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Episode #33

Injury: An Uphill Battle

with Alice McKennis Duran

12 Jan, 2021 · Skiing

Alice McKennis Duran, Olympic Alpine Ski Racer, shares her inspiring journey overcoming four major injuries during her pro career and the importance of listening to our bodies, creating a strong support system, and building mental strength.

Transcript

Stef

Welcome to the Voice In Sport podcast. I'm your host, Stef Strack, the founder of Voice In Sport. As an athlete, professional, and mom, I have spent the last 20 years advocating for women and innovating across the sports industry. Now, I want to bring more visibility to female athletes and elevate their voice. At Voice In Sport, we share untold stories from female athletes to inspire us all to keep playing and change more than just the game.

Today’s guest is Alice McKennis Duran, an Olympian and World Cup Alpine Ski Racer for Team USA. Alice is a Colorado Native where she began skiing at age 2 and racing at age 6. 

 Today, Alice navigates her journey through ski racing- facing multiple injuries - many of which could have ended her career. But she persisted even when others doubted her comebacks.  She reminds us that not everyone's path will be the same - and going for your dreams won’t always be easy but it is possible to overcome the setbacks we face. Alice has had four major injuries throughout her career at the elite level where she has had to spend months off of snow focusing on recovering her physical health, as well as building her mental strength.

 In today’s episode, Alice walks us through all four of her injuries providing us all tools with how to overcome and comeback even stronger. She emphasizes the power of positive self-talk, building a strong support system, finding interests beyond sport, and taking things day by day. 

 We hope that you enjoy this candid conversation about the power of the mind and body in sport and beyond. So, welcome, Alice, to the Voice In Sport Podcast! We are incredibly excited to have you here with us today!

Alice

Thanks for having me!

 Stef

I'm excited to have a team USA skier on the podcast. This sport is very near and dear to my heart with my family's background in ski racing. And I even did it for a short stint, never quite as successful as your 12 year history on the ski team. But I'm so excited to talk to you because in the sport of ski racing, you have to be so mentally tough to go down those hills at 80 miles an hour.

So, I think something that we can all learn, regardless of what sport we're in, learning from somebody like you, and how you stay mentally tough through top speeds, but also the injuries that you faced. So, let's start with sort of where you started in sport. Take us back to where it all started for you in Colorado with your dad and your older sister.

we know you started skiing around age two and ended up starting to race around age six. But what was it that you love so much about the sport of ski racing that you decided to go all in?

Alice

Well, I think initially for me with skiing, you start out doing it with your family and it's a fun thing to do with your siblings or your parents or whatever. And from there is where the passion really grew for me. I started skiing at two, racing at six.

And I think what really drew me to the sport and kept me so involved in the sport was the freedom of it. The only thing that really holds you back in ski racing is yourself. You have gravity, that's pulling you down the mountain or pushing you down the mountain, however you want to look at it.

And the speed it's really determined by how much you want to push yourself. And I've always loved that freedom and that the end result really rests on yourself. And that's something from a young age. I just continually tried to pursue. And as I went through the sport, through each level, just chasing that speed and that freedom is always what has motivated me.

Stef

We also know that you were a big into horse racing. You grew up on a ranch in Colorado. How did you really decide on going all in on ski racing versus the horse racing? Because I mean, I think every girl faces this then do multiple sports, which we really encourage. We think that's super powerful to do multiple sports when you're young.

But a lot of girls face this challenge of like how to decide and they feel the pressure to decide. What advice would you give to girls considering you went through that same thing back when you were 15?

Alice

Yeah, certainly I loved doing multiple sports growing up and equestrian was a big part of my upbringing and I loved horses. I still love horses. But I came to this phase when I was 15, 16 years old, where I was kind of time for me to decide, which sport am I going to pursue? Because I knew I wanted to pursue a sport professionally and I wanted to go to the Olympics.

And that was my ultimate goal. And I knew in order to achieve that goal, I had to choose one sport or the other andI ultimately chose ski racing partly because I thought I had a better chance at making the Olympics. And also, because I was enjoying the sport more at the time. And my advice for young girls would be: if you have to make a decision, I think there usually is an opportunity to come back to another sport later in life, whether it's just for fun or it's something to do with your family, or maybe even professionally. Just by choosing a path one way does not mean you're shutting the door completely on another sport. Sometimes, there's a different way to come back to it later on in life.

Stef

Yeah, I totally agree.  Even some of the people we've had on this podcast have gone on from careers in running all the way through college. And then after college, even after going into the workforce in a career, then decided to go out for the Olympic team in a different sport.   that is so inspiring. So, I think that's great advice for girls not to think that just because they chose one path one moment that they can't take a pivot and try something else.

