Diamonds wouldn’t do. Neither would platinum, or even gold. For Alexander Johnson, only one precious material could properly commemorate his return to figure skating in 2014.
The Minnetonka native chose titanium for the ring he wears on his right hand, which mirrors both the injury that nearly ended his career and the steely persistence that would not allow it. “It reminds me on a daily basis of everything I’ve been through,’’ he said. “And that I’m a lot stronger than I thought I was.’’
Six months after a breakthrough performance at the 2013 U.S. championships, Johnson had surgery to repair torn ankle ligaments and suffered nerve damage. Doctors were uncertain whether he would be able to walk normally again, let alone skate.
Despite that diagnosis, he realized he was too stubborn — and too much in love with the sport — to give up. Friday, Johnson will perform in the U.S. championships for the 14th time when the men’s competition opens with the short program at Xcel Energy Center. At 25, he is looking to land on the podium for the first time as a senior, adding gold, silver or bronze to his collection of precious metal.
Johnson returned to competition 10 months after his injury. In addition to the titanium screw in his ankle, he had surgery last summer to mend multiple hernias. But two top-six results in international competition last fall, and the chance to skate in his hometown, have pumped up his hopes of improving on his career-high seventh-place finish in 2013.
“Before I got hurt, I felt like I was going in the right direction,’’ said Johnson, who has lived and trained in Colorado Springs since 2010. “And then, boom. There went my hopes and dreams.
“At the time, I thought, ‘My life is over.’ And the recovery process was so draining, there were times when I thought maybe I should give up skating and be done and move on with my life. But I wanted to prove something, to myself and to the people who said I’d never skate again.’’
That didn’t surprise Johnson’s mother, Doris, who still lives in Minnetonka and will be among a legion of family members and friends at Xcel this week.
“He was a child who never took no for an answer, and that never changed,’’ she said. “What he went through was horrible. He knew everything he worked for could be at an end. But he’s very persistent.’’
A longtime student of coach Joan Orvis at Edina’s Braemar-City of Lakes Skating Club, Johnson now represents Colorado’s Broadmoor Skating Club. His current coaches and choreographers include Tom Dickson and Olympic gold medalist Christopher Dean. In Colorado Springs, Johnson trains alongside some of the country’s top skaters and works out with other elite athletes at the Olympic Training Center.
The first time he qualified for the U.S. championships, Johnson was an 11-year-old in the juvenile division who had to have the event explained to him. Within five years, he was representing the U.S. in international competitions. Johnson excelled at the junior level, earning gold and bronze medals at junior Grand Prix events in 2008, and was the junior bronze medalist at the 2009 U.S. championships.
His free skate to the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby’’ at the 2013 nationals raised his profile. After seventh-place finish, Johnson filled out the paperwork required of skaters in contention for berths at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. His upward trajectory stopped suddenly when he wrenched his ankle while practicing a triple axel, injuring a joint that was already weakened.
Following surgery to fix three torn ligaments, Johnson could not wiggle his toes, and his leg burned. Doctors determined that a nerve block administered during the operation had caused damage from the knee down. For a time, Johnson could not flex his foot; while he slowly regained motion and sensation, he wrestled with fear and frustration during 10 weeks off the ice.
“There were times when I wanted to quit,’’ said Johnson, who still has numbness in his foot and has not recovered his prior range of motion. “But I love to skate. There is so much satisfaction in working so hard and feeling like you’ve given your all. I wasn’t ready to let that go.’’
Dickson saw something else at work, too. “When he was told he probably wouldn’t skate again, that probably gave him more resolve,’’ the coach said. “It was frustrating, and it took a long time. But he realized, maybe he could beat the odds. And he stuck with it.’’
Before his second international competition last fall, Johnson decided to return to his “Eleanor Rigby’’ program. He will perform an updated version at the U.S. championships, and Dickson said he is capable of finishing in the top five.
The last time Johnson skated to “Eleanor Rigby’’ at nationals, he left the ice in tears, overcome by a performance he called “a defining moment’’ in his career. His aim this week is to rediscover that magic, which feels within the reach of a guy who’s already done the unexpected.
“This is always a special event, because it’s the culmination of a season’s work,’’ he said. “Being able to show that to all my friends and family, to show them how much I love skating, is going to be so rewarding. I can’t wait."