A year ago, Ryan Cochran-Siegle was in surgery for a broken neck. A crash in Austria had put his Alpine skiing career in doubt.
On Tuesday, though, Cochran-Siegle, completed his comeback with a nearly flawless run to win the silver medal in the Olympic super-G at the Yanqing National Alpine Center. The medal was the first for the United States in an Alpine event at this year’s Games.
Cochran-Siegle blazed across the finish line in 1 minute 19.98 seconds, only four hundredths of a second behind Matthias Mayer of Austria, the defending Olympic champion. Mayer’s gold was his third in three trips to the Olympics. Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, the favorite, won the bronze.
For Cochran-Siegle, 29, the medal was a recognition of the perseverance that has helped him recover from a broken neck and many other injuries — a trait praised by his teammate River Radamus.
“I’ve been with him the last five years and seen what he has had to go through,” Radamus said. “That guy has missed full seasons, and he has fought so humbly.”
A burly, 6-foot-1 Vermont native, Cochran-Siegle has a calm temperament but a daring, occasionally reckless style. His run on Tuesday was a model of fearless but controlled skiing. He shot down the steep early section of the course to take an early lead on Mayer’s time, then kept his weight over his tips throughout the slick and twisting slope.
“Smooth and clean, that is the way it is with that guy,” said Forest Carey, the speed coach for the U.S. men. “Was I surprised at this? No. But I wasn’t confident either.”
Cochran-Siegle is a son of the sport. His mother, Barbara Ann Cochran, won the gold medal in slalom in 1972, and he has uncles and an aunt who have competed on the U.S. Olympic team. His family operates a small ski area in Vermont.
Cochran-Siegle recovered from knee operations early in his career and was coming off a World Cup win in the super-G in Bormio, Italy, last year when he crashed and fractured his seventh vertebra, at the base of his neck.
On that day, he slipped his right ski as he tried to land a jump and tore through the safety nets on the side of the trail. Surgeons fused two vertebrae. He did almost nothing for four months, then got back on the snow in May to begin slowly working his way back to an elite level, though other than a fourth-place result in Bormio weeks ago, there was little to suggest that he had a podium-worthy run in his boots in Beijing.
No one questioned his talent, but something was holding him back.
In December, at the World Cup races in Beaver Creek, he spoke of skiing fast in training but not being able to perform in competition. A self-described “confidence skier” who skis his best when he gets on a roll with his results, Cochran-Siegle had taken a step back over the summer when he switched equipment sponsors and seemed to need time to figure out his new gear. “Definitely not there yet,” he said at the time.
He didn’t seem to be “there” in Beijing either. In both his training runs and in Monday’s downhill, Cochran Siegle finished well behind the leaders. He was 14th in the downhill, 1.22 seconds behind.
Carey said that Cochran-Siegle had been “down in the dumps” in recent days, especially after his second downhill training run. But he decided to get out of his own way.
“It’s a brutal sport, but also a beautiful sport,” Cochran-Siegle said Tuesday.