Alice

That's super important to recognize.  No matter what you decide to do, you can always find a way to come back to a different sport at a different time if you want to.

Stef

Well, your path was pretty incredible once you made that decision to go all in on skiing. In 2008, you made the US ski team, which is a huge accomplishment in and of itself, and then you started competing in the world cup in 2009. And really what we're going to talk about today is kind of  unpacking your journey from age 15 to  your 12 years on the US ski team and your four major injuries that you had along the way.

And, you know, I think we all face at least one injury in our, career. If you don't, you're really lucky and I'm thankful for you, whoever's out there, that's never had an injury. But we all face injuries, and you've had four major moments in your career where you were severely injured and you missed multiple seasons, not just one along the way.

So today we're going to unpack those lessons that you learned, and I know they'll be applicable to us and any girl from any sport. So let's start with your first injury,  you missed a season. It's your first injury. It was your left knee. It required surgery.  What did you do to stay focused once you knew that you had to have that surgery? Walk us through sort of what happened  in that immediate moment. How do you stay mentally focused?

Alice

Well, I was injured in 2011 and that was really in the early part of my world cup career. I was only 21 at the time I had just been to an Olympics less than a year before, and it was just a training accident crash while training and injured my knee. And being at that phase of my career and relatively young in the sport of ski racing, I was super confident that I would come back quickly and strong.  It's almost like a rite of passage. You're going to get injured and it's, one of the. detriments to the sport  So in my mind, I was like, "Okay, like, check this box off. I've had this knee injury. I'm going to come back. I'm going to be fine." I recovered really quickly because I think I was so confident that I would be back, and I would be back quickly. And I was ultimately back on snow seven months later.

Stef

That's pretty incredible. So, it's sort of like one of those things in skiing where you know you're going to get injured at some point, which is maybe not as transferable to other sports, but it happens a lot. In that moment where you, first got injured and it's a big deal, you know you're going to miss a season.  That's really hard on a lot of girls that might be in that position. How did you stay focused when you weren't with all your teammates the whole time?

Alice

Yeah, certainly I missed the entire season basically, and that was really hard emotionally and psychologically because I was really tight with my teammates, and I loved being with them and being on the road with them. And then I suddenly was sent home from Europe to have the surgery. And then I was back living at my dad's house and my dad had to take care of me. And it was just such a crazy transition from living out my dreams to living at home again and having someone have to wait on me to take care of me. That was super hard. 

And what I had to focus on to sort of get through that initial process, the initial shock, was just reminding myself that, "Hey, I'm going to be okay. I'm going to get through this. This is really hard right now and really hard today and probably is going to be really hard tomorrow. But once I get through these phases of my recovery process, once I get through the rehab, I know I'm going to be back on snow." And I think it was just the fixation on the hope and the confidence that I was going to be back, that really helped me through that initial phase that was super hard and just those challenges of being alone again.

Stef

How do you approach still feeling a little bit involved with your team, even though, you're not training with them and you're not on the same schedule. Do you have advice for girls that might be in a similar situation where they're not with their team, but what can you do to stay involved and stay engaged in the season where you know you're not going to be racing?

Alice

Well, the great thing now that we have our iPhones, and we can always FaceTime and stay connected that way. Quite honestly, when I was injured in 2011, I don't think I had an iPhone. I think maybe we emailed each other  

(Alice giggles)  

It's not that long ago, but it seems like a long time ago in technology terms. So, my team has always been great and we've always tried to support each other and lift each other up because every single one of us has had challenges one way or another. And I think just staying in contact over the phone and making that time to FaceTime each other is really important.

And setting aside that time, like, "Okay. On Tuesday, we're all going to call so-and-so and check in on her and make sure she's doing well. And that's so meaningful when you're an injured athlete to have your teammates reach out to you. It makes you just feel that you're still part of the team and you're not forgotten, and everyone's thinking about you.

Stef

Definitely. And I also imagine you start working on some other components to your sport, and to your game, and to your performance when you're off a season like that, and you're focused on recovery. And in 2012, as you're starting to get back into the racing and training, you actually decided to start to see a sports psych.

 When was that moment that you had, that you were like, "You know what, I think I want to up my game on the mental side and ask for some help here?"

Alice

Yeah, well, coming back from that first injury, I certainly had some doubts in my mind coming back on snow, you know, I was a little bit afraid I was going to crash again or get injured and all justifiable things that could happen for sure. And I really just tried to like push those doubts down and not think about it and ignore them.

