Two weeks before the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, veteran U.S. Ski Team downhiller Chad Fleischer was at the peak of his career. During his final practice run before a World Cup downhill in Wengen, Switzerland, he made a textbook turn at 65 mph—his skis so high on edge that his upper body nearly skimmed the ground. Unfortunately, this left him no room to clear a rapidly approaching ice berm. His hip and shoulder slammed into the berm, spinning him backward and sending the tail of his right ski smack into a fence. The resulting injury was devastating. "It was like someone took a shotgun to my leg and blew it off," says Fleischer, 31. "It was basically just skin holding my upper and lower leg together. I was looking at my ski boot facing the wrong way, like in a cartoon where your leg is not supposed to be facing that direction." The doctor's report was grim: total dislocation, torn ACL, MCL, PCL and LCL, broken kneecap, ripped tendons, and damaged meniscus and other cartilage.
After four days in a Swiss hospital, Fleischer flew to his hometown of Vail, Colo., also home to arguably the world's premier knee surgeon, Dr. Richard Steadman of the Steadman Hawkins Clinic. Fleischer's was one of the two worst injuries Steadman had encountered in his 30-plus years of practice. "He hadn't damaged as many blood vessels as another injury I'd seen, but in terms of injuries to the ligaments, it was the worst," Steadman says.
Steadman performed what would be the first of six surgeries in 16 months on Fleischer's destroyed knee. For 10 weeks after the first surgery, Fleischer was unable to move the damaged leg on his own. "I screwed a windsurf strap on my cast, so I could grab my leg and move it around easier," Fleischer says. He retreated to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., to begin rehab—and watch the Olympics on TV.
Being a viewer rather than a participant was nearly as painful as the injury for Fleischer. Ski racing had been his life since age 11, when he moved to Vail from Columbus, Neb. Nine years later, he joined the U.S. Ski Team and went on to win two national downhill championships ('96 and '99), finish second in the '99 World Cup Downhill Finals and sixth in the '99 World Championships Super G. He'd struggled in the '94 Lillehammer and '98 Nagano Olympics, but felt like he was poised to ski stronger than ever in Salt Lake. Instead, he was in Southern California, working on his upper-body strength and lower-body passive range-of-motion: trainers holding his leg and moving it. This early rehab was fairly painless—it's when he returned to Colorado to work on active range of motion that the real agony began. "I went and saw a girl by the name of Gina at Howard Head Sports Medicine in Edwards," Fleischer says. "And she's like a torture expert. She had me crying, she had me trembling—it was just brutal. She was a miracle worker, but it was the most painful thing I've ever done in my life."
Fleischer was soon riding an exercise bike and beginning to hope that one day he might not only walk normally, but also ski again. After surgery No. 2, he went to his family home in Hawaii where he began water therapy, holding onto a raft and kicking. "Then I was brilliant," Fleischer says. "I went out and boogie boarded with one fin on my good leg in these big waves, and I completely tore my knee up again. But it wasn't 'cause I got slammed or anything. It was just one of those things that was ready to go, you know. As you build and build and build, your knee feels better and better, so you push it a little bit more, and finally it just popped. I went to stand up when I got to the beach, and it locked up. I just fell flat on my face on the sand. It sounded like someone poured a bucket of rocks in my knee."
This was the first of four major setbacks over the next year—a cycle of intense rehab, dramatic improvement, sudden relapse and reconstructive surgery. The cycle is not uncommon, Steadman says, for athletes tryiing to return to a high level of competition. In May 2003, after recovering from his third setback, Fleischer was feeling strong and began working with Howard Head trainer John Atkins toward a gold medal comeback in the 2006 Turin Olympics. But within a month, his knee gave way again during training and Fleischer was ready to trade his skis for a white flag. "I finally thought I was over the hump, and then I just got slapped in the face," Fleischer says. "That's when things got really, really hard." And really, really miraculous. Five days after telling friend and former U.S. Ski Team downhiller AJ Kitt that he planned to retire, Fleischer's knee went from gimpy to great. "It was almost like God made it so," he says. "I know that sounds weird, but there was something spiritual there. I went from the worst of the worst to the best of the best in a week's time. And I don't understand how that's even possible."
Within a few weeks, Fleischer was back training with the U.S. team at Mt. Hood, Ore. A few weeks after that, his right leg tested stronger than his left for the first time since the original injury. In late August, he flew with the team to New Zealand, ready to resume the challenge of reaching Turin in 2006. At first, his skills were a bit rusty, but he quickly began to pick up steam. "He definitely was ahead of what we anticipated," says Phil McNichol, head coach of the U.S. Men's Ski Team. "We left saying 'job well done' and were ready to move to the next step."
But Fleischer's 16 months of rehab had given him more than a beautifully restored knee. He'd also acquired a new outlook on life. "It was like having a year of my life taken away," he says. "With an injury like that, who you are as a person gets completely taken away, and you have to reinvent yourself in a lot of ways."
"It's just like they say," he continues. "You've got to take the lowest of the lows to reach the highest of the highs. I may have lost a year and a half, but what I've gained mentally is probably a hundredfold. You learn who your supporters are, who your friends are. You learn about yourself, you learn about your body. There's so much that you learn spinning on a bike, hour after hour, day after day."
Fleischer fell in love with skiing again—not just ski racing, but the joy of powder and chutes and trees and friends and family. He also discovered the possibilities of life off the slopes, pouring the energy he had devoted to racing into various business opportunities: real estate development, action-sports events and ski-racing commentary for the Outdoor Life Network. "A lot of times as a skier you sit back and wonder, 'What the hell am I going to do with my life when this ride is over,'" he said just before leaving for New Zealand. "Well, I don't have to wonder anymore."
When he returned to the States, Fleischer started thinking about the commitment he'd need to be the world's best downhiller in 2006. "I know what it takes. It's one thing to go out and race well; it's another to grind it out, day after day," he says. "I know I could ski well, win some races, but that serves no purpose in my world. If I'm going to come back, it's all about a gold medal. You have to be so committed—I just didn't have the eye of the tiger anymore."
So on Sept. 30, after a decade on the U.S. Ski Team, Fleischer retired. But that doesn't mean he's retired from the ski life. This winter he's in Europe, announcing races for OLN and exploring the Alps in ways he hadn't been able to as a racer.
"To be right on the brink, on the threshold—that's where I'm at my best in everything that I do," Fleischer says. "And to have my life back...that's all that matters to me. To be able to live my life like I'm used to living it—pushing the envelope day in and day out, whether it's on the slopes or working out or in business deals or whatever it is. That's where I'm comfortable—and I'm finally back to where I'm comfortable again."