Kristina Koznick

U.S. skier Kristina Koznick tore ACL, competed at Olympics 2 weeks later

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Kristina Koznick can’t remember the conversation, only the moment she shared with Lindsey Vonn in a hallway at the 2006 Olympic Village.

Koznick, her crutches resting next to a spin bike, struggled just to push the pedal with her right leg and circulate motion. In her toil, she noticed a woman hobbling down the corridor.

They made eye contact. It was Vonn, her teammate back from a hospital after suffering a bruised back and hip in a downhill training crash earlier that week.

“We both kind of chuckled at each other,” Koznick said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We looked at each other, and it was just like, ‘How did this happen?'”

Two weeks earlier, Koznick, the top U.S. slalom racer, skied off a 12-to-15-foot ledge in Ofterschwang, Germany, and tore her right ACL on Feb. 4. She was 30, at her third and final Olympics, and was an outside medal contender, the eighth-ranked slalom skier in the world.

On Feb. 22, Koznick skied. She successfully made it down the mountain in Sestriere, Italy, but that was it. She was in 34th place, 3.5 seconds off the lead and didn’t risk a second run in the Olympic slalom won by celebrated Swede Anja Paerson. (Vonn finished 14th)

Koznick’s injury was first reported to be a partially torn ACL, a vague diagnosis but the same words describing the result of Vonn’s training crash in Copper Mountain, Colo., on Tuesday.

“I live in Vail,” Koznick said two hours after Vonn’s diagnosis was made public. “Doesn’t take long for word to spread around here.”

Koznick and Vonn’s careers have crossed since they were “itty-bitties,” even though they were nine years apart. They developed separately at the same short Minnesota slope, Buck Hill, with the same Austrian-born coach, Erich Sailer.

“She had my poster on my wall,” Koznick said, “so that dates me a little bit.”

They made the 2002 and 2006 Olympic Teams together. Vonn was the up-and-coming speed racer, Koznick the veteran tech specialist.

When Koznick crashed on Feb. 4, 2006, she called Bill Sterett, the same orthopedic surgeon and U.S. Ski Team doctor who operated on Vonn’s blown-out right knee after her World Championships crash in February.

“When he looked at the MRI, it looked like there was a little strand still attached, but when he tested my knee he said he couldn’t feel much of an ACL,” Koznick said.

They knew that would be her final season of ski racing, but Koznick determined she would do anything possible to race 18 days later.

She worked daily with Sterett, a team of doctors and physical therapists. Koznick wore a brown knee brace to act as an ACL, holding her tibia in place.

“At the time, I thought I could do this,” Koznick said. “But [my knee] was always in the back of my head. My brain wouldn’t allow my body to push it to the limits in ski racing.”

Koznick was still on crutches two days before the slalom. Sterett told her she needed to ditch them and test her knee to show she could line up at the start gate.

source: Getty Images
Gold medalist Anja Paerson (left) with Kristina Koznick at the 2006 Olympic slalom.

She made it to race day, still limping. At the top of the mountain, she still believed she could win a medal. She changed her mind shortly after leaving the start house.

“It was obvious from the outset that she couldn’t go, laboring through gates, unable to shift her weight quickly,” the New York Daily News reported from Sestriere.

She crossed the finish, completed media interviews and made her way back to Sterett and her team.

We’re pulling the plug, they told her. It’s too dangerous for you to take another run. You’re not in medal contention.

“I didn’t really [agree], but I didn’t fight it,” she said. “It was their way of releasing me from [making the decision].”

Koznick now raises a 3-year-old girl, Charly, and a 1-year-old boy, Maxwell. She manages a gym with a goal to one day own a gym. She now knows that an error, hooking a gate with the tip of her ski, on that single run in Sestriere could have caused greater knee damage.

But she kept that from entering her mind on Feb. 22, 2006. And she doesn’t regret taking a run down a mountain 18 days after tearing an ACL.

“‘It spoke volumes about me and definitely had shown that I really can do something if I put my mind to it,” she said. “As an athlete, when you’re in it, you believe anything is possible.”

Lindsey Vonn headlines across globe

Nathan Chen ushers in new era with record-breaking nationals short program

ST PAUL, MN - JANUARY 24: Nathan Chen looks on after competing in the Men's Free Skate at the 2016 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championship on January 24, 2016 at Xcel Energy Center in St Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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KANSAS CITY — Nathan Chen is in position to become the youngest U.S. men’s champion in 51 years and, as he said Friday night, help put the U.S. “back on the map” in men’s skating.

Chen, 17 and already an Olympic medal contender, tallied 106.39 points in the short program, taking Jeremy Abbott‘s U.S. Championships record of 99.86 from 2014 off the books.