And when I got halfway through my first season back,  I was struggling a lot mentally. And that's when I really realized like, "Hey, I need to reach out and talk to someone that can help me with a lot of these doubts and fears I'm having." And I started working with a sports psychologist in the middle of a competition season, which thinking back I wish I'd reached out sooner, but even reaching out in the middle of competition season, it helped me so much. And working with this person who was able to sort of direct my thoughts and my energy into a more positive and helpful place rather than fixating on my doubts and fears and think more about positive and think more about the outcomes that I could actually achieve.

So, my advice would be if you're having these doubts deep inside, don't feel like you need to suppress them.  Talk to someone about it and they can really help you work through those and find strategies to push past some of those little insecurities and fears that you might have.

Stef 

Yeah, because  when you're out of season or you have an injury, you definitely have doubt. You definitely wonder how you're going to perform. And that doubt can lead to eroding your confidence. So, what's your favorite strategy that you learned from your sports psychologist, when you feel like you have those voices in your head saying negative things or worry about your performance?

Alice

Yeah, even though I've been doing this as a professional for over 10 years, I still have doubts. And those are things that I work every day to overcome and work every day in my mental head space to be stronger. And the biggest thing I always think about is to really focus on things I can control.

There are so many things within life and within sport that we cannot control. A lot of sports are outdoors: you can't control the weather, you can't control what the slope of the ski resort is going to be or the conditions. And those things can be really distracting, and they can actually cause a lot of anxiety and even fear, but there's nothing you can do about them.

So, that's been a huge thing for me is just focusing on the things I control, which is in reality, it's just yourself. You can't control anything else, but what you're doing. And for me, I recognized, "Hey, the only thing I control is myself, and by doing this, I can think about if there's something I'm a little bit fearful of, if I perform this movement I've done a hundred times, I will execute this movement and be totally fine. And that gives me a lot of confidence too,  knowing like I've done this before, or I've practiced before I'm good at it and I can do it and I'm going to be okay. And that's something I can control.

Stef

I think that's pretty powerful,  recognizing the thoughts that come into your head and sort of asking yourself, "Hey, can I control this or not control this?"  

(Stef giggles)  

And have that sort of be one of those filters that you take for then how you potentially react to that thought coming in. So, I think that's really great advice, and obviously it worked because you started working with the sports psychologist in 2012. And then in 2013, you came back and won a world cup downhill in Saint Anton, Austria. So that's a pretty big deal, an amazing comeback. How did you feel in that moment?

Alice

Coming into the 2013 season, I felt strong and capable again. I was two years out from my injury, and I felt like it was time to make that next step onto the podium. And one of the things, honestly, that pushed me to make the podium was my team and my teammates.

We had an incredible team that year and every single one of my teammates was on the podium, which has not happened again with the US ski team on the women's side. And that was so special to be part of. We had superstars on my team like Lindsay Vaughn and Julia Mancuso, and they're on the podium all the time, and you just get used to that. But to see some of my teammates that were more of my caliber on the podium was super inspiring to me. And I was like, "Wow, I can do that too." And I think that's what ultimately helped me believe that I was a winner, and it helped me take that next step. 

Stef

So cool because skiing is an individual sport, and you were talking about how the team sort of pulled you up. And I think that's really powerful, but it is surprising because it's such an individualized sport; similarly swimming and running might be like that.

How important has it been for you to have that support system with the women in that group for your success? And can you just talk a little bit about that because often, even though you guys are individually fighting for the top,  you still are there to support each other.

Alice

I think it all boils down to respect for each other. I know, for me, I work as hard as I can to be the best athlete I can, and I see my teammates doing the same thing. They're all working really hard to be at their best. And we all work in slightly different ways, but it's just the amount of effort everyone puts in, creates a mutual respect amongst each other.

And with that, when you see one of your teammates succeed, you can't help but feel some joy for them because you know how hard they worked. And then it also gives you that feeling of I'm working equally as hard, maybe in slightly different ways, but I can achieve the same thing too. And that has always united our team.  

And I think it's been super critical for my success just to continually be pushed by my teammates and supported by them and encouraged by them. And I don't think I would have had the results if I had just been a solo athlete on my own. I've really thrived off of the team environment and how much we're always pushing each other to be better and better.

Stef

And you certainly need it when you get injured. So, I think it's also a testament when you're not on the course and you're in a tougher spot, which unfortunately you ended up back in, in 2013. So, I want to move to injury number two here, which was in 2013. So, you won this amazing race, the world cup downhill at Saint Anton. And then shortly after that you injured your right knee. And this time it's actually in March and it's 11 months prior to the 2014 Olympics. So, how did you approach injury number two differently from injury number one?

