Hannah Halvorsen’s Return to Ski

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Hannah Halvorsen has been a member of the U.S. Cross Country Ski team since 2016. After growing up in Truckee, California, she moved to Anchorage, Alaska in 2017 to become a full-time college student and member of the elite team at Alaska Pacific University. She was a sprint finalist at the Youth Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, and a member of the first relay team to win a medal at Junior World Championships in Park City, Utah. In November of 2019, Hannah was hit by a car while crossing the street. After missing the 2019/20 race season, she is making her way her way back to the world stage with a long year of recovery and learning invaluable lessons about patience and gratitude.

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I am a 22-year-old professional cross country ski racer who has been on skis since I could walk. I was born and raised in Truckee, California, which has sunshine and mountains and a large community of active people who take advantage of it. My family was part of this culture, and my five younger siblings and I grew up playing all kinds of outdoor sports. The one I connected most with was cross country skiing. Throughout middle and high school my goals in skiing grew with me because I loved the way it challenged me. To compliment my ski racing and change up my training I ran cross country in the fall and did triathlons in the summer. This gave me another way to be a part of the endurance community and enjoy the trails, lakes, and mountains.

After graduating high school in 2016 from Sugar Bowl Academy, I wanted to continue pursuing my Olympic dreams, so I moved to Anchorage, Alaska to join Alaska Pacific University, which has one of the best elite teams in the country. At the same time, I have had the opportunity to pursue a double major in Psychology and Business. Since moving to Anchorage, I stopped competing in triathlons and running races in order to focus on training for skiing full time. In the summer and fall we dryland train with a mix of roller skiing, running, and strength. In the winter we race throughout America and Europe. It has given me a sense of purpose to apply myself to the challenge of becoming the best ski racer I can, and I have made steady progress with my results each year. In my most recent ski season (2018/19) I raced my first world cups, which is the highest level of the sport.

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At the start of November 2019, everything was heading in the right direction. I was in the best shape of my life and I was excited for the chance to put another year of hard work to the test. I was three weeks away from getting on a plane for the 2019/20 race season when my whole life went on pause. I was crossing a street when a car that didn’t see me turned left and hit me head on. After being knocked unconscious, I was rushed to the ER, where they found I had suffered a skull fracture, bleeding and bruising in my brain, a tibial fracture, and my left MCL and PCL were torn completely detached from the bone. Needless to say, I wasn’t going to be racing in the 2019/20 ski season.

For the first ten days after the accident, I slept 18-22hrs a day due to the concussion. I then flew to Vail, CO to have my knee looked at by the specialists at the Steadman Clinic. When the knee surgeon, Dr. Hackett, examined my knee he knew immediately I needed surgery, and I was scheduled for later that week. However, the night before I was supposed to have surgery, a brain trauma specialist called and told me he had delayed my operation after looking at my brain scans. He said there was still severe bleeding in my brain, and he didn’t think it was safe for me to be put under anesthesia. I ended up having to wait five weeks for the significant bleeding spots to drain so that I could more safely have my knee reconstructed. Today, this doesn’t seem like a significant amount of time to wait for such a life-threatening reason but at that time it made the challenges I was up against feel bigger. I am used to progress, even when things are hard, and although my brain was healing, my knee was on hold until I had the ligaments fixed. This made me feel like I was spending my days in pain without the consolation that my knee was getting better.

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However, once I had the surgery, it felt like things were moving in the right direction, and I clicked into the rehab protocol the same way I would a training plan. Similar to training for ski racing, it progressed one step on top of the other. This motivated me to work hard at each step, because accomplishing that would allow me to go to the next one. In May, which felt like an eternity of waiting, I was able to start running. To start running again after a knee surgery on two completely torn ligaments did not mean I was able to put my shoes on and go train how I normally do. It meant I was allowed to jog for thirty seconds, and then stop and walk for a minute, and then repeat that nine more times. So that’s a grand total of five minutes of jogging. Each week, I was able to run five more minutes. It’s in my nature as a competitive athlete to push the limits, so this cautious and slow progression challenged me to be more patient. Even though I wanted to jump out the door and run as far and as fast as I could, I was diligent with the progression because I wanted to be able to run for the rest of my life. It is an amazing way to be outside, exercise, and see beautiful places that you can’t get to almost any other way. And by not being able to run for half a year, I realized how important it is to me. One thing this healing process has taught me is that when something is taken, and you have to work months to get it back, you see how special it really is.

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I decided I wanted to get shoes that would best support this goal as well, so I chose HOKA’s Clifton Edge and EVO Jawz. I have been impressed with how well they balance responsiveness, stability, and support, which are all things I take into extra consideration as I make my way back to full time training. I feel stable and balanced in my HOKAs while at the same time minimize the pounding on my healing knee. At this point, I can run for two hours, and have even done track intervals!

Now when I run, I am more present and aware of the joy it brings to my life. Good health is something I took for granted until I didn’t have it for many long painful months. While sitting out for a race season, I have had time to recognize how fortunate I have been in my ski career. I haven’t experienced much injury, sickness, or setback, and it took a big one for me to realize how fortunate that is. I have also realized how much support I have. The community of endurance sports that welcomed me in and believed in me when I first started ski racing didn’t hesitate to extend the same support to me when I needed it most.

If there’s one lesson that will forever be in my heart, it’s that I have not overcome this obstacle alone. I now make more cognizant choices to take care of my health that I have worked so hard to regain. Every day I have this realization that I am still alive and that I have no permanent injuries. I didn’t race this season, but it still feels like I accomplished some huge goals. I can run and ski again, and that means more to me than a lot of my best race results. I am a few months away from heading into the 2020/21 ski season and I have a new motivation and fight for the sport. I am grateful for the opportunity to be outside, challenge myself, and share my life with others. I head back into ski racing with big goals. The next winter Olympics is less than a year and a half away, and I believe I can make it there.

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