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After hardships, N.H. skier Julia Ford continues to reach for the top

  • U.S. skier Julia Ford speeds down the course during an Alpine ski, women’s World Cup super-G, in Cortina D’Ampezzo, Italy, on Jan. 23, 2014. Ford placed 31st in the event. AP file

  • Julia Ford Courtesy

  • Julia Ford has been hitting the slopes since she was a little girl, getting her start at Vermont’s Okemo Mountain Resort at age 3. Courtesy



Monitor columnist
Wednesday, February 21, 2018

To Julia Ford, there is no writing on the wall that says it’s time to hang up her skis.

Forget her age, and the back and knee surgery, and her omission from the U.S. Ski Team, just one season after finishing 24th in the slalom at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. And forget that she’s changed directions in her career like turns down a slope, from slalom to downhill, then back to slalom.

Ford, a high school phenom at Holderness School whose family still lives in the town, doesn’t care about that stuff, and with good reason. She’s reinvented herself in both mind and body.

In other words, it’s no longer a pipe dream for Ford to rejoin the World Cup circuit, perhaps even qualify for the Olympics again in four years when she would be 31, two years younger than Lindsey Vonn is today.

“Yes, that’s what I’m training for,” Ford said by phone, during a break from the NorAm Cup circuit. “If that’s realistic or not, I can’t say. But, yeah, absolutely.”

Ford is at peace these days, just two seasons after undergoing surgery to repair her aching knee and back. She’s coaching kids, and she says the rewards there are as meaningful as a great slalom run.

She’s competing on the NorAm Cup tour, a feeder system to the World Cup and the equivalent of Triple-A baseball leagues, the final step before the big leagues.

And on Feb. 10, Ford won a slalom race at Loveland Ski Area in Colorado, beating 65 skiers from all over North America and Europe, some of whom are destined for World Cup and perhaps Olympic glory.

At the time of her victory, Ford was seven weeks short of her 28th birthday, the oldest woman in the field.

“I just scored one of my best slalom races of my career,” Ford said. “I felt like I’ve been skiing very well all year and I had a couple of opportunities to qualify for World Cup starts, but they just didn’t pan out, so it was nice to see my skiing come together on race day.”

For a while, Ford grew accustomed to winning. She dominated the slalom at Holderness School, where she won back-to-back national junior titles. And as a high school senior she beat a stable of college skiers to win the University of Vermont Carnival.

With an all-around sports background that includes lacrosse and soccer, Ford was able to make the transition to the downhill and kicked butt there, too, winning back-to-back national championships in 2011 and ’12, and NorAm Cup overall and downhill championships those same years.

Then, Ford switched again, back to slalom, for the 2014 Winter Olympics. By then, however, her body had worn down, which is what happens to skiers who first hit the slopes at age 3, in this case at Vermont’s Okemo Mountain Resort.

A year after the Olympics, Ford couldn’t take it any longer. That time there was, indeed, writing on the wall, and it told Ford to have surgery to fix a disc in her back and the inflamed cartilage in her knee.

Or retire.

“I had been dealing with knee and back pain for so long, and I finally had to deal with it if I wanted to keep skiing and living this lifestyle,” Ford said. “I was always managing it, and there are times as an athlete when your body is working well and other times when you are more tired, and the longer into the season (your body) starts breaking down.”

So there was Ford, ignoring that writing on the wall we talked about earlier, which said she was old – at least relatively speaking – told her she was broken down and drifting like a loose pair of skis with no one at the controls.

Enter Tom Barbeau, a magician when it comes to nurturing skiers back to health, even after their knees have turned into hamburger.

He works at the Waterville Valley Academy, coaching kids and rehabbing high-octane athletes who refuse to give up their dreams. He utilizes the Burdenko Method, created by a Soviet doctor, which combines land- and water-based programs and features patience, not pushing.

“You start at land and finish in the water,” Barbeau said by phone, shortly before heading out to coach his students. “(Ford’s) knee was sore, so you do exercises, and as long as she was not hurt we knew she was progressing, and then into the water and the body can heal.”

Barbeau worked with Canadian skier Larisa Yurkiw, who crashed during a 2009 training run in France. Her left knee suffered tears in the ACL, MCL, patellar tendon, and both the lateral and medial miniscus.

So she moved in with Barbeau for six weeks and continued to see him for treatment afterward. She missed all of 2011 and ’12, slowly worked her way back over the next three years, then, shockingly, finished third overall in the World Cup downhill in 2016 before retiring.

Ford moved back home in the fall of 2016 from Colorado to work with that magician Barbeau, and now she’s winning races again, inching closer to the World Cup tour. She says she’s better than ever.

“He got me healthy again and able to run and move and get back in shape,” Ford said. “When you are pain-free, you are able to ski more freely, so that takes a lot of mental stress off it, too.”

Ford has evolved and changed. Her body, once stocky, with the added weight crucial for downhill momentum, is now sleeker, good for the hard turns of the slalom. Barbeau says it’s the equivalent of a football player moving from the strength- and bulk-driven blocking of the offensive line to the speed and agility of a wide receiver. He calls Ford “a ballerina.”

Ford’s mind is healthier as well. She says she’s rejuvenated, her batteries recharged, her mental state strong, her perspective clear.

“Skiing can be applied to anything you want in life,” Ford says. “Whatever you go after next, you have learned traits like how to endure or how to persevere, how to work hard.”

Barbeau says the U.S. Ski Team often overlooks skiers who have been injured, calling the narrow thinking of its staff members “pretty stupid.”

But he also thinks his pupil can make it all the way back, saying, “Talent-wise, yes. Her toughness and talent, that right there gives her the chance.”

Meanwhile, Ford coaches skiers in their late teens, arranging flights and often shoehorning four of them and their backpacks and their duffel bags into a rental car and driving for hours, to places like Lake Placid and Detroit. She competes and relays her experience and knowledge to the youngsters.

She says she’s happier and healthier than she’s been in years. Maybe ever.

And that writing that once appeared on the wall?

It’s illegible now.

“The Olympics is always the goal, and the general public only reaches out to ski racing every four years,” Ford said. “I reinvented myself into a slalom skier, which people do not think is possible to do. I’m extremely proud of that.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)