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Carly Margulies last competed in 2019, yet she’s skiing at the Olympics

Carly Margulies

When Carly Margulies takes her first Olympic ski halfpipe qualifying run on Feb. 17, it will be her first competitive action of any kind since December 2019.

Margulies, who underwent seven knee surgeries since 2013, including three since her last contest, earned the fourth and final spot on the U.S. Olympic women’s ski halfpipe team.

Her story baffles Olympic historians. They can’t think of another recent American in any sport who didn’t compete at all in the two years before an Olympic appearance.

The U.S. is the world’s deepest nation in women’s halfpipe skiing, boasting seven of the world’s top 20 this season.

So how did Margulies make the four-woman Olympic team without competing once during the coronavirus pandemic?

In golf and tennis, sidelined athletes can keep their pre-injury tournament eligibility for a certain amount of time in coming back from an extended absence.

The International Ski Federation (FIS) has a similar rule for the international ranking system that U.S. Ski and Snowboard uses to determine some Olympic spots.

Margulies was ranked 10th in the world when she competed for the last time in December 2019, tearing her right ACL and meniscus for the third time and needing 14 months to recover.

She was granted injury status after that season, with 10 percent of her 450 points deducted. She retained that status this past year.

She was ready to return to competition last month but tore her left medial meniscus the day before the first of five Olympic qualifying events.

Doctors said she needed surgery, and likely a six-to-nine-month recovery.

Margulies figured that not only was her Olympic dream over (four years after just missing the PyeongChang Games), but also her career. At 24, she couldn’t possibly endure another extensive rehab for the 2026 Olympic cycle.

A few days later, Margulies was given a different plan. The meniscus wasn’t repairable. The surgery would instead be “a snip of the damaged area,” she said. That meant a four-to-six-week recovery.

Margulies would miss all five of the Olympic qualifying events. She had no chance to earn her place on the team via podium results.

But there was one other possible route. The fourth and final spot on the team was up for grabs. She could file an injury petition for it. Or, just maybe, she could get in objectively via her injury-protected world ranking from two years ago.

When Margulies went under the knife last month, she ranked 13th in the world and fourth among Americans via her points from 2019. Three more Americans were in 16th, 18th and 19th places overall.

So Margulies waited it out. If one of the other U.S. hopefuls fared well in the qualifying events -- competitions with skiers from around the world -- her chance of getting in via either route would decline. Perhaps vanish.

But none of the Americans ranked behind her made a podium in Olympic qualifying. Last week, the FIS rankings updated one last time. Margulies was still in fourth place among Americans.

Margulies said she was driving her 2012 Volkswagen Touareg from Salt Lake City to her home of Mammoth Lakes, California, on the day that U.S. Ski and Snowboard would fill the last spot. She made it 130 miles before her car broke down.

So Margulies became the first person in history to learn that they qualified for the Olympics while at S&R Auto of Wendover, Utah.

“I started crying, and the mechanics at the auto shop around me were so confused,” she said of receiving the news in a phone call. “So it was a good day and bad day. Mostly good.”

She was later towed back to Salt Lake City, then booked a flight the next day to Mammoth.

Four years earlier in Mammoth, Margulies finished fourth in the last Olympic qualifier for the PyeongChang Games. It was the best World Cup result of her career, but not enough to move up from fifth place to fourth in the U.S. standings. She just missed that four-woman Olympic team.

“Obviously in that moment, I was really, really upset. But looking back at it, I don’t think I would have been ready to go to the Olympics [in 2018],” she said. “There’s a reason behind me not going at that time. And there’s a reason I’m going now.”

Margulies said she returned to skiing from her seventh surgery two weeks ago. Her knees are doing well, and she got all her tricks back.

But that belies the struggle of the past decade. In March 2011, ski halfpipe was added to the Olympic program. Margulies, then 13, gabbed with her friends about becoming an Olympian one day.

In December 2013, she tore her right ACL and meniscus in practice and was out for a year. In an eight-year stretch, she tore her right ACL and meniscus three separate times, her left ACL and meniscus once and, separately, her right and left medial meniscus each once.

“It takes a toll on you, physically and mentally,” Margulies said. “So many people, close to me even, told me that I should give up, that I should try something else, that I need to just move on. That hurt a lot, for sure, but I used those people’s opinions as motivation to prove them wrong.”

Margulies’ take on an unprecedented realization of an Olympic dream?

“Perseverance pays off,” she said. “You can make those dreams a reality, no matter what the setbacks are.”

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