with sports clubs around the state—Sunlight, Aspen, and Steamboat Springs—sometimes living in a small hotel room for the entire winter with her father and older sister. Then she landed a spot on the U.S. Ski Team and, in 2008, launched her World Cup career.
When we caught up with her while she was speed training for the 2019–20 season at Copper Mountain, McKennis was savoring every second of early season prep after being sidelined from skiing for more than a year.
She broke her left tibia-fibular in May 2018. The injury required five surgeries over several months and left her with a shin-length metal rod in her leg. Unlike her previous injuries, this one was a freak accident, suffered during a slow-speed twist in heavy snow after the race season. Her list of previous injuries include a left tibial plateau fracture suffered during a training crash in Austria that sidelined her for the entire 2011 season, a shattered right tibial plateau in a race crash in Germany in 2013 sidelining her for the 2014 Olympic season, and a season-ending shattered elbow suffered while racing in Andorra in 2016.
In total, McKennis has undergone 11 surgeries. But this last round has been the toughest. After a token World Cup downhill victory in 2013, McKennis had been fighting her way back to the top and had finally reached the fast track, missing a 2018 Olympic medal with a fifth place finish in the PyeongChang downhill and wrapping up that season with a downhill podium at the World Cup finals.
“It’s devastating to get hurt at any period of your career, but after such a good season was really challenging—physically, emotionally—in every way,” she says. “I had a ton of momentum going into the 2019 season and I blew it. I have had a lot of those moments coming back from this last injury thinking, ‘This is not worth it any more. I don’t want to do this.’”
Then she got back on snow and her passion returned, along with her momentum. McKennis is hoping to harness this and launch into the 2019–20 race season, beginning with opening World Cup downhill and super G races December 6–8 in Lake Louise, Alberta.
“I feel remarkably confident in where I am in this return-to-snow process,” she says. “I’m very strong now and technically, skiing better than I ever have. I’ve taken advantage of every moment I can. Having been injured before, I know how fast the preparation period goes. Before you know it, you’re racing.”
A notable void this season is that left by Lindsey Vonn, whose absence McKennis feels not only because they are close friends and frequent comrades in injury recovery over the years, but because Vonn always provided a benchmark for speed during the early season training period.
“It’s going to be very different without her this year,” McKennis says. “We don’t always have the best skier in the world training with us to see how we size up. I skied with her my entire career. I was there for a lot of her greatest moments. I’m going to miss her, for sure.”
With Vonn retired and speed teammate Laurenne Ross sidelined with her own injury this season, McKennis suddenly finds herself the U.S. women’s team’s token veteran and thus a mentor to younger racers.
“When we had Lindsey, it was easier to defer to her on that kind of thing,” she says. “I definitely feel a little more conscious about how I can be a positive leader and have a positive impact.”
McKennis is not only feeling renewed mental and physical strength but also enters this race season full of heart—a key ingredient in a job involving speeds of 80 mph down an icy mountain.
“I’m extremely grateful to be where I am right now and to have this opportunity to race again,” McKennis says. “I’m even more grateful to those who have supported me through this whole process—my family, all the trainers, doctors, physios. I’m really thrilled at the way I’m skiing.”