Julia Marino is always thinking about her story, and it would be hard not too, given how much of an adventure her life has been so far. “Being adopted out of Paraguay to have a normal life in America would’ve been enough of a story itself,” she says. “But I’ve had the chance to live a life beyond what anybody could even dream of.”
As an Olympic skier, Julia has been competing at the top of her sport for almost a decade. In 2014, she reached the pinnacle of snow sports at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. But how she got there – and where she plans on going now – was heavily influenced by a devastating knee injury just a few years before the Olympics.
An untimely injury
At the age of 17, Julia was turning heads as a rising star in the slopestyle World Cup circuit. Slopestyle is a relatively new event in the Olympics, and involves skiers navigating a terrain park course while grinding rails and performing jaw-dropping tricks off of big-air jumps. Not surprisingly, injuries are common within the sport. In the first event of the 2009 season, Julia landed awkwardly after a jump and heard a pop in her left knee – followed by immense pain – signaling the tear of her ACL.
An MRI at Boston Children’s Hospital confirmed the ACL tear, and Julia was scheduled to have surgery with Dr. Martha M. Murray, an orthopedic surgeon in Boston Children’s Sports Medicine Division. Given the high rates of re-injury for female athletes, particularly in sports like skiing, Murray suggested a conservative treatment and recovery plan, something that was tough for an adrenaline-fueled athlete like Julia to come to terms with. “I think the approach we took had benefits I couldn’t see at the time, because I was young and just wanted to be practicing,” Julia recalls. “I had never suffered an injury and didn’t know the repercussions of coming back to sports too quickly.”
The biggest gift I’ve had coming from Boston Children’s has been trusting Dr. Murray’s approach.”
Since her knee reconstruction surgery with Dr. Murray in 2010, Julia has experienced no other knee injuries. “I think that’s something that really speaks volumes in the world of skiing — especially among female skiers,” Julia says. “I have friends who have had 3 or 4 different knee reconstructions throughout their careers.”
Marino was able to qualify and compete in the 2014 Olympics on her reconstructed knee, representing her home country of Paraguay as their first ever winter Olympian. She even proudly carried her birth-country’s flag during the opening ceremonies.
Where to go when you’ve reached the top
With her knee back to full strength and the 2014 Olympics in the rearview, Julia found herself at a crossroads. “After the Olympics, I felt like I accomplished everything I could in the world of skiing. I didn’t know if I wanted to continue to competitively ski in the slopestyle discipline.” She took some time off and finally experienced a full year of school at the University of Colorado at Boulder – uninterrupted by her past regimen of training and travelling.
Her time away from competitive skiing gave Julia the chance to live the life of a normal college student and reflect on next steps. “During that time, I gained a lot of perspective on athletics and how I felt about moving forward, as well as what I could do with my Olympic story.” Still hungry for Olympic-level competition, Julia decided to switch her event from slopestyle to slalom and giant slalom – both of which are alpine skiing events where competitors fly downhill between sets of gates, trying to get the fastest time.
Julia has now spent over a year re-learning how to ski in order to fit her style to this new, more technical discipline. The process has her feeling reinvigorated and challenged again. “I kind of feel like Conor McGregor going from MMA to boxing,” she laughs. “I had some of the skills required, but I needed to refine certain areas of my skiing.”
Next steps and a fresh start
Adaptation has been a common theme in Julia’s story. From adjusting to a life in America after being adopted as a child, to going from nonstop training to rehabbing her ACL, Julia’s perspective and maturity have grown through adversity. “I think for any athlete, an injury can be this make or break point in your career,” Julia says. “But it’s really the attitude you have towards it that determines where you go next.”
Julia Marino’s next step is qualifying for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. With her knee at full-health and the excitement of a fresh start in a new discipline, Julia’s positivity is pushing her forward. But her maturity also allows her to look back on her injury and rehab experience with gratitude for where she is now. “The biggest gift I’ve had coming from Boston Children’s has been trusting Dr. Murray’s approach. I haven’t had any knee injury since, and this is a sport where the re-injury rates are through the roof.”
Continuing her story
From a young age, Julia has faced challenges in life with a maturity beyond her years. She can now reflect on some of the lessons she learned while she was unable to ski. “My injury showed me that there are certain things you can control and other things you can’t. It helped me grow up and gave me a completely different mentality and perspective.”
When asked what she loves about skiing, Julia thinks for a moment, “When I’m skiing nothing else really matters, and there’s this creative freedom to it, where you can choose any trail you want to go down.” The trail Julia has chosen now may just lead her back to a second Olympics, and along the way it’s giving her a chance to tell her story. She is currently working on a book about her life. “I feel like my story is really unique,” she says. “I can connect with so many different groups of people, whether that’s athletes, females, people who lost their parents or kids who were adopted.” Julia’s story is still writing itself, and may soon include a second Olympic chapter.
Learn more about Boston Children’s ACL Program.