Love at first sight …

Dominique Gisin tried skiing for the first time when she was just one and a half years old, and she quickly fell in love with the sport. Despite countless knee injuries and operations, Gisin always managed to fight her way back to the top of her sport. Here she looks back on her experiences.

Text: Dominique Gisin; photo: Dominique Gisin/made available

Since I retired from professional ski racing in the spring of 2015, I’ve talked a lot about my path to the top and the Olympic Games, but mainly about my knee, the nine operations, the rehab sessions and how I always fought my way back to the top of my sport. Before I go any further, I should say that I fell in love with skiing long before I realised how dangerous it is.

I tried skiing for the first time when I was just one and a half years old. It was love at first sight. And I still love it today. Nothing makes me happier than gliding over glistening white snow. And that’s what always motivated me to pick myself back up again after every setback.

I suffered my first injury at the age of 14. A cruciate ligament rupture – the typical skier’s injury! I underwent a standard rehab programme, which went well, and when I returned to the piste it was like I’d never been away. However, problems started after the first slalom training sessions. Severe pain, an undiagnosed patellar fatigue fracture and subsequent mistreatment led to four further operations and the most serious knee injury that I suffered in my career. That was the end of any attempt to undergo ‘standard’ rehab. My injury was so complex that it attracted the attention of Dr. Bernhard Segesser, a leading expert in knee orthopaedics. From that moment on, I was supported every step of the way by Segesser, his successor Lukas Weisskopf, and their whole team. This was a great stroke of luck for me. 

The mood in the clinic was more like a training camp than a hospital, and I had the best possible care and support in every aspect. Getting me back on my feet after surgery was seen to be just as important as the success of the operation itself. My physiotherapists were present for all the surgeries, which was crucial, because they worked with me every day afterwards and knew exactly what was new or different in my knees. The rehabilitation often felt like being back in training. I started every day at 8 am with a wide range of exercises, and often only left physiotherapy after 5 pm. I was at the clinic so often from 2000 to 2004, I was almost part of the furniture!

My relationship with my family was also important. During this period (and also during subsequent stints in rehab), I often stayed near my grandparents. They never questioned my life choices or tried to make me do something else. They were always supportive, whether it was with coffee and cake after a hard day’s work or cycling with me to the next rehab session. When I look back now, I realise how important their support was for me.

Thanks to the special care I received, I was able to make it all the way to Olympic gold, collect so many emotions and experiences that I’ll treasure forever, and I can still do any sport I want today without pain – seven years after retiring. Of course, it wasn’t always easy. After each injury, I asked myself whether it was time to retire and I questioned whether or not to continue with professional sport. This need to examine my situation and my options so honestly has stood me in good stead since, and perhaps even made me stronger. The operations, which the surgeons performed expertly, were always a necessary evil. After each surgery, I focused primarily on making progress from hour to hour, day to day. Working towards small milestones helped keep me motivated.

Looking back on my injuries now, I’m sure that two things were essential in my recovery: First, choosing the right doctors to ensure that the surgeries and rehabilitation were a success and, second, the hard work that I put in. You have to do your physiotherapy exercises and other follow-up treatment regularly and consistently to maximise your chances of recovery. My passion for skiing undoubtedly helped me make sure I did everything I could to get back on to the pistes. The smaller successes along the way were also important in keeping me motivated during the arduous and time-consuming recovery process. 

Because skiing is such a fast, dynamic sport, unfortunately it all too often ends in injuries. That’s why preventive care is important. It’s important to build up gradually – and that applies to amateurs and professional sportspeople alike. It’s definitely not the best idea to throw yourself down a black run when you’ve only just started skiing That said, even experienced skiers can get injuries. However, if you put yourself in good hands and you’re serious and consistent with your rehab, a lot is still possible even after injuries. 

My journey certainly wasn’t the easiest, but I always believed in myself and trusted in the process. I love skiing with all my heart and hopefully I’ll be able to enjoy it for many years to come.