KALISPELL, Mont. — It was fitting that Dr. Ben Ward recently volunteered a week of his time with the U.S. Women’s alpine ski team in Austria.
He spent the week monitoring the health of several young women competing in the Europa Cup. But it wasn’t his first brush with the women of the United States downhill skiing team.
Ward grew up in Park City, Utah, and volunteered at the 2002 Olympics while taking a semester off from college.
“I chose to volunteer with the downhill skiing,” he said. “I was on the course crew in the women’s downhill. We would take branches off the course and things like that.”
Almost 12 years later, he got to travel to Spital am Pyhrn in the Austrian Alps to maintain the health of the B team for the U.S. women’s alpine ski team.
Ward, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in anterior cruciate ligament tears, is a recent addition to Kalispell Regional Healthcare’s Northwest Orthopedics and Sports Medicine.
Skiing has been part of his life earlier than he can even remember.
“I was born in Denver and my dad used to ski with me in a little backpack up in Steamboat Springs (Colo.),” Ward said. “I was skiing before I could walk.”
Skiing in Colorado and Utah led to joining Dartmouth University’s ski patrol when he went to college. He went to Duke University for medical school and Massachusetts General Hospital (through Harvard) for his residency.
From there, he traveled to Taos, N.M. (another big ski town, as Ward is proud to admit) for his fellowship.
“I was approached by the fellowship director who said I should apply to the physician pool for the U.S. teams,” he said. “I went to Beaver Creek [a resort in Colorado] to try it out.”
After a successful test run, Ward was placed in the physician pool for the Europa Cup. He was offered his choice of sports, including bobsled, Nordic skiing and snowboarding. His ski background prompted him to select alpine skiing.
The women on the U.S. Europa Cup ski team compete in four events, two in “tech” and two in “speed.” Slalom and giant slalom consist of tight turns between gates while super giant slalom and downhill are extremely fast races with widespread gates. Some skiers go faster than 60 miles per hour in the speed races.
As part of the pool of team doctors, Ward paid for his trip to Austria, where he spent a week looking after the young women (ranging from their late teens to early 20s) who race down hills.
These women, much like Ward, are working their way to bigger and better things. It just might take a while.
“It might be a few years before I’m going to the Olympics with the team,” he said. “The Europa Cup level is a series of races all over Europe.”
The Austrian event was the last one for the season, timed just right so there was no overlap with the Olympics in Sochi.
No major issues marred the event for Ward.
“It’s always a successful event when you don’t have to do anything,” he said. “While they were on the run I’d be on the top with a radio discussing our response plan. Working in a medically sophisticated country like Austria is easier.”
Still, his job could be frustrating.
When an athlete takes a spill or comes in sore, strict drug testing means he can’t do much more than give them a few ibuprofen. His job is mainly to respond to trauma and make sure any injured athlete reaches home safely.
“Crash response trauma things are what I’m brought there for,” Ward said. “The athletes know what they got into. They all are very quick to comply.”
To stay eligible, Ward must attend one event a year. Some of the senior doctors simply go to Aspen because it’s cheaper. Ones lower on the totem pole get choices later.
Although he admits Austria isn’t a punishment by any means.
“It was a gorgeous old town in the Austrian Alps,” he said of Spital am Pyhrn. “We got this little Austrian guesthouse. It was awesome.”
As for where he might like to go next year?
“Canada might be nice,” Ward said. “Because I could drive there. The races are fun, but it is time away from family.”