Almost since birth, Johnny Collinson has proven that there are no obstacles too high to overcome.
By age 4, Collinson had already summited Mount Rainier in Washington. Before he turns 18e birthday, he climbed the highest peak of all continents, becoming the youngest to climb all seven peaks.
Today, Collinson, one of the best freestyle skiers in the world, is about to complete a different kind and perhaps his toughest climb: getting back to his peak form after a horrific downhill mountain crash that almost tore most of his knee almost two years ago. .
For the Red Bull AthleteKnown the world over for dazzling social media and YouTube viewers with death-defying 360s, halfpipes and other freestyle feats, getting both feet back on top of powdery mountains has been the goal ever since he was sidelined with an injury that required multiple surgeries, grueling months of inactivity and a lot of uncomfortable rehabilitation.
The catastrophic accident of 2021 happened during what was supposed to be a fun day of skiing in the mountains of Lake Tahoe. It was one of red bulls key events, Red Bull Raid. While preparing for a 360 – a move in which you “jump” off a cliff, perform a 180 and start skiing backwards – Collinson recalls extreme ice conditions caused him to accelerate faster than expected . After a clumsy takeoff, Collinson says he hit the next cliff at the wrong angle, crashed and rolled over 40mph before coming to a stop. But the damage was done.
“I immediately felt an explosion in my leg,” he recalls. “And then I kept going down the mountain and I could kind of feel like I could feel my leg collapsing and trying to hold it in place. But I could tell other things were tearing.
Worse still, his skis never let go, causing what he describes as leverage creating extreme force and more trauma throughout the dangerous descent.
He was rushed to the ER in Salt Lake City, and the prognosis was as bad as the pain: His knee was blown – patellar tendon, ACL, MCL, PCL and meniscus all torn – this comes right after he recovered from a back torn right rear ACL in 2018 and 2019.
“My patellar tendon stretched until it broke, which I think is pretty rare,” he says. “My surgeon said he had never seen it before.”
Now, more than 18 months later, Collinson is closing in on a return to ski racing in November. His winning strategy was to accept the risks of his extreme sport while being patient while sticking to a plan or rehab and training. Nearly two years later, Collinson is just over a month away from reaching his goal.
“The goal for me is just to be on the snow when the resorts open here in North America,” Collinson said. “So it’s the end of November. So I have work to complete everything. And then it’s about time to leave.
Accept the risks with the rewards
As I took off and started to do my 360, I felt the rotation wasn’t quite right on the terrain I was going to land on. It felt like that wasn’t really what I wanted. And then as soon as I landed, I was just trying to deal with the situation, but things were going so fast. I hit the cliff and everything exploded.
Those fractions of seconds, where it’s slow in your mind, I can still imagine that moment’s slowness. I knew the injury was imminent, again it felt like it wasn’t going to end well. But to be honest, I accepted the risk doing this stuff. I know these things can happen, so when they do, I just need to step in and manage the mental stress and the physical stress.
There’s no plan B up there when you’re in the air and it’s not really your best. Yet that’s why you’ve put in all the training and hard work to be your best. And even then, sometimes all the hard work can only get you so far.
Rewind and reassess the situation
I watched the replay, which was nice to see because I had imagined it in my head in a way. So it was nice to see what the accident actually looked like, sort of from an outsider’s perspective this time. For me, I find it harder to watch others hurt themselves, but for some reason, I watch myself [go down the mountain] Wasn’t that bad – I had been hurt before, so I knew the outcome. So watching the replay multiple times became more like a clinical breakdown of what was wrong. It was like, ‘Oh, that looked bad. Or, ‘That didn’t go well.’
Honestly, the hardest part was re-injuring myself after really trying to connect after two more ACL tears. I worked to get stronger and made sure I felt good and ready for whatever was thrown at me, but then I got hit with this crazy injury. This is kinda the hardest part. It was like, “What did I miss?” Or, “What could I have done better?” But hindsight is 20-20. You just have to take the bad in stride and keep working to do your best.