Alice

Injury number two was significantly worse than my first injury and I can still vividly remember the crash. And as I stopped tumbling and was on the snow, my first thought was the 2014 winter Olympics, and what do I need to do to make sure I can still give myself a chance at making the Olympics?

 The surgery was really intensive. The recovery was really intensive. I didn't walk for three months. I was on crutches for over three months. So I had a really steep hill to climb in order to get back on snow, just because I'd lost so much of my strength and my muscle mass was significantly diminished.

And I had all these hurdles to overcome, but I was really focused on necessarily going to the Olympics but making sure I did everything to give myself a chance to go. And by that, I mean, doing all the rehab, eating well, making sure I had the correct nutrition, doing all of these little parts to where if I was able to make it on snow, that I would have done everything I can to make the Olympics. And if I didn't make it, I always knew that I could walk away being like I tried as hard as I could to make that.

Stef

And you mentioned that, you know, you actually tried to come back, you know, in an effort to try to get to that 2014 Olympics. But why in the end, did you end up calling off that goal to go to the 2014 Olympics and focus on your recovery?

Because I feel like this is something that we all often face as athletes, that desire and competition to get back. It almost goes into the training and the recovery too. And sometimes we come back too soon.

Alice

Like I said, I was super fixated on the 2014 Olympics and I pushed every rehab boundary there was to get on snow just seven months later. And yes, I was back on snow, I was skiing, but I wasn't really prepared physically. I had met certain benchmarks in order to ski and to be back on snow.

But quite honestly, my body just needed more time. It needed more time to build more strength and more time to recover. And as I got back into racing, I raced one world cup and it did not go well. It went pretty poorly.  

(Alice giggles)  

I think I was almost last, which I've never placed that far back in a world cup. And that was kind of the realization in my mind, like, Hey, I'm not ready for this. And that racing experience was really bad. I was scared because I didn't feel prepared enough physically. 

And I remember having a conversation with one of my coaches after, and he was really concerned, he's like, "I want you to really go home for Christmas. And I want you to think about this. Is the Olympics more important right now or is it more important your long-term health?" And that was something I needed to hear because I was putting myself in jeopardy and I was putting myself in a lot of risks by being out there, trying to race downhill, not being really physically ready for it. 

And by having someone come up to me in such a kind way and be like, "I care about you, and I want you to think about your long-term future," really made me step back and think like, "Wow, this one event does not mean more than my overall long-term health. I need to check myself and take a step back," which is what I did.

I had another surgery. I had more time to recover coming into the next season. And I'm really glad I made that decision. Looking back on it now is definitely the right call to take that break when I needed it.

Stef

Yeah, it's hard to have that perspective, right? When you're in it and you have goals and things you want to accomplish but taking a step back even now and looking at where you're at is you're still on the US ski team. You're still driving hard, and had you not taken that break and fully recovered back in 2013 and '14, you may not be here now.

Alice

It was heartbreaking. I'm not going to lie. There were a lot of tears and there were a lot of days where I was like, "Man, I think I made the wrong choice, but I know deep, in my heart, I did not make the wrong choice and it was hard, but I know it was the right thing to do, looking back on it.

Stef

So, it's 2014 now, and you're back to racing in the world cup.  And in 2016, that's when you get to your injury number three. You shatter your right elbow, and you miss a few of your final races  of that season, but you make your way back from this third injury and I think it's during this period of 2016 and 17, that you struggled with results and didn't really have the full 360 degree support system in place to be successful. So, can you talk to us about that moment? You're now past three injuries, but you're not really seeing the results you want to see, and your confidence starts going down. How did you work through that period of time?

Alice

That was definitely one of the more challenging parts of my career because I was healthy and I felt like I should be the peak of my career, no excuses at this point. And yet my results were far from what I was aiming towards. And I was really starting to struggle and starting to doubt myself that I was good enough or that I should even be on the world cup.

And once those thoughts started to enter my mind, I definitely struggled even more and was trying to fight my way through the season and trying to fight my way back, even just into the top 10 in the world cup and wasn't seeing the results I needed. And, quite honestly, I, for a while, thought my career was over because I wasn't reaching the benchmarks required to requalify for the US ski team.

 And when you're not meeting the criteria, there are no guarantees that you'll be back. Ultimately, I was renamed to the US ski team and the biggest thing that changed was the change in coaching staff. I ended up working with someone that I really had a good relationship with, and he is the type of person that would look you in the eyes and tell you, "I believe in you and I know you can do this."

