Sports

Breezy Johnson, U.S. Medal Hopeful in Downhill, Will Miss Olympics

The American ski racer Breezy Johnson, a top contender for a gold medal at next month’s Beijing Olympics in the women’s downhill, said on Monday that she would not compete in the Games because of torn right knee cartilage she sustained in the second of two high-speed training crashes this month.

Saying she was heartbroken, Johnson conceded that she contemplated trying to race despite the condition of her injured knee. “But the doctors told me I could do a lot more damage,” Johnson said in a telephone interview from Germany. “I could throw away all of next season, or beyond, for one race — and not even know how well I could ski that race.

“I didn’t want to just be limping my way to the finish line.”

Johnson, who finished second in the last three World Cup downhill races she entered, was having the best season of her career and appeared to be peaking after several impressive results at the end of last season.

But a training crash on Jan. 8 left Johnson, 26, with a cut and swollen right knee. She rested the joint and sat out two races, then resumed training last week, turning in one of the fastest practice times before a World Cup downhill in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. But during the second day of downhill training in Italy, Johnson had a jarring, awkward landing off a jump and tumbled off the racecourse into the protective netting enveloping the trail.

“I felt a crunch in my knee and thought I had shattered my meniscus into 400,000 pieces,” Johnson said. After magnetic resonance imaging of the joint, Johnson said doctors told her “a massive chunk of cartilage had peeled off the bone.”

She expects to have surgery after flying back to the United States, and she was hopeful she could resume racing next season.

With Johnson’s exit, the path to the gold medal in the women’s Olympic downhill is wide open. Sofia Goggia of Italy, the defending Olympic champion in the event who has a commanding lead in the World Cup downhill rankings this year, tumbled to the snow in a somersaulting crash during a super-G race on Sunday and may also be too injured to compete in Beijing.

The Italian ski team said that Goggia sprained her left knee, partially tore a knee ligament and suffered a “minor fracture” of the fibula bone. There was also some tendon damage, although Goggia promised to begin physical therapy for her injuries immediately in hopes of defending her title in Beijing on Feb. 15.

“I feel for Sofia, she’s been skiing amazing for two years now,” Johnson said. “I can’t imagine what she’s going through.”

Johnson added that Goggia’s possible departure from the Olympics caused her to wonder if she should rethink her plans not to ski at Beijing.

“You kind of think, I don’t know, did I make the right decision?” she said.

She consulted again with her doctors, asking them if the inherent risk was the chance that she might crash again. What if she rehabbed her right knee, found a way to ski somewhat effectively and stayed upright? But Johnson was told that just skiing at 80 miles an hour, a typical speed in the downhill, could be significantly harmful to her knee.

“So I was like, I just can’t do this,” Johnson, who finished seventh in the downhill at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, said Monday.

The recovery Johnson faces will not be her first comeback from serious injury. She had to recover from a tibial plateau fracture to make the U.S. ski team competing in Pyeongchang. Seven months after those Olympics, she ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee in training and missed the entire World Cup season. In June 2019, she tore two ligaments in her left knee.

Now facing another reconstructive knee surgery, Johnson said she was motivated to make another comeback because so many other top racers had done so and gone on to record their greatest accomplishments. As an example, she mentioned Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, who had his anterior cruciate ligament rebuilt last year after a fall in training and is having a dominant season this winter.

“You see that and we’re all optimists, we all hope this injury is the last one,” Johnson said. “You go through periods of time where it breaks your heart and it crushes you because the sport will never love you back. It just can’t because it’s a sport. But you love it so much you do it anyway.”

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