Johnny Collinson trusts the process (however long it takes)
I absolutely wanted to get back to skiing. and nobody More precisely say no. But…
From a chronological point of view, it takes almost a year for your ligament to love itself, to become strong again. So that’s sort of the baseline for what I had going on I had an ACL set up in October no matter what we’re given for those nine months no matter how much I feel good, how strong I feel. And then after those nine months, it’s like, OK, when can we start skiing again?
It had been almost eight weeks since I was allowed to bend my leg at all, or use my hip flexor or core, so I could let the patellar tendon heal. It basically keeps all of your quads in place, so when that broke my quads slipped into my leg. So in surgery doctors had to kind of pull it down and put enough tension on the patellar tendon. And then we straightened him up and immobilized him. And we had to let that tendon heal without any bending.
Yeah, so for about eight weeks I was pretty much just sitting there. I did some basic upper body exercises in my basement. I would sit on the floor and do kettlebell halos, bicep curls, shoulder presses – anything to get the blood moving. After being allowed to bend my knee, he was then trying to regain that range of motion.
Time and patience help heal
We did scraping, cupping, heavy rolling, whatever was possible to relax the muscles and tendons. So we spent about a month and a half working on it without going too far because of all the scar tissue.
That’s when I had to have a manipulation, where they pulled me out, and then the doctor just pulled my knee out to break up the scar tissue. It changed the game. Right after that, I was able to jump on the spin bike, right after I got home from surgery. I shot for about two hours. I wasn’t worried about the watts, just getting the movement back.
It was the beginning. Five months later, I felt like I was starting to move around a bit, which was still a bit tricky because there was no plan for this injury. As I started to recover and tried to build muscle, I still had no ACL or PCL and a lot of change in my knee which further limited physical therapy. And, and it was tricky because we didn’t have a good plan for this injury because we were starting to recover and trying to build muscle. But I still don’t have an ACL or PCL so I had a lot to do for AF, a mismatch in my knees still which was a bit limiting in terms of what we could do in physiotherapy.
At the same time, we were working knowing that another operation was coming, which was going to be another setback. The second operation, in October 2021, was actually good for me mentally. Before, it was difficult to try to work knowing that another operation was coming. Here it was easier to fully re-engage in physiotherapy and rehabilitation. So that made it pass quickly until back on PT.
Keep it loud and simple
For most of my life, I’ve done much like a basic training level. At one point, I was training more specifically in rock climbing for rock climbing. Then my first ACL injury got me into training, getting ready for the ski season, and exploring the world of fitness a bit.
My family has always been super active, so ever since I was a kid I had fun doing pistol squats or playing on the slackline – we were always training for competitive downhill skiing. So I always had a good range of motion.
Having this is important when it comes to skiing and other action sports because there are so many outside forces acting on your body – we do really unnatural things with our bodies. So having that much mobility and strength in that range of motion is pretty important because if you only train at a certain range and you say, jump big enough on skis, it will force you out of that range of motion. So for me, it’s quite important to take care of this mobility.
As for the training philosophy, I would say mine is to keep it simple. You see a lot of guys on the internet coming up with these really crazy and wacky workouts. And I think if you have a goal, that’s great. But for me, the basics work just fine.
Single-leg work, like the Bulgarian split squats, is definitely at the top of my list. As for ski-specific exercises, I also like single-leg RDLs and good mornings. You get more balance and stability by being on one leg. You want strong quads, but you also want strong hamstrings and strong glutes, so trying to target those would be my recommendation.
Johnny Collinson is cautiously confident
I mean, I would be totally lying if I said I don’t think the injury will come back on the snow.
But I think the biggest part for me has been doing all that work in the gym and knowing that I’m trying to turn over every stone and putting in as much time as possible, physically. So, it’s like my body is fine – we threw everything we could in the gym. And now I’m going to go back to skiing and be sure that we did an exceptional job of restoring strength to my leg. And then it’s just about spending that time on the snow, knowing that the first few days you’re going to be a little hesitant. Every time I do something, it’s for the first time, like jumping. So the question is whether taking this risk is worth it at this stage. It may not be worth doing a 360 again from the start. I could need a lot more time just to ski before going around again.
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