I think that's something that everyone needs to hear sometimes. You have these moments or these periods where you don't believe in yourself as much as you should, or you're uncertain of your capabilities and just by someone looking at you like, "No, I, I know you can do this. Like I believe in you and you're here for a reason." That was really powerful for me. And that's where I began to turn things around.

Stef

So, at that time you had a coach that you, that believed in you was giving you feedback and helping you get to your better place. You were still seeing your sports psychologists and you had built the support system. So, what is that support system? Can you break it down for us? How do you set up yourself for that support? 

Alice

I think the most basic thing it comes down to is communication and communicating with your coaches on a day-to-day basis. And when you can communicate well, you build a really strong relationship. And that's where I think you can have these more meaningful and deep conversations about what your goals are and what things you might need to work on or places you might be struggling, whether it's just a certain movement within your sport you can't figure it out or something within your mind you can't work past. 

And once you start communicating with just your coaches, then I think it opens doorways to like, "Hey, maybe you should communicate also with this word psychologist, or maybe you want to talk to your parents about this type of topic or your sibling about this." And I think it's just allowing yourself to be a little bit more vulnerable.

And communicating with people really opens up doors and that's certainly what's helped me throughout the years is I talk openly with my coaches. I work with a sports psychologist.  For a long time, it was my dad that I would talk to a lot, but now it's  my husband. And there's always just people, I think, if you're willing to be more vulnerable, that can be encompassed in your support system if you make that effort to bring them in and let them know what you need to help you be at your best.

Stef

That's really smart because even if you have all these assets and resources around you, if you are not personally open  and vulnerable, it's going to be hard for you to accept any of that help around you. So, I love that you love that you started at that root area of communication.

So, what happens though  if you get some negative feedback along the way? You know, you're at injury number three now, and what if you get feedback from a coach, or somebody during the recovery process that says, "You're not really fit for this," or "You don't really belong here?" How do you work through something like that and overcome those types of comments?

Alice

Yeah, I had one coach that I did not mesh well with and he would make comments like that to me. And quite honestly, it was devastating. It was like, "Hey, I need you to help me right now and not tell me I shouldn't be here or that I don't deserve to be here." And for a moment, I almost believed him, which he was completely wrong.

I in those moments, I went back to my other support system, which was really a lot of my teammates and my family and talk to them and they would say the other thing. They're like, "Don't listen to him. You're here for a reason. We believe in you and believing yourself." And I think just coming back to the other support systems out there really helps me.

And then I was able to change that narrative in my mind to a more positive self-talk.  Instead of, "Okay, this guy said, I'm not good enough..." Well, I'm going to show him I am good enough. I do deserve that and repeat a lot of those mantras within my mind. And I started to change that mindset.

And I'm happy to say now that I prove that guy wrong.

Stef

I love that.  

(Stef laughs) 

And I think it's great that you obviously, took that coaching, you had created that support system, you understood and believed in yourself.  So, in 2018, you placed fifth in the Olympic downhill, which was your best result since the world cup win in 2013 and you finished the season with third place at the world cup finals in the downhill in Sweden, so you're getting momentum back, which must have felt really amazing.

And then injury number four happens, 2018. 2018 This is arguably the most challenging one that you faced. You had finished on a high in 2018, but two months later, you ended up breaking your leg while coaching, while helping other young ski racers get to where you are, which must have just been devastating. So, take us back to that moment. What went through your mind when you had this fourth injury?

Alice

Yeah, it was a total freak accident and so unexpected and took me so much by surprise as it would anyone to be injured, coaching a group of youth athletes. It was a total stunner. I mean, my first impulse and first thought was like, “My ski racing career is over,” because I knew something really significantly bad had happened to my leg. I could feel that happen. And that was a tough first few days to recognize that. 

And it was by far the most devastating feeling I've had in my entire career to know that I had just overcome, years of struggling with results and I'd been so resilient to make it back to the Olympics and to have this incredible result at the Olympics and almost reached the podium and then finish the season on the podium. And then it all just came crashing down on me in a matter of a couple seconds. And that was really heavy, heavy times, those first few weeks after sustaining that injury.

Stef

So, you ended up having five surgeries, with the recovery of this fourth injury. And I think at different times you had different doctors talking about your recovery time. And so now that you've gone through listening to doctors, hearing recovery times, and then being able to digest those recovery times and thinking about when you can come back, what did you learn from that?  How do you mentally just work through that?

