Comeback of the Year Nominees
Despite the short race season, or perhaps because of its condensed intensity, we saw a multitude of injuries in 2020. Amaury Pierron, Reece Wilson, Vali Holl, Robin Wallner, and Isabeau Courdurier were all sidelined for most of the already abbreviated season. While we're wishing them and all the other athletes that were injured this season a smooth recovery and a strong return to racing in 2021, this article is to highlight the athletes that were in a similar position not long ago and proved their grit and tenacity by rising to the occasion during this unusual season.
While it's extra sweet when the comeback has a fairytale gold-medal ending, like when last year's Comeback of the Year Award winner Jenny Rissveds was able to win a World Cup after depression forced her to take two years off from racing, making a comeback on the race course after what could have been a career-ending injury is also something to celebrate.
This year's nominees include Brook Macdonald, Tahnee Seagrave, and Jolanda Neff. Who do you think made the most impressive comeback?
Why he's nominated
Brook Macdonald crashed on the final training day ahead of the Mont-Sainte-Anne World Championships on August 31, 2019 and had to be evacuated off the mountain with a spinal injury. He said of the event later that, "It was 5 hours until I got off the hill and it was the worst day of my life." Subsequently, we learned that Brook had broken two vertebrae in the crash and doctors had to stabilize the spine with eight screws and two rods.
The damage from shattered vertebrae intruding on his spinal cord meant starting from absolute scratch in the recovery process; relearning the most basic motor skills to literally put one foot in front of the other after forgetting how. In October 2019, Brook was back riding his bike for the first time, but he was still many, many hours of rehab away from mountain bike racing on the international scene. Less than a year after he re-learned how to walk and rode his bike for the first time post-injury, he competed in the DH race at Crankworx Innsbruck, placing an impressive 11th. From there, he raced at the World Championships in Leogang, where a hard crash onto his back had us all momentarily terrified, before finishing 39th and 23rd in Maribor.
From re-learning to walk, to top 25 at a World Cup DH race, the Bulldog is a more than worthy contender for Comeback of the Year.
Why she's nominated
Cross-country racers don't usually see the same traumatic injuries that downhill racers do. Races can be lost on the downhill, we've always said, but they cannot be won. Jolanda Neff is a different kind of cross-country racer however, and while she still has world-class fitness to get to the top of the climbs, she is actually often able to drop her competitors on the descents. She also just seems to love going fast.
In December of 2019, about six months ahead of the original date for the Tokyo Olympics, Jolanda crashed
into a pile of tree trunks and branches in North Carolina during a training ride and suffered a broken rib, a partially collapsed lung and a ruptured spleen.
For three months, Neff had to be careful not to raise her blood pressure or risk bursting the plug in her artery, which would mean internal bleeding and emergency surgery. While she caught a flu in Nove Mesto, she still managed a 17th and an 11th place, before riding to a 6th place at the World Championships in Leogang. While Neff undoubtedly has higher aspirations, the fact that she as able to break into the single digits and land just off the podium after such a long recovery period is more than impressive.
Why she's nominated
After a crash to the shoulder in June of 2019 at Fort William had Tahnee Seagrave sidelined for four World Cups, you can bet she was looking for redemption in 2020. Before World Cup races started being cancelled left, right and centre, Tahnee suffered another major setback mid-February
, dislocating her ankle, breaking her tibia and fibula and tearing ligaments. It looked like 2020 was going to be another season to forget for the British star.
Why he's nominated
However, with races delayed, Tahnee was able to compete in every major World Cup race that 2020 provided. While she got off to a bit of a slow start at Leogang and Maribor, she wrapped up the season with a fastest qualifying time in Lousa and two third places. From the lows of shoulder injury in 2019 to the highs of a silver medal at the World Championships, back to the lows of injury in February and a World Cup medal, it's been a rollercoaster the past couple of years for Seagrave, and she has twice proved that she is willing to put in the long hours of rehab that come with being a professional downhill racer.
In June of 2017, Remi Thirion had a massive crash
in Qualifying on the finish line jump at the Leogang World Cup, rag dolling across the finish line. It was a horrific incident to watch and the race was paused while Thirion was airlifted from the course by helicopter. He was flown to hospital and diagnosed with a broken collarbone, three broken ribs and two fractured vertebrae.
This year, Thirion left those Leogang demons behind to conquer the muddy Leogang World Championships course and finish third. Thirion went all out in the woods section, barely holding onto his bike, and was rewarded for these risks. The wild ride was more than exciting and it was great to see Thirion get back in the medals in the very place that caused him so much grief three years prior.
To follow it up with a second place in Maribor the following weekend was the cherry on top.