Tess Johnson: On Training, Recovery, & What's Up Next

Hi, everyone! I wanted to share an update with all of you on how I’ve been spending my time lately recovering from an injury - an inevitable part of my sport and passion. 

As a US Ski Team professional mogul skier competing on the World Cup Tour for 7 years now, I have been fairly fortunate regarding injuries…until now. About two years ago, I started experiencing back pain. An MRI revealed that my L5 S1 disc was bulging slightly into the nerve root along my spine. Luckily, it was treatable with rigorous physical therapy and pilates, which I’ve been doing daily since receiving this diagnosis. My pain improved substantially to the point where I thought I was fully healed, and I continued to train and compete full force. Alas, no matter how much work I put in, mogul skiing’s impact prevailed. 

Fast forward to the first World Cup of this past season in December 2022. After I tweaked my back in training the day before the competition started, I had to pull out of the event. This instantly set me back in the World Cup Tour rankings. While I competed the rest of the year, my pain never fully absolved and my results suffered. Since I could still ski, I convinced myself that it was just normal “mogul back” (muscular soreness that is all too familiar to mogul skiers) and that this type of physical perseverance was required of all professional athletes. I pushed through, tried not to complain too much, and committed to physical therapy exercises everyday. 

By the end of the season in April, I felt exhausted and unsatisfied with my overall season performance. I promptly got another MRI at the recommendation of my physical therapist, and I remember awaiting the results thinking the disc would likely just be bulging again. However, the MRI revealed a full herniation in my L5 S1 disc. It was likely present for the entire competitive season, possibly even longer. 

The herniation pressed deep into my nerves, causing neurological weakness throughout my right leg that likely inhibited my performance. My body was subconsciously compensating in all sorts of ways to cope with and mask the symptoms. The body is truly incredible. I have a whole new appreciation for our physiological resiliency, and if this experience has taught me anything, it’s to listen to my body no matter what. I remember feeling almost relieved to see that the MRI validated my pain. While I’m sad to be going through this, I’m thankful for the invaluable knowledge I’ve gained about my body that I’ll use for the rest of my career and throughout my life.

This is a very nuanced injury — some herniations go away on their own, some don’t, and some people don’t even experience symptoms. However, when the nerves are severely impacted by a disc herniation (as mine were), oftentimes the best course of action is a surgical procedure called a microdiscectomy. With the incredible support of my physical therapist, strength coach, the U.S. Ski Team medical staff, and the Steadman Clinic, we decided this surgery was in my best interest. 

I had surgery performed at the Vail Surgery Center on April 25th by Dr. Gill and was able to go home pain-free that day, surrounded by my family. Dr. Gill and everyone else who has supported me through this injury have been my heroes. I feel so lucky to live in the backyard of the best surgery institute in the world, and I’m grateful to the surgery team, the U.S. Ski Team, and my family for treating me like a princess during the whole process. The first memory I have after waking up from surgery was when Dr. Gill tested my strength again. Miraculously, both legs were already even. So just by having the surgery, I was stronger than I had been before. 

I am now a couple of months post-surgery, and while I still have a long way to go, I oddly feel very grateful for this experience. I’ve been working extremely hard everyday in the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Center of Excellence in Park City, UT to gain back the strength and mobility I’ll need to make a full recovery. Everything is on track and feeling really good, and I’m at the point where I have to remind myself that I had back surgery only two months ago. 

Recovery so far has included tons of walking, stationary biking, soft tissue work, body weight strength sessions, endless PT exercises, pilates, and I’m even getting in the pool since water therapy is fantastic for spines. While I’ll be missing the first half of on-snow and water ramp training for the prep season, I’m still training my mind through sports psychology and enhancing all the tiny core muscles in my body that will increase my stability and strength to come back better than I was before. It’s simply training in a different (possibly even more efficient) way, because the mental break from training as usual has served me well. 

When my body is ready, I know my mind will be more than ready to crush the second half of the prep season starting with water ramping in July and skiing in New Zealand in August. Long-term, I still have my sights set firmly on the 2026 Olympics. Fortunately, having this surgery and committing to its rehab paves the road for a healthy spine until and far beyond then. 

I’m thankful for the many silver linings in this process, but at the end of the day, injuries are always tough. I have so much newfound respect for my teammates, competitors, fellow professional athletes, and anyone else who has come back stronger from an injury and persevered through the extended periods of complete lifestyle shifts. I take inspiration in knowing that because they did it, I can too. It wouldn’t be possible without the support and efforts from my community and team. Thank you so much! I will be back before you know it.