Alice

Well, I've had my fair share of doctor's appointments. And in my mind, I'm like super psyched; I'm like, "Oh, he's going to tell me four weeks or whatever." And then I come out of there, "I'm like, wow. He just told me four months." So that's always really challenging and really, really frustrating because you build up this expectation in your mind of what it's going to be, and when you're going to be back and all of these things, you hope to all these timelines you hope to hit.

And my advice would be you have to listen to your body and your body is really the only expectation that you need to meet. Trying to be on a super exact timeline can create a lot of stress and anxiety. And that's the last thing your body needs when it's trying to heal is more stress and anxiety.

It's already stressed cause it's trying to heal itself. So I learned to just lower my expectation and sort of have this Zen mind frame of like, "Hey, it's going to be what it's going to be, and whether he tells me four weeks or four months or whatever, I'm going to be fine in the long run and I'm going to do the work I need to get there."

 Sometimes it just takes your body longer than you want it to take. And that's totally okay. But it'll be what it'll be and trying to be in that Zen mind frame of the timelines.

Stef

Now that you did that and you're back, you've made it through that, what advice would you give to girls that might just be in that moment right now, where they have no idea when they're going to come back and there's that uncertainty of even if they are going to come back?

Alice

In this most recent injury, initially they told me four to six months.  And then it ultimately ended up being five surgeries. I had complications; I didn't ski for a year. It was turning this ordeal.

And so, in the onset, I was really positive, like, "Oh, that's not that bad, four to six months." And then as the diagnosis became more complicated and "Hey, we need more time. Hey, we need to do this. We need to do that." It was really overwhelming, and I was not in a very good place emotionally.  A lot of tears and a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of days where I'm like, "God, I don't even want to get out of bed today."

But I came to this realization of  I don't know when I'm going to be healed. And I don't know when I will maybe be able to ski or maybe be able to ski race. But what I've got right now is today, this day, this moment. What can I do today to help myself heal and help myself recover and help myself to be happy?

And once I got in that mind frame, it alleviated a lot of stress for me. And a lot of anxiety of like, "I'm doing the best I can every single day. And the long-term outcome, although I want it to be, I'm going to be a ski racer again, or I want it to be this or that. Maybe it's not 100% certain, but I can't control, what it's going to be in six months, I can control today.

And that's what matters. And once I started doing that, I felt so much better. And nonetheless, it was still hard, but not focusing so much on the what ifs helped me a lot.

Stef

What do you think athletes should do or work on when they are injured?

Alice

It's a really good opportunity to work on a lot of your psychological, mental strength.  When you've overcome an injury, you have achieved something that maybe not everyone else has achieved. You've come back from something really hard.  It's unique thing to come back from an injury and it tests you in so many ways mentally, and I think it makes you so much stronger. I am so much more resilient than I ever would have been if I'd never been injured. 

But I think, you know, in these times of recovery or injury, whatever, it's a great time to take time to read different types of books. I read tons of sports psychology books and just different things like that. And maybe not every single one is useful, but it gets your mind thinking and makes you continue to learn and work your brain in different ways. It can help you in your sport when you return. 

Stef

It's very inspiring. And I hope anyone who is listening and is hearing your story with four major injuries like this and is maybe working through their first one, can have a lot of confidence that they can come back because I love what you said. You've come back and not everybody has accomplished that.

And I think that's something that's pretty powerful. I want to talk a little bit now…  you've gone through these four injuries. You're back. You're training now for the next Olympics. but you've had seven incisions along the way.  

(Stef laughs)   

So what does your mental training routine look like today?

Alice

Well, for me, I mean, talking about incisions and all of these different, marks on my body, initially  it was something I was pretty embarrassed about. And you wear shorts and people look at you and they're like, "Oh my gosh, what is that?" 

But I feel now like I'm so proud of my body and I'm so proud of what it has overcome.  I think the human body is such an incredible thing and the things that we overcome -- it's just mind blowing to me that we even recover from  catastrophic injuries and have the opportunity to do our sports again.

 I'm just so grateful that the human body is what it is. And that's one of the greatest things I've taken away from all these injuries, so much appreciation for who I am and what my body can do for me just amazing, I'm so blown away by it all the time.

Stef

You're in this mindset that you have now gotten to, which is awesome, but you weren't always there. So, you've worked on it along the way. Now that you have access to the sports psych and you've got a great coach and your support system, do you actively plan out your week?

You know, how you actively plan out your training for the week for your physical body? Do you actively plan out your mental training,  ensure that you have time spots for, meditation practices or mindful thinking in your, weekly routine?

