Jan. 16--Madison Varmette jokes that she's learned how to walk three times now.
Stricken with transverse myelitis as a teenager, the former Stafford County resident's first trick as an aspiring freestyle skier was overcoming partial paralysis. Then, during a selection event in December 2015, Varmette caught an edge while landing and tore the ACL in her left knee.
Following successful surgery, Varmette sequestered herself inside the Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah. There, the former Mountain View High School student immersed herself in a rehab regimen that would change the trajectory of her career as an aerial jumper.
"I had nothing else to do but to go the gym, so why not?" Varmette, 21, said in a recent phone interview. "When you're out with an injury, you start to realize how much you miss your sport and how much you really love it. I'm 10 times better than I was before."
Fully recovered and reinvigorated, Varmette returned to the snow with a vengeance. She capped a banner 2017 by winning the lower-tier NorAm Tour to claim a spot on the U.S. national team. And with Olympic roster selection just a week away, Varmette's chances of representing the United States in the Pyeongchang Games are no punchline.
Varmette admits she didn't know a force plate from a foam roller before her injury. That's common--and one reason why a lengthy layoff can function as a blessing in disguise for young athletes, said Tracy Fober, a strength and conditioning coach with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard teams.
"You have a nine-month period without the stress of competition and the travel, then you have the ability to build the strength and power, the infrastructure required for the demands of this sport," Fober said.
From range-of-motion and balance work to body-weight exercises and finally to weight training, the cornerstone of Varmette's recovery was a crash course in the fundamentals.
Fober "taught me how to do things right," Varmette said. "How you're supposed to look in a weight room, how you even put weights on the bar."
In her experience working with "broken" athletes, Fober has seen recoveries unfold in two opposite directions. Some aren't mature enough to embrace a laborious grind with a distant payoff and no peers or coaches around to watch. Varmette fell into the other category.
"She is gritty, she's open to learning and if you said 'Maddie, we're going to run through the brick wall today, she would say. 'OK, let's go,' " Fober said.
Even when she was fully recovered and podium-ing nearly every weekend on the NorAm tour, Varmette didn't relent. Fober remembers congratulating her following her final win of the 2017 season. Instead of resting or reveling in her accomplishment, Varmette hit the gym that same afternoon.
"A lot of 20-year-old athletes, on a Friday at 4 o'clock, their first thought isn't to work out," Fober said. "Especially after winning this big competition. But that's her."
As a discipline, freestyle aerial is less skiing and more acrobatics. Varmette's current repertoire consists of two main tricks--lay-full and full-full--both riffs on a double backflip. Jumps are judged on air (up to 40 feet for a full-full), form and landing on a 45-degree incline. Several of Varmette's competitors perform the exact same maneuvers, "so I just have to do them better than everybody else," she said.
By most metrics, Varmette is ahead of schedule in a sport where most athletes don't reach their prime until their mid-20s. Were she included in the U.S. contingent to South Korea, Varmette wouldn't be considered a serious contender to podium--this time around.
She bettered her chances of going by placing sixth at Deer Valley this past weekend but to needs to close with a strong showing on Friday in Lake Placid, N.Y. The team will then return to Park City, where an Olympic roster will be assembled.
If Varmette's name is on it, she anticipates going weak at the knees one more time.
"A breakdown. I think I'd cry," she said. "Just being able to be a part of that, and being able to represent a whole country--like I have everyone on my back--is kind of the holy grail."
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