David Wise couldn’t know it as he lay atop an Austrian mountain feeling his hip move and his foot fall limply, but the broken femur wouldn’t just shape his skiing career.
The injury, the worst he’d endured, would alter how the two-time Olympic gold medalist saw himself, would change his relationships and would prepare him for the life-altering changes the coronavirus pandemic would bring months later.
Now, nearly three years later, the 31-year-old takes the perspective that the adversity has given him and uses it to prepare for his third Olympics.
Reno native eyes three-peat: David Wise says pressure is off in quest for third Olympic gold medal
“In some ways I felt like maybe breaking my leg kind of prepared me for the world to go crazy because I was going through so much on a personal side that I kind of developed this thankfulness to be alive, just a thankfulness for still being able to do what I wanted to do,” Wise said.
“Being able to count small wins through my injury taught me how to count my small wins through COVID.”
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Though it still impacts his skiing, the femur is healed. For all the difficulty his family worked through, Wise is closer to his wife, Alexandra, and kids than before.
And his skiing, well, the lead-up to these Games hasn’t looked as dominant as it did in the past two quadrennia. But few would count Wise out, and his experiences in recent years have given him a new perspective.
The two Olympic golds aren’t a source of pressure because Wise has secured his legacy. And the challenges of the past few years, and all the ways they have forced him to grow, have made him feel secure regardless of how the Olympic competition shakes out here.
“I’m less and less tied, in terms of identity, to a pair of skis,” Wise said.
‘Stupid mistake’ leads to broken leg
Both Wise and his agent agree about how he came to break his leg. A “stupid mistake,” said Aïssam Dabbaoui.
During the Audi Nines in April 2019, Wise had already set a record for going more than 38 feet out of a quarter pipe. He was going big again, but when he landed, his femur snapped.
He knew it instantly on the mountain, more in shock than in pain. As he was loaded in a sled to be airlifted off the mountain, Alexandra laid his cell phone on his chest. It became a lifeline as he beat his family to the hospital by hours.
Doctors there wanted to operate immediately, but Wise was acutely aware of the risks to his career. He called back home, waking his surgeon in the middle of the night. After Wise’s doctor talked to the chief of surgery, he felt comfortable enough with the care Wise would receive there.
Wise went into the surgery expecting a six-inch incision to secure a rod to his bone. He woke up with a scar from hip to knee.
“It was one of the most crazy moments of my life because I woke up realizing, wow, apparently the surgery wasn’t as easy as they thought it was going to be,” Wise said, “and I don’t know what this giant incision means, but I’m sure it’s not going to be easy for my recovery.”
While Wise could walk with a crutch almost immediately, he still spent 11 days in the hospital as he waited for his hemoglobin levels to be high enough to fly.
Once he returned home to Reno, Nevada, he was able to get to the gym immediately and do light work. But he relied on Alexandra and his family, something he wasn’t accustomed to.
She had to drive him to appointments, help him put on shoes, fetch ice.
“I think he needed to realize his weak point and then ask for help,” said Dabbaoui, “but he never asks for help.”
Wise got back on skis eight months later and thought he was back.
He landed on a world cup podium in his first competition that December. After a seventh-place finish at X Games in early 2020, he felt he could be back skiing 100% by X Games Chongli. The inaugural event in China was set to take place at the resort that would host the Olympics.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, canceling the event and changing the course of Wise’s recovery.
“It felt like somebody flattened my tires just as I was getting my momentum,” he said.
Dark times amid the brokenness
Without meaning to, the Wise family stumbled into a Christmas card theme for 2019 – brokenness.
David pulled out his crutches, while Alexandra wore a neck brace – the result of spraining her vertebrae trying to be a “rad mom” and do a backflip. Daughter Nayeli, 10, dons a cast on the arm she broke in a fall from the monkey bars. Son Malachi, 7, the only one unharmed in the year, is encased in bubble wrap.
“We got to experience the brokenness that the world kind of had to go through early,” Alexandra Wise said.
It was only a preview of what was to come. As David continued to heal from breaking his femur – a process that would take 18 months – he faced new challenges. With no contests and limited options for training, he was at home for the longest time in his life.
That time together challenged their marriage, leading to deeper conversations that there’s just not opportunity to have on the road. It led to counseling. Alexandra Wise calls it a dark time, but amid the struggle, the work to improve their communication with each other and their marriage, they found what was left.
Then nine years and two kids in, they not only loved each other, but still really liked each other. The time at home, as hard as it was for David’s skiing, gave them an opportunity to figure that out.
“We rebuilt our marriage,” Alexandra Wise said. “We rebuilt our family. We rebuilt our faith because our faith was totally lost. That was what we needed.”
It was the most uninterrupted time he’d spent with Nayeli and Malachi in their lives, and he leaned into it. They did Science Dave projects. The family started a tiny farm, building houses for 20 chickens and two ducks. They got a pig, which they later slaughtered.
“That definitely was his saving grace,” Alexandra Wise said. “It if got hard, he would just go out and feed the chickens or build a fence or play with the pig.”
Wise spent more time on his other hobbies – mountain biking, camping, hunting. All make him a better skier, he said, because he invests himself fully in his interests when pursuing those and skiing when he’s focused on that.
The time at home, as hard as it was at times, changed Wise, Alexandra said.
“He’s more patient. He’s more understanding. He’s kind,” said Alexandra Wise. “He’s gentle. It just softened him.”
‘Never count out an Olympic gold medalist’
Unlike his first two Olympic runs, Wise struggled initially in qualifying for Beijing. Through each of the early contests, something was always a little bit off.
But the point wasn’t to win qualifying but to set himself up for the Games, and he took solace in small improvements throughout. Finally, in January, he took second at the Mammoth Grand Prix to claim his spot.
“You can never count out an Olympic gold medalist,” said U.S. teammate Alex Ferreira, “so whatever Dave’s previous results are, they’re a bit moved to the wayside considering what he’s done in his past.”
Wise won his Pyeongchang gold by completing double corks in all four directions, doing the two off-axis flips to the left, right, switch (or backward) left and switch right. Almost no one does it, but since breaking his femur Wise struggled to land the switch right double. He only recently feels like he has it back in his bag after a pre-Olympics training camp.
And he sees other ways to differentiate himself and is learning double corks with 1620 degrees of rotation, something the top skiers will likely need to contend for a medal.
“He’s in a position where if he does everything the best he can, he’s in the mix,” said U.S. halfpipe coach Mike Riddle, who took silver for his native Canada in 2014 when Wise won his first gold. “No one’s dominant right now on the men’s side. There’s a whole bunch of people that can win on any given day.”
That certainly could be Wise, who feels he gets to ski without pressure. He already has two gold medals. He’s learned who he is through the adversity of the past three years.
Those challenges helped him develop his identity off skis, and in turn, might free him up for more success on them.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: David Wise overcame adversity to compete in freestyle skiing halfpipe at 2022 Winter Olympics