Alice

Initially when I started working on my mental strength, I definitely had to set aside time to do that because it is super easy to get distracted by other things or feel like it's not work I really want to do right now. But by setting aside time and I just started really small, not even every day, like, "Hey, three times a week, I'm going to write in my journal for 10 minutes and that's 30 minutes a week or 15 minutes a week."

And by holding myself to this, goal of however many times a week I was going to write in my journal or have mindful moments where I leave my phone at home and I go for a walk around the block. Those moments I think are really special to disconnect and just contemplate and be in the moment.

Now it's a habit for me and I don't really have to set aside the time it's something I actually look forward to doing or to something that happens habitually. After I'm finished, chatting with my coaches or doing a video review session, I immediately write in my journal  I don't even have to think about it anymore. Setting aside the time and committing to it initially is really important, and then it becomes a habit.

Stef

That's such great advice. And it's just like training your physical body. The more you do it, the more natural it becomes. And then the same sort of thing you get on the field or in the course, and your body knows what to do. It's just the same with the mind. The more you train it, the more you practice it, the more that in the moment you're going to actually be ready to go and you're going to know what to do.

Alice

Absolutely. And one of the major adjustments I made sort of midway through my career was bringing more mental focus and intensity to my training. I think often in training, there can be this thought like, "Hey, it doesn't really like count towards anything.  There's no judges. There's no score. There's no time. Like it's whatever." But those training sessions are so valuable, not just for your physical sense of learning movements or learning something new, but your mental strength.  Then when it comes to the competition day, my mind is tuned up. I've been super focused. I've trained with intensity. So now I can compete with intensity.

Stef

I think that's super smart. One of the things I love the most about sports, like ski racing, is that undoubtable importance of being able to focus and concentrate and in the moment high pressure perform. And so, one of the things I loved, and I sort of miss about ski racing is that when you're right before a race and you're up there, you're getting ready and you're visualizing the course.

And that power of visualization to your performance. I'm just wondering if you can talk a little bit about how you do that because I think that so many girls in different sports can learn and use the power of visualization for performance.

Alice

Yeah, I use visualization daily in my training and especially when it comes to races and it's one of those skills that takes practice, and it takes time.  I remember, and it still happens to me, you're visualizing, and you forget, where you're going on the course; you're like, "Wait, was that a left footed turn or right footed turn?"

And these things happen in visualization and that's totally fine. It's just like any other skill. It requires practice and work. And that's where I think it comes in and training is taking the time to picture yourself whether it's doing a new movement or skiing a ski course, picturing yourself doing it.

And, for me, when I have these moments of picturing,  then it gives me a lot of confidence that when it comes time to do that movement, to ski that course,  in my mind, I've already done it 10 times. So now I just need to do it once in my body. And that's where it comes back to visualization. For me, it's all about confidence. Done it enough in my mind; now I just do it physically, and we're all good.

Stef

And do you do it every time before you start a race? Are you going through the whole course in your head?

Alice

Yes before every race, I mean, every run of training I'm visualizing. And I often use visualization at the bottom of a run or at the end of a competition, the end of a training session to then replay in my mind what I just did, because then I can pick up on things like, "Hey, I made a mistake there." And then thinking about, all right, so how do I fix that mistake?

Do I need to start the pressure in this spot or this spot and by doing that, I found it's helped me learn a lot and sort of coach myself in my own way. I really believe you are your own best coach because you're the one that's in your body, no one else can feel what you feel.

So, if you can have those reflective moments after performance, competition, whatever, and think back to what you just did. You can pick up on things like, "Hey, I did that super well" or "In this area, I can do that better, and I'm going to try that next time."

Stef

So, when you think about reflecting and maybe just reflecting on the four injuries you've had in your 12 years of ski racing at this elite level, if you were to kind of just take a step back and say, "Alright, to all the girls out there that are about to face an injury, here are my top three tips for you," what would those three things be?

Alice

My three tips would be always just think about what you can do every single day to be better and to focus on what you can do each day in itself. So that means doing your rehab every day or your exercises or whatever, all those small things that typically aren't that fun or exciting to do can add up to mean bigger benefits in the long-term.

My second thing would be to find other things that interest you. I mean, sports are super awesome and amazing, but there are a lot of other wonderful things out there in the world. And sometimes being injured makes you take a step back and you find a new passion that you're really interested in or something you like learning about, and that's something you maybe would have overlooked if you'd been doing your sport that entire time. So, it's a good opportunity to learn new things and find new passions. 

