If you’re an athlete with sights set on getting to the top of your sport, you can’t let anything as trivial as two torn ACLs or a broken ankle get in your way – not when there’s a gold medal or two at stake.
For Mollie Jepsen, 18, competing for Canada at the Paralympic Games in South Korea became an attainable dream, even though she was hamstrung by a lack of preparation time, due to her latest injury – a broken ankle. Yet she took to the ultra-fast courses at the Jeongseon Alpine Centre in PyeongChang, South Korea, attacked the courses with speed and let the chips fall where they may. In the end, she won a gold medal in the super combined, two bronze medals in downhill and giant slalom and surprised even herself with a silver medal in the slalom, the most technical of the races and the one she prepared for the least.
Jepsen, a native of West Vancouver, B.C., was born without several fingers on her left hand, meaning she can’t hold a ski pole in that hand. The pole is used as a tool to help skiers pivot during quick turns and keep their balance as they negotiate the course.
Qualifying for the Canadian team at the Games, after making it to the medal podium in three straight World Cup races while winning the Crystal Globe season title for super-G, Jepsen entered the competition fully expecting to win some medals.
Her best events are the speed races, the ones where skiers fly down the course at high speeds, in her case, reaching a top speed of 115 km/h.
In her first event, the downhill, Jepsen finished third. The next day, she finished fourth in the super-G, the one in which she generally excels.
“When I came fourth, it triggered something in me,” she said.
Some may call it anger, Jepsen called it “aggression,” but she put her emotions to good use in subsequent events.
In the giant slalom, Jepsen won another bronze.
I definitely was looking for podium finishes in the speed events.
– Mollie Jepsen
With two bronzes in her pocket, Jepsen competed in one last slalom, a technical race that is her least favourite. Ordinarily, she would pass on the event, both because she doesn’t train for it and because it was last in the alpine schedule, but she decided she might as well give it a try.
Jepsen earned a silver medal. Combined with her third-place finish in giant slalom, the two finishing times, when added together in the two-event Super Combined, earning her a gold medal.
“I definitely was looking for podium finishes in the speed events, but pulling stuff together, both in speed and in tech, has been pretty surreal,” Jepsen told Pique Newsmagazine. “I didn’t really expect to go as well as it has, I have to say.”
Jepsen said she was motivated by the feelings she experienced after her initial disappointment.
“I spent most of my life being the most technically strong skier I could be. All it really took was having the aggression from the other events,” she said.
It’s true that Jepsen has spent most of her life on the slopes. Coming from a ski family that had a place in Whistler, B.C., she recalls being on skis when she was two.
“It just kind of became our life, being at Whistler,” she said.
At the same time, Jepsen took gymnastics classes and was also into equestrian events. Both disciplines helped her develop the balance, co-ordination and strength needed to excel as a skier.
The 2010 Vancouver Olympics were another tremendous influence on her. Soon after, she began skiing competitively in provincial and regional meets, against able-bodied athletes.
What made her journey to PyeongChang all the more remarkable was her ability to shake off devastating injuries and continue to excel.
She tore her first ACL at age 13, during a training run at Whistler, and her second at age 15, at an event in Austria.
After rehabbing both injuries, she broke her ankle in February 2017. She couldn’t begin training again until August and where other skiers had been training non-stop for years, Jepsen came to PyeongChang after only a few months of prep.
Preparation and training are the mantras of elite skiers like Jepsen. Even though the Paralympics have wrapped up, her season is far from over. She was training again near Lake Tahoe when The CJN caught up with her. Her upcoming schedule includes attending a camp in Oregon for dry-land training, then on to Chile, for more training, followed by practice in Europe, before the competitive ski season gets underway in December.
There’s only a little bit of down time mixed in with the training, including a family visit to Israel that’s planned for next summer.
I spent most of my life being the most technically strong skier I could be.
– Mollie Jepsen
As for her knees, they’re doing fine, she said, even stronger than before.
“They get sore, achy, but it’s not something I worry about,” she said.
Not with four Paralympic medals in her trophy case and perhaps more to come.