Val d’Isere, France – Gold comes in many forms. Last weekend on the icy pitch of the fabled O.K. course in Val d’Isere, a 15th-place World Cup super G result gleamed brighter than an Olympic medal for Vermont’s Ryan Cochran-Siegle.
It had been nearly four years since his last major international speed event in February, 2013. On the third gate of the combined downhill at the 2013 World Championships in Schladming, Austria, he crashed, shredding his left knee. Multiple surgeries and hundreds of days in the gym later, he scored a career-best finish on a weekend that could define his pathway leading up to PyeongChang in just 14 months.
The son of 1972 Olympic slalom champion Barbara Ann Cochran, Cochran-Siegle had a textbook career going. He won his first U.S. Championship medal at age 19 in 2011. That next December he scored his first World Cup points in the Birds of Prey super G with a proud mom in the finish. Two months later he captured double gold at 2012 World Junior Championships in Italy.
He was on his way. Until that fateful day in February, 2013.
Standing in the start gate for his return to World Cup speed, his mind was calm and focused.
“Starting 61 was super nice because I had no expectations,” he said. “You really have to have a pretty incredible run. There was no pressure – it was a win-win in my eyes.”
Few athletes could have survived what he had endured for nearly four years. At his side was a team of doctors, trainers, coaches and family. His gold medal attitude of patience and perseverance would serve him well.
He planted his poles at the top of the historic O.K. course that bears the initials of Val d’Isere’s most famous sons, Henri Oreiller and Jean-Claude Killy and did what he has always loved to do: he skied.
It was a long road to Val d’Isere. Much of his knee was destroyed from the accident. Initial rehab went well and he was back on snow. But it didn’t last. Another surgery. No go. One option remained – transplant surgery. While not that unusual, it was a procedure that wasn’t ideal for the levels of stress an athlete puts on the knee. But if there were ever a candidate, Ryan Cochran-Siegle was the one.
“We really blazed our own path on this one,” said the team’s medical coordinator Chris Antinori. “There was really no precedent to draw from looking at other college and professional sports for athletes having this procedure and returning to a high level of sport participation. But a lot of good things and good people came together to make this a positive outcome. RCS is the only elite skier and athlete that I am aware of to return and be successful at an elite level.”
He could have given up at any point in time. But he didn’t.
“Having had prior success, I didn’t want that to be my final race – I wasn’t ready to be done,” said Cochran-Siegle. “The amount of energy I put into my rehab – I wanted to do it right. That was the only way to make it out with what I wanted to still achieve.”
Bunkering down at the U.S. Ski Team Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah, and hitting the books at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, he waited for the call. Finally, it came – a donor had been found. In August, 2014 he underwent a third surgery at the Steadman-Hawkins Clinic in Vail.
Then came the work. At first, eight weeks non-weight bearing but still working every day on his good leg. Then mundane, simple exercises to patiently bring him back to strength. Six months later on February 2, 2015 – when his teammates were parading into the World Championships at Vail/Beaver Creek – Cochran-Siegle was doing his first barbell squats. A milestone day, strength coach Tracy Fober at his side.
He was on snow that summer, carefully undertaking a prolonged return to snow process together with his teammates Tommy Biesemeyer and Resi Stiegler under the watchful eye of coach Bernd Brunner. Patience was his virtue. The 2016 season was a good one mixed with some NorAm podiums, a couple FIS race wins, a pair of medals at U.S. Championships in Sun Valley and a point-scoring finish in a World Cup at Kranjska Gora.
But he wanted to get back to speed.
There’s a certain protocol in a World Cup finish area as the race day wears on. While the winners are already doing their TV interviews, eyes remained glued to the scoreboard watching to see who might make an attack from the back. RCS didn’t win the race. But, boy, did he turn a lot of heads.
Up on the race course, team trainer Antinori felt a deep swelling in his heart. Back home at the Center of Excellence, his strength coach Fober, passionately watched the TV broadcast on her computer – ignoring the meeting she was attending and shouting out loud as he crossed the finish line. As a coach or trainer, it tugs at your heart and brings tears to your eye to see a hard working athlete achieve success.
“When I crossed the finish line it was a huge relief,” he said. “I didn’t know I had that good of a run. It felt like I was on the fine line of skiing well and going out. But when I saw I was 15th I was surprised, a little overwhelmed and super happy – immediately super happy.”
Cochran-Siegle lives in Park City with his cousin Jess Kelley and her husband, former athlete and team coach Adam Cole. In Ryan’s room, Cole hung a 2002 poster of Norwegian star Lasse Kjus that says: ‘Three-Time Olympic Champion – Inspiration.’
Ryan Cochran-Siegle is an athlete to watch. On his Instagram channel he’s posted a saying: ‘It isn’t the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.’
The gold medal goes to Ryan Cochran-Siegle.