TOBLACH, Italy – It’s hard enough to finish in the top 30 on the World Cup, but American Holly Brooks did something even more impressive here in Wednesday’s Stage 6 of the Tour de Ski: she finished in the top 30 with a broken wrist.
By placing 30th in the skate sprint, Brooks joined an elite club of skiers who have toughed out some top finishes with broken bones. Fellow members include Slovenian Petra Majdic, who overcame broken ribs and a punctured lung to win Olympic bronze in Vancouver in 2010, and France’s Aurore Jean, who competed with a broken toe last season.
“It’s definitely hard to race at this level with anything going wrong, let alone a broken wrist,” said Brooks’s teammate Kikkan Randall. “So props to her, for the toughness she’s showing.”
Brooks enjoyed her best result to date of her Tour de Ski on Wednesday, but her injury has presented her with a dilemma that might be as excruciating as the pain of racing. While she’s dead set on finishing the Tour, she has a big decision ahead of her when the race ends on Sunday: what to do after she arrives at the finish of the final stage, atop the Alpe Cermis in Val di Fiemme, Italy.
The German doctor that read Brooks’s MRI on Monday told her that she needs six weeks of rest. But taking so much time off and returning to her home in Alaska for recovery would likely mean an early end to her European campaign—and, potentially, an end to her hopes of qualifying for the U.S. Ski Team for next season.
That’s not an attractive option for Brooks, who raced to career bests in November and December.
“This is my chance,” she said. “I feel like this is really my breakthrough season, and I was on a roll.”
Brooks said that doctors in Germany told her on Monday after an MRI that she had “hairline fractures” at the end of her radius, in her left wrist. The fractures are non-displaced, she said, which means that while her bone is broken, it’s not out of place.
While Brooks said that she will almost definitely need time off from competition at some point, she’s still intent on completing the Tour, despite the fact that the continued racing delays the healing process, and presents a couple of risks.
Communication with the German doctors was difficult, Brooks said, and “everything was unclear,” but from what she could gather, she was warned that her bone is in a “fragile state,” and that a crash could aggravate it. There’s also potential for the break to develop into arthritis, she said.
Brooks has been trying to get more advice from doctors back in the U.S., but she hasn’t been able to get copies of her MRI to them. While she has the images on a CD, she can’t access them with her computer, and send them home.
If there were a real risk of long-term damage from the continued racing, the U.S. Ski Team would stop Brooks from competing, according to Chris Grover, the squad’s head coach.
But after a consultation with an Anchorage-based orthopedist on Wednesday morning, Grover said that as far as he could tell, that wasn’t the case.
“What I’m gathering right now, it’s something she can continue with,” he said. “If there was a doctor saying, ‘you have to stop now and rest it,’ then we would do that. And Holly would listen to that…If we felt like she was in serious danger of doing some long-term damage, we would stop, for sure. It’s not worth it, by any means.”
As for her options once the Tour is over, Brooks’s situation is complicated by her aspirations to qualify for the U.S. team.
Currently, she’s traveling in Europe on her own dime, and with plans to build towards the Sochi Olympics in 2014, Brooks wants more support over the next two seasons.
“It’s hard to fund yourself, and I’ve had a lot of people really step up to help me this season. And a lot of donations have come from friends and family, and even strangers and people that I don’t know,” she said. “I’m so grateful for everyone’s support—it’s been amazing, and really generous—and I don’t want to have to do that every year….You can only ask people for money for so many years, you know?”
To meet the objective criteria for selection to the U.S. squad, Brooks must end the year in either the top 50 of the World Cup overall standings, or the top 30 in either the sprint or distance rankings.
Currently, she sits 40th overall, and 26th in the distance standings. But a trip back to Alaska to heal could deprive Brooks of crucial opportunities to gather more points, allowing other women to overtake her while she sits out.
“If I go home to rehab it, there’s not really time to come back,” she said. “And if I don’t have any more results for the entire season, I don’t know if that helps my case.”
For now, Brooks said, she’s weighing her options, and waiting to get more information from doctors.
In the mean time, she’s still racing, feeling like “a machine with a missing screw.”
Her toughness has earned her the admiration of her fans back home, as well as her teammates in Europe.
“I think it’s really cool that she’s skiing through it, you know, as long as she’s not doing permanent or long-term damage to it,” said American Liz Stephen. “I think it’s great, but definitely, you only get one wrist, and if it’s going to be permanent, you’ve got to be smart about it.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.