May 28, 2023

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Winning the Olympic Silver Medal in a Broken Leg

Winning the Olympic Silver Medal in a Broken Leg

YANQING, CHINA – Sophia Gujia leaned on her leg that wouldn’t bend, and here, across the finish line that seemed unbreakable, it exploded.

She saw a green light, evidence of Olympic progress, and her brain went racing — back in three weeks of hell, to the Jan. 23 accident that tore her left knee, fractured her fibula, and apparently shattered her dreams.

On Tuesday, after 23 days, I crossed the finish line in first place and let out a primal shriek.

Unleashed joy, pain and disbelief. Last month in Cortina, Italy on her favorite slope, her skis split. At 58 mph, she was leaping through the air, tipping her head over her heels in an icy show. I tore my ACL partially, fractured a slight fibula, and it seemed like the Beijing Games, to any sane person, are over.

Just having Jogja here, for American skater Michaela Shiffrin, felt “a bit impossible.”

Shiffrin said her skating for the silver was “unbelievable.”

But for Giugia’s Italian teammates, that was no surprise.

“She’s a strong woman,” said bronze medalist Nadia Delago.

And at any point, when she was preparing to race on her left leg, was she afraid?

“No,” she said, pressing her lips and shook her head indifferently. “No. No, I wasn’t afraid.”

She once said, “There is no such thing as fear.” “It’s just a mental projection of a situation that could end up in a certain way. On the one hand, it could be a limitation: it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But if you view it as an opportunity, it becomes something that makes you stronger.”

Italian silver medalist Sofia Goggia (left) and Italian bronze medalist Nadia Delago (right) celebrate with their team during the women’s downhill victory ceremony at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. (Jeff Bashod/AFP via Getty Images )

A career full of accidents

The unbreakable alpine skiing woman grew up in northern Italy, and at the age of nine, in a basic questionnaire, wrote down her dream: “Winning the Olympic field.” At the age of 25, she realized it in PyeongChang, and four years later, she was nearly twice as fast. She entered 2022 as the most dominant force in the sport. She’s won seven hills in a row at the World Cup, some by amazing margins.

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In mid-January, I scheduled an interview with Goggia to talk about this trip. About domination, yes, and the 2022 games, but more than that about everything you beat along the way. Because the list, even by ski racing standards, is long.

As a teenager, she ruptured her knee ligaments. In 2012, it soured even more. She broke her cane plateau during the European Cup race. In 2013, two months before the Sochi Olympics, she again tore her left knee – the cruciate ligament, meniscus. I went to games as a TV presenter. I arrived at the airport in a wheelchair. Her body and heart shattered.

She returned to competition only to suffer another injury. I underwent surgery. She returned the following season, but more knee problems forced her to cut it. She has been asked, and continues to be asked, why she keeps in pain, and she understands the question.

But for her, “there is such a feeling” on a ski slope. “So much adrenaline, you feel alive, that moment makes everything worthwhile.”

She remained in relatively good health as she headed to the 2018 Olympics and won the gold medal. Then bad luck started to strike again. She broke her ankle in October. Just over a year later, she sustained a double fracture in her left arm. A year later, a compound fracture of the lateral tibial plateau occurred in a freak accident, while leisurely skiing down a mountain after a postponed World Cup race.

But she still won the downhill title all season. I met the snow in July, and the podiums in the fall. She was, in mid-January, strongly preferred as alpine skiing allows, and found her backdrop to be wonderful. The interview was scheduled for January 17th.

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On January 15, I was knocked out of the World Cup on a slope in Austria and hit the red net. The following weekend in Italy, she partially torn the ACL, fractured the fibula, and the interview apparently never happened. She wasn’t sure her Olympic gold medal defense would do that either.

Sofia Giugia crash in Cortina, Italy.

Sofia Giugia crash in Cortina, Italy.

Give up crutches

“Leave her,” Jogja said, “Then [the crash in] Cortina, it was so easy. “

But the Olympics, I’ve always felt, “is everything.” So after three days I gave up my crutches. “With one day of crutches, you lose one week of training,” she said. Injury took time, but “time,” as she later wrote, “is what I don’t have.”

She was racing against it. Pool exercises and rehabilitation attacked in the gym, much sooner than most doctors recommended. She cried along the way as she pushed aside fear and crowded out doubts.

She arrived in China not sure what she would be able to. She walked limp. I struggled in Super G training, and withdrew from last Friday’s race. When she completed her first downhill course, she raised her canes high in celebration. Breathing hard, she clutches her balls to her chest and smiles and looks around. Emotions overwhelmed her. “I’m really here,” she said.

But she could not bear the unimaginable pain of simply showing up. She wanted to compete. On Monday, I pressed harder in my workouts. She could barely squat or bend her knee. She said her physique was 5.5 out of 10.

But on Tuesday, she popped some sedative, walked up to the starting gate, and cleared every thought except one from her mind.

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“I’m here. Let’s play.”

She couldn’t “charge” as she wanted, nor could she move like she used to. She flinched in a big bend, and again later, when she lifted herself off a chair.

But she increased her speed and took first place. She was eventually overtaken by the Swiss Corinne Sutter, and, of course, she was disappointed. She knew she could go faster, much faster, even with only 80% of her strength. I also felt “some wind against me”.

But she just won an Olympic medal with her dying knee, a medal that “probably 2% of people here” think she could win. She raised her arms toward the sky. Her teammates and coaches lifted her into the air.

She said, “If someone had said to me in recent days, ‘You’re going to achieve a silver medal, I would have cried.'” I’m really happy.