ZHANGJIAKOU, CHINA — Even Scott Patterson wasn’t totally certain he was the right guy for the American Olympic team in Beijing.
The veteran Alaska cross-country skier broke his wrist in August, derailing his training and throwing his participation in the Games into limbo. When he finally made it to Europe to race on the top-level World Cup circuit, he placed fourth-to-last in his first event back.
“I was a little bit questioning,” said Patterson. “The last time I raced a World Cup, I was 75th.”
Fast-forward two months to the Olympic trail system in Zhangjiakou, the resort town in the mountains outside Beijing where the ski races are taking place.
Patterson, having made the team, delivered an 11th place in his first race, the 30-kilometer skiathlon — the best result of the Games so far by an American man.
“To come here and be able to throw down — it’s like, ‘Yeah, okay, I belong,’” he said.
Patterson’s finish reasserts his status as one of America’s very best male distance skiers. And it also caps a recovery from the fractured scaphoid bone that observers describe as nothing short of miraculous.
“It’s insane,” said Brooke Lewis, an Anchorage physical therapist who worked with Patterson. “We definitely would not have typically given the okay to the normal person to return to skiing like he has.”
Lewis said she, too, was a little concerned about Patterson’s performance in the early winter in Europe, and was second-guessing whether she and medical experts had prematurely given him that okay to return to racing.
Patterson, 30, was on track for a banner season before the wrist fracture. His summer training had gone well, and he’d smashed the course record and his previous personal bests at the Crow Pass Crossing, an epic Alaska adventure running race.
“He was heading toward a career best, for sure,” said Erik Flora, Patterson’s coach at the Alaska Pacific University club team.
As a distance specialist, Patterson trains more than 1,000 hours a year, usually twice a day, with a rest day perhaps every two months.
In mid-August, he was out for a mountain bike on Anchorage’s Hillside trails when, as he was wrapping up his ride, he decided to check out a just-opened pump track — a short, curvy, rolling dirt circuit.
One of the first few corners was a little sharper than he expected, and he slid out. It was clear immediately that something was badly wrong with his right wrist: He couldn’t hold his handlebars on his way home.
For those questioning why Patterson jeopardized his ski season by taking the risks entailed in mountain biking, he wants you to know: He’d navigated far more challenging terrain earlier in his ride, and rides cautiously.
“I have fun going as big as I do. I don’t need to go bigger. And my No. 1 goal is to not get hurt,” he said.
“It was a stupid injury,” he added said. “But I could have tripped on a rock in the parking lot and done the same thing.”
X-rays didn’t reveal much initially. Once the inflammation went down, doctors diagnosed a hairline fracture, but it appeared to be healing, and Patterson could keep training with running workouts and skiing with a single pole.
But another series of x-rays in October showed that the bone wasn’t healing, which forced Patterson to opt for surgery at the Steadman Clinic in Colorado: two screws in his wrist that will be there permanently. The news, he said, was “pretty devastating.”
“Everything just felt like it came apart in the end of October,” said Flora, Patterson’s coach. “It breaks your heart. You’re working with someone who’s putting their life into it. All of his goals were focused on how he was going to perform at the Olympics. And in just a few minutes, the reality is that it’s going to be hard to even get him to the Olympics.”
By that point, it was clear the injury was going to cost Patterson some performance — the training he was doing could maintain his base fitness, but the injury kept him from some of the harder workouts needed to round into racing shape.
The positive side of the surgery, however, was that it allowed for an accelerated recovery.
Ideally, Patterson would have taken two months in a cast. But instead, he went through a series of braces, and within six weeks, he was racing in Norway — a recovery three or four times faster than an average person’s, said Lewis, the physical therapist.
And in spite of some lackluster results in Europe in December, Patterson raced well enough at the U.S. National Championships in January to be named to the American team for Beijing.
Now, he seems to be finding peak fitness at just the right moment. And as much as the wrist injury felt like a setback, he also wonders a little bit whether it may have helped with his timing.
“It’s always hard: Maybe this wrist is honestly putting me in a better place, and I would have peaked in November,” he said. “I’m here. It happened. I’m happy with where I am, and ready to throw down in a few more races.”
The 11th place in Patterson’s first race here matched his best result from the 2018 Games. He’s looking for at least a top-10 before the Olympics are over, and thinks even the podium could perhaps be within reach in the final men’s race of the Games.
The format suits him — it’s a 50-kilometer marathon, at altitude, on a hard course.
After the Games, Patterson’s not sure if his racing career will continue. He’s been doing it for a long time, the European hotel life is a grind and he has a part-time engineering job in Anchorage. And he’s ready for more recreational skiing in the mountains.
But the idea of competing on the marathon circuit for a European professional team also doesn’t sound so bad — a chance of pace and a change of scenery.
No teams have recruited him yet. “But if they want to,” he said, “let me know.”
Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.