It's one thing to be 37, competing in a "young man's" sport against men just over half one's age. It's completely another to do so just months following a second major knee surgery.
That's the prospect two-time Olympian Seth Wescott faces as he tries to continue his status as the only man to win gold in snowboardcross after achieving the feat in 2006 and 2010.
A second ACL tear led to an April 2013 surgery that left Wescott in a race against time to be able to defend those two medals at the XXII Olympic Winter Games in February. And though the Durham, N.C., native may have had some doubts in those first few days, he has kept his eye on Sochi.
"As soon as I was done with the surgery at the center in Vail [Colo.], the first five days I did therapy there were NFL guys, NHL guys there—it was inspiring to be where I could see other athletes recovering," the nine-time X-Games medalist told Bleacher Report by telephone as he pondered the next step in his comeback. "At the end of the second day, I was already turning the pedals on the bike, so I immediately started looking at it as a temporary setback, and that I had seven months before I had to be riding and 10 until the Games."
From then, it was "full speed ahead," an apt term in snowboardcross, a sport Wescott has dominated and helped popularize. His importance to its success isn't lost on the veteran, who also injured his pelvis and leg in 2009 but went on to win gold in Vancouver months later.
"It's been an honor to be carrying that flag," he added. "Snowboardcross is growing faster than any other Olympic sport, and it's a huge thing for me to realize more and more that even young kids from other nations look up to me for helping put it in the public eye."
Wescott also credits his having won gold at the 2006 Torino Games, the sport's first in the Olympics, in soft boots rather than traditional race equipment as having opened his freestyle method to the masses.
"Looking back, had that finals race gone differently, we wouldn't see that change," he explained. "If it were won on race equipment, it would have cast a totally different light on the sport. People could see my love of free riding, mountain riding, and that snowboardcross is just a way to combine all of those. It helped in the acceptance as a new discipline at the Games."
As he rehabilitates, Wescott has been overwhelmed by the support of teammates and fans wishing him well and looking forward to seeing him ride in Sochi. He also has had the backing of the Team Liberty Mutual program, a group of 13 athletes who are "bonded together by their unique story of a setback and a comeback on their Olympic journeys," according to Team Liberty Mutual information.
That support is also prominent in Wescott's mind with the tight pre-Sochi training and race schedule staring at him.
"The thing we all have in common on Team Liberty Mutual is that we each have an understanding of what it's like to experience a hardship along the way," he noted. "If you look at the 1980s, if someone had that kind of a knee injury it was probably a career-ender, but today, in six months you're almost back to normal.
"I think the biggest meaning behind the program is the support we get heading into the Games. It's huge because in the U.S., athletes don't get government funding. And rather than just picking the marquee athletes, Team Liberty Mutual is [comprised of] those who have had to overcome difficulties. For me, it means so much more to have people who believe in what you are doing."
But all the encouragement and support, while helpful, won't in themselves get Wescott back onto the snow. His own hard work has been what has gotten him this far, and he feels good about his chances.
"We are close," he said of the status of his knee, and, with that, his Sochi prospects. "On Monday I go to Lake Louise [in Alberta, Canada]; I don't know if I'll do World Cup, but if I don't it will be the last one I sit out. I had the best riding day of the year on Monday [Dec. 9], and I woke up on Tuesday and was fine—none of the stiffness I had before that. It was a big breakthrough."
And with just one more breakthrough, we just may see the only gold medalist that snowboardcross has ever known bring one more home.
Jerry Milani is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless noted.
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