He carries a whopping 17.72-point lead into Sunday’s free skate (4 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Chen, a past U.S. novice and junior champion, landed two quadruple jumps and continued his rise in a breakout senior season after taking silver at the Grand Prix Final last month.

He said after his skate that he’s ready to handle the tag of Olympic medal contender and to go for the world title in Helsinki in March.

“I’m able to stack up against these top-level skaters,” said Chen, who beat the reigning Olympic and world champions in the Grand Prix Final free skate. “That’s something I’ve strived for my whole life. I don’t think it’s something I should necessarily be afraid of, something that I’ve wanted my whole life.”

Chen leads the U.S. Championships over a member of the old guard, Ross Miner, a 25-year-old who made three straight U.S. podiums from 2011-13 but none since.

Vincent Zhou, who turned 16 three months ago, was third, but within .82 of Miner. Full results are here.

“Nathan Chen has always been a few steps ahead of me,” said Zhou, who won the 2013 U.S. junior title and finished fifth at the 2016 World Junior Championships, taking two years off in between to recover from a torn meniscus in his right knee and focus on school. “When he was intermediate, I was just a little preliminary admiring him. Now it feels amazing to start closing the gap.”

The U.S. will send two men to the world championships in two months, selected after Sunday’s free skate, and they likely won’t be the usual names. Neither Chen nor Zhou has been to senior worlds, and Miner’s last appearance was 2013.

The 2016 U.S. champion, Adam Rippon, is not competing this week due to a season-ending broken foot. The 2015 U.S. champion, Jason Brown, is in fourth place, 8.62 behind third-place Zhou. Max Aaron, the 2013 U.S. champion, fell twice and tumbled to 12th place Friday.

“It just wasn’t a good day,” Aaron said. “It’s not me.”

There are no more pressure-filled world championships than those one year before the Olympics, where skaters earn Olympic entries for their countries.

“That would definitely be a massive step up that I haven’t prepared for in the fullest, but it would be an absolute honor if I were to be able to go,” Zhou said. “But, for now, I’m setting more of my sights on junior worlds.”

Hopes will mostly be riding with Chen, who has a shot to become the first U.S. men’s medalist at an Olympics or worlds since Evan Lysacek took the 2010 Olympic title.

“We’re pushing back up to where we should be,” Chen said of the U.S. men. “We kind of sunk a little bit, but I think me and some of the other skaters coming up at this event will help bring the U.S. back on the map.”

The U.S. Championships continue Saturday with the pairs free skate, free dance and women’s free skate, with coverage starting at 3 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

Check out NBCsports.com/USFIGS for all-access coverage all weekend.

MORE: Ashley Wagner ‘sick’ of hearing about her age

Men’s Short Program
1. Nathan Chen — 106.39
2. Ross Miner — 88.67
3. Vincent Zhou — 87.85
4. Jason Brown — 79.23
5. Grant Hochstein — 79.10

Maia, Alex Shibutani break U.S. Championships short dance record

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KANSAS CITY — Maia and Alex Shibutani broke the U.S. Championships short dance record held by Olympic champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White on Friday.

The defending national champion Shibutanis tallied 82.42 points at Sprint Center, easily taking down the Davis-and-White mark of 80.69 set at the 2014 U.S. Championships.

Scores have been higher this season overall, leading to records in international competitions, too.

“Didn’t know it was a record,” Maia Shibutani said. “It was our strongest performance of the short dance so far this season. That’s exactly what we want to be showing right now before we head to the second half of the season.”

The Shibutanis lead by 2.46 points over 2015 U.S. champions Madison Chock and Evan Bates going into Saturday’s free dance (3 p.m. ET, NBC, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, three-time U.S. bronze medalists, are again third. Full results are here.

U.S. Figure Skating will send three dance couples to the world championships in two months. The Shibutanis, Chock and Bates and Hubbell and Donohue were those three couples the past two seasons.

The U.S. is the world power in ice dance, impressively rising during Davis and White’s break since Sochi.

The Shibutanis took silver and Chock and Bates took bronze at the 2016 World Championships. Hubbell and Donohue made it three U.S. couples in the top six at worlds for the first time since 1955.

Chock and Bates had been the top U.S. couple since the Sochi Olympics up until last year’s U.S. Championships. The Shibutanis have topped Chock and Bates in their last three competitions together.

Check out NBCsports.com/USFIGS for all-access coverage all weekend.

MORE: U.S. Championships broadcast schedule

Short Dance
1. Maia Shibutani/Alex Shibutani — 82.42
2. Madison Chock/Evan Bates — 79.96
3. Madison Hubbell/Zachary Donohue — 79.72
4. Kaitlin Hawayek/Jean-Luc Baker — 72.60
5. Elliana Pogrebinsky/Alex Benoit — 67.17