December 05, 2014

American skier Alice McKennis calls the 11-inch scar that starts at her right knee and winds down her shin ''The Shark,'' because it's menacing and mean.

Took a big bite out of her career, too, just as she was starting to soar.

Fresh off earning her first World Cup win in January 2013, McKennis was being hailed as the next big thing on the U.S. speed team.

Two months later, she hit a hole near the finish of a downhill race in Germany and shattered her tibial plateau - the top of her shinbone near her knee - into 30 pieces. McKennis needed 11 screws and a metal plate to stabilize her leg.

Hence, the imposing scar.

On the mend now and with most of the screws out, she's ready to reassemble her promising career.

''When you're first dealing with an injury, and you can't even walk and it's painful just to move in bed, you're like, `How am I ever going to perform at a high level again?' said the 25-year-old McKennis, who will be in the start gate Friday for a World Cup downhill in Lake Louise, Alberta. ''But I didn't want to give up. Not yet.

''I feel there's more left in me.''

Before each race, McKennis places a string attached to a piece of amber around her neck. It's something her father picked up in the Himalayas and gave to her for good luck.

The amber once belonged to her mother, who died in a car accident when McKennis was around 5 years old.

Skiing, though, helped the family cope with the loss.

''After such a tragedy, it was important for us to find something that gave us goals, something to inspire to and kept driving us as a family,'' McKennis said. ''Something that we liked and enjoyed together.

''Skiing kept us moving forward.''

Her other passion was riding horses.

Growing up on a ranch just outside of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, she split her time between the saddle and the slopes.

When she rode her horses named Willie, Mocha and Ebony, she was convinced that equestrian events were in her future.

But when she followed in the tracks of her older sister around the mountain close to their home, she was pulled in that direction.

As a youngster, McKennis bounced around different ski clubs in Colorado, including one in Vail, which had another famous skier on its roster - Lindsey Vonn (back then, Lindsey Kildow).

Eventually, it came down to this - riding ponies or skiing powder?

''I needed to decide where I wanted to go in my life,'' she explained. ''Skiing sort of fell into place.''

She was on the fast track, making the U.S. team for the 2010 Vancouver Games, until she fractured her left tibial plateau while training in Austria in 2011.

Her ability to come back from that injury made winning a World Cup downhill on Jan. 12, 2013, in St. Anton, Austria, all the more gratifying.

''Unreal,'' she called it, and ''amazing to finally make it.''

As a reward, she was going to treat herself to a heli-skiing adventure to Alaska that spring.

The trip had to be postponed, though, when she crashed two months later in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.

Another injury. More rehab. She wasn't quite sure if she had another comeback left.

''I knew how brutal the first one was, and the second one was so much worse,'' McKennis said. ''It didn't seem worth it at first.''

Just the emotion of the moment talking, of course.

''I love ski racing and just really missed being out there,'' she said. ''I still felt there was something left for me.''

She was on crutches for months after the surgery. But she kept working diligently, with the goal of making the squad for the Sochi Games dangling out there.

McKennis even had a workout buddy in Vonn, who also was hoping to heal from a knee injury in time for Sochi.

It didn't quite work out for either of them.

''We both thought we'd have this miraculous comeback, and go to Sochi and have a great time,'' McKennis said. ''We both sort of experienced the same sort of letdown and heartbreak over that.''

McKennis actually shut her season down last January, because the pain and discomfort in her leg were too much. She underwent another surgery to remove 10 of the screws from her leg (doctors couldn't get to one because it was deeply embedded).

Now, she feels good. Real good, even.

''I need to be grateful for where I am right now, because it's taken me a long time to get back here,'' McKennis said. ''I'm proud of myself and thankful I made it back this far.''

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