Skiers and snowboarders overcome injuries to return to the mountains
DENVER — While speeding downhill at a race at Keystone resort, University of Oregon student Zoe Faselt hit a bump in the course, attempted to correct herself, and ended up tumbling head over heels. The bones in her leg snapped at the top of her boot. She lay for about five minutes in pain before being taken off the mountain by emergency workers and to a hospital.
Faselt was treated for a tibia/fibula compound fracture, a broken ankle, a torn anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in her left leg. While in the hospital and under the heavy influence of painkillers she kept telling people around her that she had a race to finish.
At the time, Faselt was a member of the Loveland Ski Club and Jefferson County High School racing teams before coming to the University of Oregon. She was an aggressive competitor in the 60 mph sport. It wasn’t unusual for her to place in the top 10 in races.
Downhill and freestyle skiing and snowboarding carry risks of severe injury and death. Athletes race at very high speeds or perform inverted and spinning maneuvers where one miscalculation could end a season or sport. According to Johns Hopkins University, about 600,000 skiing and snowboarding injuries are reported each year out of about 10 million American skiers. According to the American Journal of Sports Medicine, wrist and shoulder injuries are most common among snowboarders. Skiers are prone to suffer knee injuries in areas such as the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. Athletic trainer Karen Dyste of the University of Oregon’s health center sees all kind of injuries in skiers and boarders. She says that knee injuries are most common in skiers and boarders. Terrain park riders sustain more head, neck, and shoulder injuries.
According to the National Ski Area Association, an average of 41 skiers and snowboarders died per year between 2002 and 2012 in the United States.
However, the risks involved in the sports do not deter athletes from following them even after serious injury. Athletes like Konner Fritz, Luke Schedler, Colton Saunders, and Faselt have suffered serious injuries while skiing or snowboarding – but continue to pursue the sport despite the risks of further injury. Each athlete has a different story of hard falls and recovery and how the injuries have affected performance on the mountain.
Konner Fritz lives with two serious injuries. While snowboarding at Big Bear resort in California in November 2011, he fell on a rail. His elbow smashed into his abdomen, rupturing his spleen. He spent two hours in surgery, where his spleen was removed, and eight days in the hospital. Without a spleen, Fritz’s immune system is not as capable at fighting off disease. So far, he has not had any problems will illness, but in late March of this year, he fell after miscalculating a take off on a jump in Durango, Colo. The impact broke his neck. Doctors placed Fritz in a neck brace for six weeks.
Luke Schwedler also suffered a broken neck. The then 16-year-old skier was on his last run of the day on Mount Bachelor in 2008 when he caught an edge on his skis and fell over. He didn’t know his C-2 vertebrae was fractured until he received a CT scan a few days later. He wore a neck and torso brace for three months. Neck injuries carry a great risk for paralysis and even death. According to Dyste, immobilization is essential to heal neck fractures. After that, the injured person needs to restore circulation and strength to the injured area.
Colton Saunders does not have an official medical diagnosis for the hip injury he sustained when he was 16. While out snowboarding, he had a crash landing on a jump. The injury was not apparent to him at first. He noticed something was wrong when he went to water polo practice a few days later. He says that the crash displaced the alignment of his hips. “It was a weird injury,” he says. “When I slammed my lower back it pushed my hips forward.”
Each skier and snowboarder needed different treatment for his or her injuries. Fritz’s and Schwedler’s best tool to heal neck injuries was rest and light activity. “Walking around helped lot with getting the blood flow going [in the neck],” Fritz says. “It was pretty stiff for five weeks…now it’s about 75 percent healed.”
After wearing a neck brace for three months, Schwedler could not to take part in strenuous activity for another six months. “I had to stop playing soccer when I did all of that,” Schwedler says. “It totally was a time when I read more books because I had nothing better to do.”
The psychological part of healing was hard at times for Schwedler. In the days following his injury, he was unsure of whether he needed surgery for his neck or not, and he had to keep a lot of medical appointments. “The doctor’s office was the hardest part,” he says. “Sitting around in waiting rooms made me nervous.” Schwelder did not need surgery for his injury. “I feel lucky because I [was injured] at the end of the season [and] I was able to recover fully by the beginning of the next season.”