The third thing I would say would be: don't be afraid to reach out for support when you need it with your family and your friends and your teammates. If you're feeling down or sad or whatever, there are so many people that want to lift each other up and support each other that just reaching out is always a good thing to do. And, you know, it goes the other way, too. If you know of someone that's injured or going through hard time,  reach out to them, quick text message. Sometimes that's all it takes to have someone feel loved and supported and just give them a little encouragement they need.

Stef

I think that's so important. It's definitely something that I took away from this conversation.  Often, you feel alone when you're going through an injury, so imagine what your teammates are feeling and be there for them during those moments. 

Alice

For sure. And like I said, sometimes it's just as simple text or whatever, and that can really turn someone's day around.

Stef

You said in your blog, on your website, that your struggles have made you stronger. So, if you were to go back though and tell your 15-16 year old self and just whisper in her ear, something of encouragement, knowing that you were going to go through all these injuries, what would you have whispered to her in that moment?

Alice

Thinking of myself at 15-16, I never would have had the slightest inkling in my mind of how strong and resilient I could be and am today. There's no part of me that thought I ever would have gone through what I've been through. But I would have whispered to myself, you're going to be so much stronger than you ever know you're going to be right now.

 Stef

Since our podcast is really focused on elevating the voices of female athletes and ultimately driving change for females in sports, what is one thing that you would personally like to see changed for the future of women's sports?

 Alice

There's been a lot of strides in the last. decade or whatever, to bring women more to the forefront of sports. But I think continuing to showcase that because females in sport is incredible. And I think the things that women are able to do is so impressive and the things I've seen my teammates do or myself do or in other sports, I think it's incredible. 

And it just like shows the resiliency of humans and the resiliencies of women. And I think continuing to bring those types of performances and people into the forefront,  serves as an inspiration to not only just young women and other women, but to society as a whole.   

Stef

With women sports in general, there's not enough visibility, to the performance, the actual moment where you guys are competing, but also to the female athletes. But when you then click down into ski racing, I feel like it's even less. So how do we help and support ski racing for women? How do we bring more visibility to what you are doing and support you?

Alice

Well, I think a lot of it comes down to recognizing what we do is super hardcore.  

(Alice laughs) 

Ski racing is a pretty, dangerous sport. And we're doing the same thing men are doing. We are racing on the same skis as them. I am racing on the same skis as a guy that is 6'2" and has 75 pounds on me.

 I feel really impressed with myself even saying that. And I think in order to  support women's ski racing and women in general is just continuing to push viewership in certain ways.  And I'm not sure exactly how to go about that, but I know if people are interested in it and recognize how cool women's sport is that these companies will show more and more of it.

(background music starts)

Stef

Well, I can attest from being a ski racer, and having a family of ski racers that the sport that you are competing in is one of the most bad-ass sports there is out there.  

(both laugh) 

It's an incredible sport. You have to have a lot of guts and a lot of strength, not just physically, but mentally as we discuss throughout this whole podcast. So, I'm excited for bringing visibility to your story through voice in sport. And we hope to tell a lot more stories of amazing female skiers in the future.

Alice

Well, thanks for having me. That was fun.

Stef

Thank you for coming. Good luck on your next season. We're excited to watch you.

Alice

Thank you. I'm excited for it to get underway soon.

Stef

Alice, thank you so much for joining us on the Voice In Sport Podcast and for truly being vulnerable as you reflected on the injuries throughout your career. They have shaped you into the incredible person that you are today. Your resilience and power to overcome is so inspiring. You reminded us about the power the mind can have not just on  performance but for recovery.

Injury has taught Alice to be thankful for the incredible things that her body can do and to never take any moment in sport for granted. 

And an important lesson Alice shared with us today is to listen to our bodies; we all want to have quick comebacks from injuries, but sometimes our bodies need more time to be physically prepared to compete at its best. Give yourself that time, lean on your support system, and build on your mental strength. We promise, it will pay off in the long run!

 Alice is such an inspiration and you can follow Alice on Instagram at @thealigator to keep up with her journey! You can find us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok @voiceinsport. And please leave us a review, subscribe, and share this podcast with your friends in sport that might be struggling through an injury.

If you identify as a female athlete 13-22 and are interested in joining our Community - as a member you will have access to exclusive Content, Mentorship from amazing female athletes, like Alice and Advocacy tools to help drive change. Head to voiceinsport.com to join. And if you are passionate about accelerating Sports Science and research on the female athletic body check out voiceinsporfoundation.org to get involved.

Host: Stef Strack

Producer: VIS Creator™ Anya Miller

 

Alice McKennis Duran, Olympic Alpine Ski Racer, shares her inspiring journey overcoming four major injuries during her pro career and the importance of listening to our bodies, creating a strong support system, and building mental strength.