One of the first things Lenny Valjas did upon arriving in Östersund, Sweden, on Thursday was put a pole strap on. His Canadian World Cup teammate Alex Harvey went out for a ski shortly after arriving in Europe early that evening, but not Valjas. He stood in his hotel room testing out the strap on his left hand.
Valjas, 23, is going to be paying a lot of attention to that hand and more specifically, his pinky finger for the next two to six weeks. On Tuesday, the youngest member of the Canadian National Team broke his fifth metacarpal bone, the smallest finger on his left hand.
He was casually tossing a football around in Toronto when he hyperextended his finger while trying to catch it. In a phone interview from Östersund, Valjas explained that he tried to reset the joint himself and when that didn’t work, he made a splint and went to bed.
The next day, Valjas had to take his mother to the hospital after she broke her arm in Thailand, where she watched her daughter Kristina, a Canadian National Beach Volleyball Team member, compete in Bang Saen.
“I dropped her off and I said, ‘I might as well go and get an X-ray myself because it’s better to do it right away,’ ” Valjas said.
Doctors told him he chipped the joint head, which created a notch in the round part of the bone, and they considered operating on it. After more X-rays, they choose not to, and Valjas was given a custom cast and told to rest for six weeks. He reunited with his mom and they left the hospital, both without much use of their left limbs.
“She broke her humerus just under the [joint] head, too,” Valjas said. “It’s pretty funny, we only have our right hands. We’re both useless now.”
In a phone interview from Toronto, Marianne Valjas was optimistic about her son’s recovery.
“He just needs a little bit of time,” she said. “It’s just a small chip off his pinky finger so it’s not a big deal. Just needs to have it protected a little bit, and they’re going to assess it over there in Sweden.”
Valjas said he’d probably have it checked again before he starts racing, which he hopes will be in nearly two weeks at the World Cup opener Nov. 24-25 in Gällivare, Sweden. Until then, he’ll be skiing around with one pole.
On Wednesday, Valjas started his cross-Atlantic flight to Sweden with the team, and Thursday morning posted a photo of himself on his blog – cast and all – at the Frankfurt International Airport while sipping a cappuccino.
“Pretty bad timing,” he wrote on the blog, which showed him holding the teacup with his splint-covered hand. “I am giving it some time to rest and heal and I am really hoping to be back racing soon!”
After notching three career-best World Cup podiums at the end of last winter, the injury came as a bit of a blow before the start of this season. Valjas remained positive, but knew he couldn’t push it too soon.
“I have no idea how bad it is,” he said. “The doctor said six weeks, nothing, and then I can start doing exercises. But as long as the pole’s not pushing even remotely close to that area and I don’t catch my finger on the pole, I’m hoping to be back, but you never know.
“If it hurts, I’ve got to do the right thing and not race,” he added. “But I hope I can find away around it.”
After talking to head coach Justin Wadsworth, Valjas agreed to go easy for two weeks and see how things felt from there. That would mean missing next weekend’s FIS races in Bruksvallarna, Sweden, but Wadsworth thought he could be back as early as Gällivare. If not then, he expected him to be ready to go for the Kuusamo World Cup on Nov. 30-Dec. 2
“I think the big thing here is really be careful with it for two weeks,” Wadsworth said. “Something like that, where it is on his knuckle on his pinky finger, should be pretty out of the way for skiing. … The cast is moldable and can fit around a ski pole and a ski strap, and he has some other options for braces and casts once he gets a little more stabilized. It set pretty well, and so as long as there’s no pain he should be fine.”
Given his fitness level at this point, Valjas said two weeks of easy training won’t affect him too much – but that’s if it actually heals in two weeks. A solid cast offers some protection while skiing, but at the same time, he’s not taking any risks.
“I’m trying to be smart about it, and this happens, so I’ve got to deal with it the right way,” he said. “I’m not too worried, but it sucks, I was in good shape coming into it. The last few weeks I was feeling really good so it’s a little bit of a bummer knowing I’m going to be missing at least two weeks of racing. But like Justin said, the fitness is there, so I’ve just got to ski with one pole, maintain and I’ll be back.”
His goals are largely the same – mainly getting on the podium at World Championships in late February/early March, which shouldn’t be affected by the injury, he said. But he was also hoping to do well in Kuusamo, Finland, after placing fifth there last year. He feels he’s in even better shape this year.
“It’s kind of a good course to have a broken hand because it’s a lot of striding,” he said. “I can get away with the gradual uphills, just striding when the other guys are double poling, so we’ll see.”
As for the Canada World Cups in Quebec and Canmore, he’s excited to get home and race in front of fans and sponsors, but he hadn’t expected those races to play to his strengths before the injury.
“They’re sprints, but they’re not my favorite course layouts and stuff; it’s a lot of work,” he said. “I like courses that have long downhills and you can catch your breath and really punch it and be speedy after that, but it’s more of a flat course. Hopefully my fitness is a bit better than last year; I struggled on those courses, but it still doesn’t change, the plan is to get into the A-final.”
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.