Olympics Series: Bella Wright
Park City’s Bella Wright, 24, has struggled with injuries during her entire career, and the most recent one threated to be the end of her Olympic dream. After a miraculous recovery, what doctors called a “unicorn case,” she was back on Olympic team in Beijing with only three days of snow under her belt.
We caught up with her in a hotel room in L.A., en route to Beijing for the Games, to talk to her about her recovery, her nerves, and, of course, her hero, Clint Eastwood. Here’s what she had to say.
To hear it from Wright herself, listen to our podcast here.
Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Ski Team
Q: You’re at a hotel in L.A., preparing to fly to Beijing tomorrow. How are your nerves?
Wright: I was so giddy all day. It finally feels real today. It hasn’t felt real because I’ve been in such a bubble, pretty much just existing at home and at the gym. And I’m finally en route, and it feels amazing.
Q: You grew up racing at Snowbird, Utah. What was your relationship like with skiing early on?
Wright: Skiing started out as a family activity—it was the best daycare for my parents. That’s what sparked it— the mountains and the people and being a part of the Snowbird program.
Q: Snowbird gets 500 inches of snow a year. Did you ever bridle at having to smash gates on a powder day?
Wright: Snowbird’s program is the perfect mix. Most of the time training was too soft, so we would go and free-ski and huck cliffs. It was a huge part of the program, which is why I think so many great skiers in general come out of Snowbird, and why I loved it so much.
Q: You’re best-known for the high-consequence disciplines of downhill and super-G. What is it about the speed you love so much?
Wright: I love all events. Snowbird is more of a slalom hill, so I grew up a slalom skier. But as I grew older, once I had my first taste of super G and downhill, feeling those G-forces, it really sparked a need for speed. Speed skiers have this edge and mindset; you have to want to put yourself in a scary, risky situation. You’re going 80-plus miles an hour down this icy pitch and there’s so much adrenaline. Super G is my favorite because it’s really fast but there are a lot of technical elements, too.
Q: Standing at the top of the downhill course must be terrifying. How do you psyche yourself up for that?
Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Ski Team
Wright: To be honest, inspection sometimes is the scariest part. Because you’re going really slow and looking at the surface and feeling every little bump, and at all the things that could go right and wrong. And then when you’re in the gate, you have to just trust this is what you want to do. There’s a switch that flips, and suddenly you’re ready. You’re in a fearless mode that’s hard to tap into unless you’re at the start of the downhill.
Q: Your hashtag is #hellsbells from AC/DC. Is that your favorite pump-up music?
Wright: It depends on the day. I listen to Alter Ego when I’m in an aggressive mood. But AC/DC and Guns ’n Roses, I play at least one of those every time. I grew up with it, and it just gets me hyped.
Q: You’ve not been without your fair share of setbacks lately, and, quite frankly, you’re not supposed to even be here right now. Let’s start with an unexpected gallbladder surgery last fall—which was probably not on radar of things to worry about.
Wright: Yeah, it’s really been since the start of last season that I’ve been on this roller coaster. I was having this shoulder pain all summer long. We couldn’t figure it out because, structurally, my shoulder was fine. I had been having some painful episodes at home, but I thought it was just a really tight back. Fast forward to Zermatt. On the second night we were there, I woke up with the worst pain I’ve ever been in. We were 45 minutes from the nearest hospital, so it was a scary situation. One minute I’m up at 1 a.m. texting my PT and doctor that I’m not OK, and the next minute I was getting emergency gallbladder surgery. I had a stone stuck that was blocking everything. I was told later that shoulder pain and gallbladder problems go hand in hand.
Q: I saw the picture you put up on Instagram of the gallstone—it was enormous, like bigger than your thumbnail.
Wright: I brought it home as a souvenir.
Q: Right after you recovered from that, you broke your talus bone in your ankle. The doctors and coaches told you there was no way you were going to the Olympics, and yet here you are. How did you make such a miraculous recovery?
Wright: Yes. Going into the first races of the season, I was starting to build confidence. Then in St. Moritz, I made an error going over a blind roll, tried to save it, and ended up falling and breaking my talus bone, which I’ve been told is super hard to do. I did it in my ski boot, which not many people do.
I was told 8-10 weeks minimum non-weight bearing, which put me right at the Olympics. They told me my season was over. I was so crushed, I’ve never been that hurt in my life—emotionally and mentally. Then I flew home, got a second opinion, and it was brought down to six weeks. Six weeks brought it to Jan. 27, and I was told by coaches and PTs that February was still out.
But I had to keep hope that it was going to happen. I kept going to the gym, doing my best to keep training. Then I asked for my CT scan a week and a half early, at four and a half weeks. They were super impressed at how quickly I was healing. I was told it was a unicorn case. It was almost fully healed, which is not normal, and I was told I had the fastest timeline that someone could have—the world record of coming back from this injury. Now I’ve had three days skiing under my belt, so not a lot going into the Olympics, but during those three days of skiing it felt great. So here we are, about where I was supposed to just start walking right about now. This Olympics is very emotional: It’s my first one and a lifelong dream, but I had to fight for it so hard. I’m just so grateful that I’m going.
Q: Tell me about what it’s like to be on the inside of the Team—that bond must be incredible.
Wright: It’s your family on the road. The difference is that your family on the road, they understand a part of the sport that no one else can understand because they’re doing it with you. The emotions, pressure, gratitude, pressure, and horrible days—no one knows those feelings better than your teammates. The bond is that you understand that person sometimes better than they understand themselves. You feel for them because you feel that you are them; it’s an unbreakable bond.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Ski Team
Q: What are you most excited about in Beijing?
Wright: Opening ceremonies is my biggest thing. When you watch old videos, the energy was insane. I know we aren’t going to have crowds, but I think just being there with athletes and wearing our country on our back is so exciting. Once that gets checked off, I can look forward to getting back in the start gate.
Q: You’ve had so many mentors—Mikaela, Picabo, Lindsey, to name a few—what does it feel like to become a mentor yourself?
Wright: I still feel like I’m just getting started. I have learned so much from my mentors, and their knowledge is so ingrained in my brain that I can pass their knowledge on—it just comes out of my mouth. We all have a unique story and path to getting here. And mine has definitely been rough at times. I made the team much later than I thought I would and had a bunch of injuries. As a result, I think I’m more grateful than I would have been, and I don’t take anything for granted. That’s something I always pass along.
Q: One more question: Clint Eastwood. I know he’s your favorite. Why?
Wright: I just watched “Cry Macho” on the plane today, his newest movie. I have collected every movie he’s ever made, I have four pieces of artwork, and a bunch of custom-painted purses. I was really close with my grandpa growing up, and he was a big Westerns guy. He took care of me a lot when my parents had to work…. Clint just makes me happy and reminds me of my childhood. I want to meet him, Martha Stewart, and Gordon Ramsey. Those are my top three people in the world.
Q: Is your grandfather still with us?
Wright: No, unfortunately. One day I’m going to get a horse and name it Clint. It’ll be in honor of my grandpa.