Tearing a knee ligament was tough enough to overcome for Duluth Denfeld downhill skier Margaret Duncan, but the mental anguish suffered from an accident on the slopes took added time from which to recover.
Yet the 16-year-old sophomore proved last week she is back in full force by qualifying third in her group at the Section 7 Alpine meet at Giants Ridge. Duncan will be back at the Biwabik course Wednesday to ski in her second state meet.
Duncan wasn’t able to participate in the 2020 state meet after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament and the meniscus in her right knee, along with spraining the posterior cruciate ligament, before the Atmore Memorial Race at Spirit Mountain in January 2020.
Duncan served as a forerunner — those first down the course to test the timing system — and fell about halfway down the course.
“I heard a pop when it happened,” she said. “I felt a little bit of pain for about five minutes and then it was gone. My leg was weak and wiggly, it wasn’t secure.”
Duncan received help down the mountain from ski patrol members, though initially she thought she had dislocated her kneecap because of the lack of pain. A trip to the Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center emergency room quickly changed her mind.
“The first doctor at the emergency room told her that she might not be able to ski again. Period,” said her father, Jay Duncan, who was working at the time of the accident and received a call from Team Duluth coach Nick Clingman. “That was rough to hear because that’s her life, that’s what she does three or four days a week for high school training and then races (in U.S. Ski Association events) on the weekend. It was disappointing to hear the doctor say that without knowing her level of commitment.”
An X-ray came back clean, the younger Duncan said, but an MRI revealed the true damage.
Dr. David Gordon performed surgery a month later, and Duncan started physical therapy soon thereafter twice a week for an hour a week until October 2020. Ladder exercises, one-leg hops, leg squats, bike therapy and core-strength and balance drills were among the regular routines.
Her surgeon gave her a thumbs-up at the three- and six-month checkups but said Duncan needed to build muscle in order to ski again.
“That’s when I focused on getting strong and pushing myself to get back this year,” Duncan said
Prior to resuming racing, Duncan needed to defeat the demons inside her head. Constant nightmares led her to see Dr. David Plude at Arrowhead Psychological Clinic in Duluth.
“After my injury, I was scared to come back,” she said. “I was having nightmares of tearing my ACL again. That’s when I went to see Dave Plude. He worked with me a lot about how it was OK and not to expect to come back this year. We worked on how to overcome the things in my head.
“It helped a lot. After seeing him, I didn’t have a lot of those dreams anymore. I have good dreams now.”
Denfeld coach Joe Macor remembers Duncan as a youngster and is impressed how she has improved even after the accident.
“She was always a natural skier and has progressed nicely throughout the years,” Macor said. “She trained a lot in the offseason and worked really hard. This season she came out and has been training around the clock. She put in the time and effort and is skiing phenomenally.”
Duncan originally planned a ski trip to Colorado with Team Duluth in November. After that fell through, it took until the third week of December before she finally returned to the Mont du Lac slopes.
“I was really nervous and scared the first time back,” she said. “At first I did some free skiing to go down the hill and get my ski legs back, then about a week after Christmas I did a race camp and got back on courses. I was a little rusty, and that was nerve-wracking. But that started going well and I got comfortable.”
Duncan first conquered getting down the Spirit Mountain hill where she had injured her knee and then attacked Giants Ridge on her two runs last week to qualify individually for state.
“I wasn’t expecting much,” she said. “When I did get third, I was fine with that.”
Her dad and mom, Carol, were more than fine.
“We couldn’t quit giving her hugs, we were so impressed,” Jay Duncan said. “Watching her throughout the (physical therapy), knowing the limitations that she started off with and where she was able to get to … and then to see her succeed was pretty cool.”
Her father believes taking the surgeon’s suggestion of a long-term approach to recovery was the right choice.
“In my opinion, she has done tremendously. As a parent, it’s your worst fear to see your child get injured, especially a significant injury like this was,” he said. “It’s been a long recovery but she’s done a fantastic job. I don’t think she realizes how great of a job she’s done, to the degree that she has, to get back to state after an injury like this.”
Now the girl who started skiing on the hills of Chester Bowl as a preschooler and joined the Denfeld team as a seventh-grader hopes to take a free-wheeling attitude into the state meet and ski her best.
After all, Duncan still has the need for speed.
“I love going fast and being with friends who do the same thing as me,” she said. “In this sport, you have to like the speed or you’re not going to do well. If you hold back, it’s not going to get you anywhere because the sport is all about who’s the fastest.”
Duluth East won the girls section title and is seeking its first state Alpine championship since winning the last of its six girls titles in 2007. Greyhounds junior Lauren Carlson, who was second in her pod at sections, is the top Northland girls contender.
The East boys won the last of their 10 state titles in 1995, while John McGreevy was the last East individual champ in 1983. Wyatt Shultz and Carter Hegg are the best hopes to end that drought after each finishing in the top seven individually and leading East to the section crown.