Down an ACL, Canada's Philippe Marquis perseveres for inspiring moguls run

Quebec native competed in Olympic final 3 weeks after tearing ligament in left knee

Down an ACL, Canada's Philippe Marquis perseveres for inspiring moguls run
Canadian Philippe Marquis shows his motivational notes he wrote on his gloves before qualifying for the men's moguls at the Olympics in Pyeongchang. © Will Graves/The Associated Press

By Myles Dichter, CBC Sports

Sometimes in life things go sideways. For moguls skiers like Canada's Philippe Marquis, that's the worst possible option.

The uphill is filled with anticipation, nerves and anxiety. Downhill is all about speed, air and survival. If you're going sideways, then something's gone horribly wrong.

So when Marquis landed his top air — a backflip with a full twist — on the first jump of his first finals run at the Olympics in Pyeongchang, he was feeling good, going downhill. But then his left knee gave out, and he says "it felt like Jell-O," and he started going sideways, and he knew it was over.

"It sucks when you train for four years and have a thousand of those days where you feel strongly about yourself and what you're able to accomplish," says Marquis. "And a couple weeks before the event I felt like I was definitely robbed of my potential."

On Jan. 11, Marquis crashed in a training run for the Deer Valley World Cup. He tore the ACL in his left knee — the same one that would give out in South Korea — and immediately thought his season was over, his Olympic dream dead.

Marquis, the 28-year-old from Quebec City, competed in Sochi in 2014 and finished ninth. His brother Vincent skied moguls for Canada in Vancouver in 2010, placing fourth. Their father François is an orthopedic surgeon.

He's the one who passed on the news to Marquis that his knee was torn up, and that Olympic participation would require a miracle.

"I think you take a panel of 100 doctors and I don't think any of them would've given me a good chance to get as far as I did," says Marquis.

Miracle on moguls

It took Marquis two days to turn the page from self-pity to motivation after his crash. He'd realized that his story changed. No longer was the podium the goal, though it'd certainly be nice. He says he just wanted to "make it to the Olympics, to qualify and [to] have a good time."

He checked all those boxes.

"At the end of the day just making it to the Olympic Games was against all odds," says Marquis. "So being at the top and hearing the 'three, two, one, go' when it was my turn — that was a miracle."

Marquis heard that countdown less than a month after his ACL tear, an injury that often causes athletes to miss a year of action. He knew that surgery would completely rule him out from the Olympics, so he searched for other options, and he found one.

Marquis performed in South Korea without an ACL in his left knee. He had the damaged one completely removed prior to the Games and then trained hard for three weeks in the lead-in. The plan now is for him to get surgery in two weeks, after spending the rest of the Olympics in Pyeongchang.

"Sometimes it was really painful, sometimes my knee was very unstable," he says. "So I didn't even think I could make it. It was really, really difficult."

Throat in stomach

A basketball player competing without an ACL is one thing. But in moguls, skiers rely completely on their knees to take the brunt of the force from the icy bumps on the hill they fly down. And the Bokwang Snow Park in Pyeongchang was definitely icy.

"Skiing in bumps is probably the worst thing you can possibly think of doing [after a torn ACL]," says Marquis, who fully understood the magnitude of what he was attempting.

He was nervous, but realistic about what he could accomplish.

"I had my stomach in my throat every single run I took [on] skis for the past three to four weeks. It was pressure, unprecedented pressure — but in a way I've never experienced before," says Marquis.

"Trying to ski with [an injured] knee, that was kind of impossible. So I'm glad I made it that far."

What ACL?

The Quebec native isn't normally the type to write anything on his gloves or equipment for extra motivation. But for these Olympics, he felt an exception was in order.

Marquis wrote a message on the back of each of his gloves that read "What ACL?" and "Keep fighting" in all caps. He says those were to flaunt to the cameras, to inspire those watching him to overcome adversity and to "show what true Canadians are made of."

On the front of each glove, on the left and right thumb, Marquis scribbled a message for himself. One thumb read "engage." The other said "fire."

"Those were strictly for me, reminders of being always engaged and contracted for my muscles just because I couldn't really be reactive in an icy course with frozen moguls," explains Marquis. "I needed to be proactive in the way I was gonna ski."

Brotherly love

Late at night before each of his runs, Marquis sat down for tea with brother Vincent, who was in Pyeongchang as an active mentor for the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Vincent would tell Phil to just compete for himself, and that he deserved to be there. The messages helped Phil stay grounded, and they helped him prevent that unprecedented pressure from building up too much.

Still, some warm tea and some wise words couldn't stop Marquis from seeing the big picture of his prior month, from torn ACL to Olympic athlete. He knew his journey would be bigger than a missing ligament or a spot on the podium.

"My story's gonna be about winning people's hearts. It's gonna be about fighting till the end. It's gonna be about being courageous. It's gonna be about all those little things that made me fight not only for myself, but for everyone that supported me, my family and teammates and coaches and, at the end of the day, for Canada."