The instant her skis touched back down on the snow, Libby Ludlow knew something was amiss. "It happened off a pretty small jump," she says. "I got a little bit twisted in the air. It just happened to be a flat landing, which is what is hard on the knees." She then flew about 100 feet on the next jump and "was probably going about 60 to 70 miles per hour for the rest of the run. I knew immediately when I got to the finish that it was pretty badly injured."
That was seven months ago while training for the U.S. alpine championships in Alaska. But after enduring surgery and extensive rehab to repair a damaged right knee, and the longest break from the sport in the 26-year-old Bellevue native's career, Ludlow is now back on the slopes.
"I was pretty nervous after the first day," she says of her visit last month to an Austrian glacier. "They could see the worry in my eyes. I went back out the next day, and it was infinitely better. Over the course of three weeks, I got nothing but positive feedback from my coaches and my trainers. It couldn't have gone any better."
Battling back from what might've been a career-ending injury, this 10-year veteran of the U.S. Ski Team has returned with new perspective; and her post-racing life off the slopes has been drawn into better focus, too.
Before the injury, Ludlow was the best Northwest women's ski racer since 1984 gold medalist Debbie Armstrong, and one of a handful of locals to make the elite U.S. Ski Team, which has historically drawn from specialized ski academies in mountain resort towns. At the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy, she finished 28th in her best event, the Super G (a faster, more open-turned slalom course), in which she ranked 10th in the world that season. This despite three previous knee surgeries.
After more training with the team in Colorado, she hopes to rejoin the FIS World Cup Nov. 24–25 in British Columbia—the same province where the 2010 Winter Olympics will be held in Vancouver, a few hours' drive north of her home, three seasons away. "I don't really see it as too long off," she says.
Is it worth it to persist despite the risk of further injury? "I wanna be a medal contender in 2010," she says. "And I want to win at home in front of my family and friends in a venue I love...in my backyard, and that's my goal. And basically that will be the culmination of my entire career. I don't want to have any regrets."
Then there are the commercial considerations. Her results in the 2006 Olympics were considerably less valuable to prospective sponsors than a top-three medal position. Those 2.54 seconds between her and first place could've been worth a million bucks.
"The U.S. Ski Team doesn't pay us a dime," says Ludlow. "They just provide us with resources and cover our expenses when we're racing or training. We have [medical accident] insurance through the ski team. My income comes entirely from my sponsors. I'm just banking on the fact that if I push the local-girl image...that's going to be my best avenue of going into the Olympics and finding sponsors. The goal is to establish sponsors in advance. So when you do well, you can capitalize on that financially. Sometimes I really don't like doing this side business part. It's kind of a drag most of the time, but it's part of the game."
But the game is a business, and Ludlow must be both athlete and entrepreneur. She runs her own Web site (www.libbyludlow.com), full of glamour shots and friendly blog entries for friends and fans to follow. It lists sponsors like Fischer (skis), Leki (poles), and Xbox—made by a small local company you may have heard of.
And while her uniform may bear the logos of team sponsors, including Chevrolet, VISA, Sprint, and Charles Schwab, she's free to market her forehead. "We can sell 50 square centimeters of advertising space on our helmet." Right now that prime real estate, once claimed by Microsoft, is available for rent—are you listening, Starbucks?
There is no 401(k) plan for alpine skiers, no NFL-style fund for gimpy old jocks. "I've watched a lot of retiring within the team," says Ludlow. "From my understanding, pretty much all of them have had a difficult time transitioning to the real world. A lot go into the ski industry," working as coaches and sales reps.
Only a few Northwest ski racers have achieved Olympic and World Cup glory—the Mahre brothers in the '70s and '80s, Debbie Armstrong and her gold in Sarajevo. All of whom today are connected with the ski biz in one capacity or another. Even gold medalists can't afford to rest on their medals. Nor can a surgery-scarred woman in her mid-20s avoid financial and career planning for life after skiing.
"I'm definitely a veteran," says Ludlow, "I am now the oldest girl on the team. It's kind of bizarre."
While her classmates from Interlake High School—where she was also a state champion pole vaulter—are busy building careers, going to grad school, marrying, and having kids, Ludlow is still in college, grinding her way through Dartmouth on the nine-year plan, taking summer quarters only and hoping to graduate in 2010 with a philosophy degree. (Google is hiring philosophers, right?)
Thus, even in the midst of her comeback, she recognizes that her rehab summer was a prelude to her future—and she hopes post-Olympic—life in Seattle. "It was one of the most enjoyable off-seasons of my career," Ludlow says, "even though I was hurt. It was kind of like the first time I was on a regular schedule. I went out to Westport and went surfing. Going to barbecues and concerts and movies—just doing a bunch of stuff I don't generally get the opportunity to do. It kind of gave me hope. I always knew there was a lot waiting for me after I'm done skiing, and I look forward to [it]. I'm buying a condo on Queen Anne." Law school, or even opening a yoga studio, might follow.
She concludes, "I felt like a normal person. It was really refreshing."