They are the crème de la crème of the best Alpine ski-racing team that the U.S. has ever produced, but every one of them must be classified, quite literally, as being among the walking wounded of sport. Had their wounds occurred not so many years ago, they'd be limping along among the also-rans and the never-starteds of world-class skiing. Their number includes the best American male ski racer of all time, Phil Mahre, who has won two straight overall World Cup titles and leads the standings again this year. Their company also includes the second-best male U.S. ski racer, Phil's twin, Steve, who won a gold medal in the 1982 Fédération Internationale de Ski world championship giant slalom and finished third in the overall World Cup totals last year. Other members of the club are Tamara McKinney, currently second in the overall women's World Cup competition, Christin Cooper (two silver medals and a bronze in the 1982 FIS worlds) and Cindy Nelson (a silver at the '82 worlds), not to mention most of the rest of the U.S. women racers.
All of these skiers have been so badly hurt at one time or another in the past five years that orthopedic surgeon J. Richard Steadman is able to say with authority, "If injuries of the type these kids have suffered had happened in the 1950s to people like Stein Eriksen or Toni Sailer, they would have been out of top-level ski racing for life."
No one knows better than Steadman what has been required to put injured U.S. skiers back on the slopes. Since 1976, when he became the chief physician of the U.S. Ski Team, Steadman has treated, through surgery and/or rehabilitative exercise, no fewer than 63 serious injuries suffered by 31 members of the team. They have been, in effect, reborn on his operating table. As Hank Tauber, who brought Steadman aboard when he was director of the team, says, "His success record is absolutely unprecedented. When he's in Europe, people from other teams ask his advice on the hill. They all know who he is. And, believe me, he knows he's good, too. He told Steve Mahre after his last knee surgery, 'Now I've really put a gold-medal knee together for you.' Dick meant it and, more important, Steve believed it."
Steadman's reputation in his profession is also first-class. He's known for his knee surgery and for his ability to correct the most ruinous fractures with open reduction surgery, which reinforces bad breaks with metal plates and screws. And his prescription of immediate, controlled physical exercise following even the most traumatic surgery, once thought to be radical, is now commonly considered a key to quick recovery. Dr. Robert Kerlan, founder of Los Angeles' Southwestern Orthopedic Medical Group, who has treated many famous athletes himself, says, "I consider Steadman definitely in the top group of surgeons in the U.S. His pioneering in immediate post-operative rehabilitation has been extremely important to highly skilled athletes whose livelihood might depend on the quickest possible recovery."
Most physicians who reach the top of their profession tend to practice in major population centers. Not Steadman. He is tucked away in remote South Lake Tahoe, Calif. (pop. 20,681). The place is more than an hour by car from Reno, the nearest city of any size. Says Steadman, "Living in Tahoe sets up a natural screening mechanism that brings in what you might call really dedicated patients, because coming here is difficult."
It wasn't all that easy for Steadman to get there himself. He spent most of his boyhood in Sherman, Texas and wound up moving around and about—to Berlin, for example, in the late 1940s—after his mother was remarried to an Air Force man. Steadman finished high school in the little town of Fairborn, Ohio, where he starred at football, basketball and golf, as well as at scholarship. He'd known for years that he wanted to be a doctor, largely because of the influence of two M.D. uncles who greatly impressed him. At graduation he found himself with a choice of three vastly dissimilar colleges: Harvard, the University of Michigan and Texas A&M. He chose Aggieland.
Why? Bear Bryant. Says Steadman, "I had met Coach Bryant when he was on a recruiting sweep through Ohio. I really wasn't a very good player, but he made me feel great. I was indoctrinated for two years in the atmosphere that Bryant created: 'Suck it up and hit 'em hard.' It made the rest of my life different."
Steadman, 6'3" and 220 pounds, was a 195-pound tackle at A&M, and in those days Bryant staged one-on-one "challenges" between his marginal players to see who would make the traveling squad. Steadman managed to fight his way onto the 36-man squad as a sophomore. But Bryant-type football took its toll: Steadman was nailed with a D in a course in comparative anatomy, a grade that could have kept him out of medical school. He agonized over the conflict between football and medicine, stayed on the team through spring practice in his sophomore year and was told by Bryant that he would certainly be playing a lot the following fall.
"That was a terrific team," Steadman recalls. "We were picked to be No. 1. I had a terrible time making up my mind. I spent the whole summer agonizing, then I wrote Coach Bryant a letter in August and said that I just was not willing to risk my career as a doctor. I quit the team. Well, he wrote back and he said that he respected my decision. He said that he hoped maybe someday I would take care of him when I got to be a doctor."
After medical school in Dallas, Steadman interned at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, was drafted for Army service in Germany—where he got hooked on skiing—and then returned to New Orleans for a four-year residency in orthopedics, which he finished in 1970. At a professional conference in Colorado he had met an orthopedist named Paul Fry, a vibrant redhead who had a practice near Lake Tahoe. Fry invited Steadman to visit California, they liked each other, and they agreed to practice as partners. That was the genesis of an orthopedic clinic that today has five doctors. Steadman lives two miles from the clinic in a splendid glass-fronted house on the shores of the lake with his wife, Gay, a talented expressionist painter. Weather permitting, he rides to his office—and to his operations—on a bike. Of practicing orthopedics in the far reaches of the Sierra Nevada, he says, "There was tremendous activity from the start when there were only the two of us. We practically had a night-and-day practice with all the injuries from the ski areas."