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In the Olympics, as in all sports, anything can happen. But if you’re the gambling type, don’t bet against the U.S. Alpine Ski Team’s Jackie Wiles.
The Aurora native and 2010 Canby High School grad was mere days away from boarding a plane bound for PyeongChang, Korea, to compete in her second Winter Olympic Games when she suffered a catastrophic wipeout while competing in a World Cup event in Germany in 2018.
“I had just come off a podium with my teammate Lindsey Vonn and was feeling super poised to carry my momentum into the Olympics on a track that suited me well in South Korea, and I just took a really bad fall,” Wiles recalled. “Broke my leg, tore pretty much every ligament, had meniscus damage, nerve damage.”
It would be 18 months before her skis touched the snow again. And that was just the physical damage.
“It also became a massive hurdle mentally,” she admitted, “being back on snow and learning how to race again and finding the inner drive to want to go fast and huck myself down a mountain at 80 miles an hour.”
The injuries were so devastating that some wondered if it meant the end of her competitive career. Instead, after years of grueling rehab and training, the 28-year-old is again skiing at the top of her game — was recently named to the U.S. team for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.
“It’s been a long couple of years, for sure, but I’m finally starting to feel like myself again,” Wiles said. “It’s been a massive road, but all of the work and everything that has gone into it the past four years, it feels really worth it to be able to go to the Olympics again.”
Wiles spoke to The Canby Current Tuesday from Garmisch-Partenkirchen in southern Germany, where she has been competing in her final round of World Cup races before the main event kicks off later this week. Ironically, it was at the Garmisch Classic ski area in the Bavarian Alps where she was injured almost exactly four years earlier.
“It’s kind of wild,” she said with a chuckle. “It was almost a complete repeat of where the same track took me out the week before the Olympics. So for me, it was redemption. I was happy with my skiing, so that was kind of a weight off my back.”
The first time she revisited the venue, she was not prepared for the emotional experience it would be.
“I didn’t realize how much it would actually affect me,” she said. “I instantly teared up when I got to the crash site, and I realized that the emotions and history of what happened there were so deeply embedded. It’s been a work in progress of learning to deal with fear.”
She credits excellent mental health resources provided through the U.S. Alpine Ski Team, including a sports psychologist with whom she has worked for a long time, with helping her recover mentally — as well as physically — from the crash.
Wiles, who learned to ski about the same time she was figuring out walking, blasted onto the race scene early in the 2013 season, winning the U.S. Alpine Championship downhill title at the U.S. Ski Team Speed Center hosted at Copper Mountain. She then won it again in 2014 — punching her ticket to her first Olympics in the process.
“It was my first year on the U.S. Ski Team,” she said. “I had just scored World Cup points for the first time the week before the Olympics, so I wasn’t even expecting to go. I was a deer in the headlights, just trying to absorb everything and take it all in, learn as much as I could for the future.”
Now, Wiles appears to be rounding back into top form at just the right moment. Less than two weeks ago, she led the U.S. Alpine Ski Team with her best result in four years, finishing 14th in the FIS World Cup downhill in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.
After nearly a decade of experience — not to mention everything the past four years has thrown at her, from the injury and rehab to the pandemic — she feels lightyears ahead, maturity-wise, from that wide-eyed 21-year-old.
That means trying to not get caught up in the emotions of the moment. There will be time for that later.
“I just want to take it as another race,” she said. “Obviously, yeah, it’s a big race. But at the same time, I’ve grown up doing this my whole life. I know what to expect. We have a job to do and we’ve been doing it all year.”
Wiles’ specialty is, and always has been, the speed events downhill and super-G. Those will happen in the second week of competition at this Olympic Games.
“This is a new venue that none of us have actually been to,” she said. “In a sense, it’s kind of cool that no one knows what style of skiier it’s going to suit. The only thing we really know is that the snow is really dry and grippy, which is similar to Colorado snow. I absolutely love that kind of snow, so I know I’ll be confident in it.
“I’ve heard the track has a little bit of everything. It’s well-rounded; it’s fast. It has steeps, flats, three big jumps, which will be really exciting. I think every country is going to have a fair shot.”
Despite everything she has been through and achieved, Wiles said she has never lost sight of her roots.
“I’ve gotten to travel the world, but I’m so proud to be from Oregon,” she said. “Going to high school in Canby, I had a lot of time there and feel very supported by the community. I’m just going to try to represent as best I can, and I’m super grateful and appreciative for all the support.”
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