Gutsy young snowboarder Callan Chythlook-Sifsof of Girdwood made history on Monday when she capped a remarkable comeback season by becoming what is believed to be the first Alaska Native to earn a berth on an Olympic team.
"For sure," said her mother Gloria, "she's the first Alaska Eskimo in the history of the Olympics -- we've researched it."
Chythlook-Sifsof was named to the Olympic team Monday afternoon, using a surge of solid performances during the last few weeks to qualify. The news capped a year of sometimes-painful rehabilitation for Chythlook-Sifsof, a Yup'ik-Inupiaq who seriously tore her ACL at the beginning of the 2008-09 World Cup season.
U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association president and CEO Bill Marolt announced the roster of 18 snowboarders who will compete at Cypress Mountain in Vancouver, British Columbia, next month.
"We are going in to the 2010 Games with one of the strongest athletic lineups possible," U.S. Snowboarding head coach Peter Foley said. "We're hoping to ... build on the successes we saw in 2006. This team is in position to do great things."
The announcement came as Chythlook-Sifsof was en route to Aspen, Colo., for this weekend's X Games, where many Olympians will compete before the Winter Games.
Chythlook-Sifsof, 20, spent her early childhood in Aleknagik, north of Dillingham. Marsh Mountain and 2,426-foot Mable Mountain were nearby, and Chythlook-Sifsof began following her big brother Will into the hills.
"We loved to go snowmachineing and hiking to the mountain there," she told First Alaskans magazine in 2008, "and any time we weren't doing that, we were messing around behind my grandfather's house on snowboards, always together. 'C'mon sister, let's go,' he'd say."
At 12, the family moved to Girdwood, where Chythlook-Sifsof's love of snowboarding blossomed.
By 2006, she earned a berth on the national team.
A year later, Chythlook-Sifsof landed on the podium in her first World Cup snowboardcross in Japan, finishing third. That same year, she bagged a national championship.
She competes in snowboardcross, a race in which four snowboarders start simultaneously atop a course full of jumps, berms, steeps and flats that challenges riders' ability to stay in control. Collisions are common. It debuted in the Winter Olympics four years ago, when Lindsey Jacobellis of Vermont took the silver medal.
But just a year and a half ago, after a fall in the World Cup opener, Chythlook-Sifsof was in braces and crutches after reconstructive surgery, unable to support her weight for a 12 weeks. Back then, even sleep didn't provide much of a respite. For a while, Chythlook-Sifsof was hooked up to a perpetual-motion machine that forced her leg into a constant cycling motion as she slept. The motion promoted healing and helped ward off deconditioning.
Doctors and physical therapists at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., worked on her for a month, trying to strengthen her leg, particularly her quad muscle.
After months of grueling rehabilitation, Chythlook-Sifsof said her knee felt as good as new.
"It's a big injury," she acknowledged in August. "But everybody in the sport pretty much gets those at one time or another."
And not just snowboarders. Such famed athletes as New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and golfer Tiger Woods have managed to overcome ACL problems. Others have succumbed to them.
Female athletes are as much as eight times more prone to ACL tears than men because the angle formed by a woman's hip and her knees puts the ligament under more pressure. About a quarter of the women who tear their ACL do so again after reconstructive surgery.
Gillian Honeyman, the head physical therapist for U.S. Snowboarding, marveled at Chythlook-Sifsof's attitude.
"She has been extremely dedicated to her rehabilitation and her strength and conditioning in the past year," Honeyman said in August. "She stands in a great position to return from this injury in some ways better than before.
"People who know Callan know that the one thing that she loves to do is snowboard, and this is all the motivation in the world for her. Callan would snowboard all day and all night if she could."
Chythlook-Sifsof flew all day and night -- some 8,200 miles from Anchorage to Argentina -- for her first World Cup race after rehabilitation last September, but head coach Foley held her out because warm weather made the last jump on the course dangerous.
"We didn't want to expose her to that kind of risk this early in her recovery," he said in September.
Chythlook-Sifsof followed up by reeling off four finishes in the top-21 on the World Cup tour, including a 14th place in Switzerland last month, to boost her prospects.
"It's been so much work," said Gloria Chythlook, Callan's mom. "People think how exciting it is and how glamorous it is. But in reality, it's summoning up every bit of strength and resources you have.
"Most people sort of quit when it gets a little hard because, really, it takes so much work
"Callan's worked so hard and been so focused. She told me the other day, 'Mom, this is the Nobel Prize of athleticism.' "
Chythlook-Sifsof will join Jacobellis and 18-year-old Faye Gulini of Salt Lake City on the snowboardcross team. Four women were named to the halfpipe team and just one, Michelle Gorgone of Boston, earned a spot on the parallel giant slalom team. Gorgone was a teammate of Rosey Fletcher of Girdwood four years ago in Italy when Fletcher won a bronze medal.
Though records documenting the ethnicity of every Olympian from Alaska do not exist, state Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue, a standout Native games athlete and member of the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame, said he believes Chythlook-Sifsof is the first Alaska Native Olympian.
Carlos Boozer, who attended high school in Juneau, became the first black Olympian from Alaska when he earned a bronze medal on the 2004 U.S. Olympic basketball team. Scott Gomez, an East High graduate and the first Latino player in the National Hockey League, became the first Hispanic Alaskan to play in the Olympics four years ago.
The Vancouver Winter Games begin Feb. 12. The women's snowboardcross race is Tuesday Feb. 16.
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at email@example.com or 257-4329.
Alaskans Headed to Vancouver
Kikkan Randall, Anchorage, cross-country skiing
James Southam, Anchorage, cross-country skiing
Jeremy Teela, Anchorage, biathlon
Jay Hakkinen, Kasilof, biathlon
Kerry Weiland, Palmer, women's hockey
Callan Chythlook-Sifsof, Girdwood, snowboarding