Wiles' agony catapults Tricia Mangan into Olympics limelight

Tricia Mangan was competing at the World Junior Championships earlier this week but was the very last call-up to the U.S. Winter Olympics team after an injury to Jackie Wiles. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- The question was simple, straightforward and failed to seek any sort of probing depth. But Tricia Mangan couldn't help herself. Before she could answer she grinned, her cheeks flushed and her eyes quickly darted around the room, perhaps looking for an explanation. That's how crazy the past 72 hours had been.

On Monday afternoon she stood at the bottom of the slalom course during the alpine combined race at the World Junior Championships in Switzerland. By Thursday evening she found herself on the stage of a small theater at the Pyeongchang media press center, the 240th and final addition to the 2018 United States Olympic team.

Excited. Grateful. Honored. Those were the words Mangan used to describe what had happened to her. Her tale is a familiar one in the history of sport. It's one of the reasons we're drawn to the Olympics. To witness the human spirit endure tragedy and triumph.

Mangan was watching the women's World Cup downhill race in Garmisch, Germany on television Sunday when American Jackie Wiles lost control of her run and crashed violently, needing a helicopter to carry her off the mountain. Mangan immediately texted Wiles, "I hope you're OK."

Wiles was just a week removed from her second career podium in Cortina, serving notice that she was a medal threat in Pyeongchang. But the crash changed everything.

"I knew immediately she was not going to walk away from that one," said U.S. alpine speed coach Chris White. "And then there's this pit in your stomach where you know someone's dreams just got squashed in a nanosecond. It's not a fun part of the sport."

Wiles was airlifted to a nearby hospital, where she was later diagnosed with a broken fibula, as well as a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus, and a slight tear of the LCL.

"I visited her in the hospital, you walk in the door and she just starts bawling," White said. "It's heart-wrenching. Not from the physical pain but because her world just got taken away from her."

Back in Switzerland, Mangan wondered what Wiles' injury might mean for her. She had begun the year on the U.S. Alpine "B" team. She had only raced in nine World Cup races in her lifetime, all of them since November. And she had no idea how the replacement process even worked. "When you find out someone is seriously injured you're not thinking 'Yes I'm going to the Olympics!' I just tried to stay focused on World Championships. I didn't understand the process."

Until Monday afternoon, that is, when her phone rang. On the other end was U.S. head coach Paul Kristofic. He told Mangan he had some good news. She needed to pack her bags and make her way to South Korea. She was going to the Olympics. Mangan thanked her coach for the opportunity. Then she hung up, stepped away for a second and called her parents. Her dad had just finished an overnight shift and joked about how tired he was from watching her races at 3 a.m.

"You're killing my sleep," he told his daughter. "So I told him, 'You might not be getting much sleep in the coming days because I'm going to the Olympics.' It was super-emotional."

She then texted Wiles.

"She's an amazing person, teammate and friend," Mangan said. "And I just told her 'I'm so sorry. I wish it wouldn't have happened this way.' She was super-supportive, wished me luck. I can't imagine what she is going through."

The next day Mangan was on her way to Zurich to meet the U.S. speed team. On Wednesday she flew to Korea. And by Thursday she was answering questions at an Olympic news conference. Wiles, meanwhile, has a long road of recovery ahead of her. She is back home in Oregon waiting to have surgery.

"I am completely devastated and heartbroken," Wiles said in an Instagram post on Feb. 5. "It will be so painful watching from home but I am more determined than ever to recover and come back even stronger."

Wiles has battled criticism that she shouldn't have been competing that hard a week before the Olympics.

"Whenever I click into my skis, I ski to win," she wrote on Instagram. "Full charge and never give up. With experience comes discretion, but I will never back down from my passion and enthusiasm for the sport I love."

Mangan said her mother, father and five siblings have all bought last-minute tickets to watch Tricia's Olympic debut. She is planning to compete in the giant slalom and combined. And while a podium finish would be a dream come true, Mangan also realizes her best finish in her nine World Cup races is 19th. She's here to gain experience that could pave the way for future success. And to make someone back in the States proud.

"I realize I'm here in [Wiles'] spot and I feel that obligation to her, the team, my country, to ski as fast as I possibly can," she said. "You can be sure I'll be racing for her."