Faselt and Saunders did intensive physical therapy for their injuries in order to return to their favorite sports and rejoin their teams. Saunders, whose primary sport is water polo, went to a chiropractor and a massage therapist for treatment. Even with therapy, Saunders wasn’t performing as well as he was before his injury. “It was frustrating because…I [couldn’t] do some of the movements I was able to do before my injury,” Saunders says. The treatments only brought him temporary relief.
After coming to the University of Oregon last year and joining the men’s club water polo team, he began experiencing problems. “Last year I just was so sick of dealing with my hips being so tight all the time that I went and did actual physical therapy,” Saunders says. “And finally I feel like I’ve gotten it to where I’m 100 percent and actually can feel like my body can keep up with pushing at 100 percent all the time.” Physical therapists at the University of Oregon gave him exercises that helped him heal and work towards preventing further injury. Now, more than four years later, he has improved his performance in the pool. “Now, I feel like I’m even better than I was in high school,” he says. Saunders has also returned to the mountain, but skis now instead of snowboarding.
Faselt wanted to finish her race, but she wouldn’t even walk again until six months after her discharge from the hospital. Although injured, she had her sights set on returning to the mountain. “My parents didn’t want me going back at all, but I was like no, there is no other option, I’m going to go back,” she says.
The first stages of recovery were frustrating for Faselt. “With an injury that bad, you can’t do anything for a while to make yourself feel better.” After walking, she did physical therapy at Children’s Hospital in Denver and then saw a sports therapist to rebuild strength in her left leg. She would visit her teammates on the mountain while recovering. A year and a half after her injury, a coach suggested that she give skiing a try. “It was the best feeling in the entire world,” she says. The trial run gave her renewed vigor to return to racing.
Still, after an injury, returning to a sport can be intimidating for athletes. For skiers and snowboarders, the first run back on the mountain can bring back memories of injuries. Fritz was nervous getting back on the hill after rupturing his spleen, so he eased into his first day back. He didn’t notice any changes in his riding. “It was only two months after [the injury] so I still had a decent sense of how to ride,” Fritz says.
Faselt says she felt great getting back onto skis, but her first race was a completely different story. When in the starting gate for her first race since her injuries, she experienced flash backs that caused her to lose a lot of her aggression. “I remember being really surprised that I was that terrified to race again,” Faselt says. After several races with what she describes as very timid skiing, Faselt tried Eye Movement Desensitization therapy, a therapy that utilizes the movement of the eyes to treat the psychological effects of traumatic injuries. Faselt was skeptical of the treatment at first, but then her skiing improved after a few weeks of treatment. “Now, I’d say I’m completely back to the aggression I used to have,” Faselt says.
Injuries can sometimes change how someone performs their sport. Faselt still skis aggressively, but she says that she is more cautious when trying new things on skis. Schwedler went from a competitive ski racer to a recreational terrain park skier, trading speed and slaloms for jumps and rails. Saunders traded his snowboard for a pair of skis. He still rides the terrain park, but says rides carefully so as to not injure himself again.
Injury stories are the war stories of the skiing and boarding community. Skiiers and boarders tell and retell them on the chairlifts and car rides to mountains. Athletes who injure themselves and then recover achieve a different status in their social circles. “I feel like I’ve experienced something that many people haven’t,” Fritz says.
“It’s a cool story,” Faselt says. “You become this cooler identity if you have a battle story to tell.”
Dyste agrees that injury stories function as a sort of badge of honor in the skiing and boarding communities. “There is a tendency to glorify [injury stories] a bit,” she says. But, multiple injuries can ruin the sport for an athlete. “You don’t want to have too many of those stories.”
How to Prevent Ski Injuries
There are many ways to prevent ski and snowboard injuries.
End your day before the end of the day. After his injury, Schwedler makes sure that he stops skiing right when he feels tired. Going down the mountain with decreased situational awareness is dangerous. Stay hydrated and alert.
Wear a helmet. Research shows that helmets can save your life in a fall. Many major ski and snowboard companies such as K2, Burton and Salomon manufacture helmets and other protective equipment.
Wear wrist guards if you’re on a snowboard. Because snowboarders fall forward instead of to the side like skiers, there is great risk for injury. Some wrist guards will fit under gloves while some companies make gloves with built-in wrist protection.
Become a better skier/rider. Take professional lessons to improve your technique. The better a rider you are, the less likely you are to injure yourself. Many ski resorts and areas have lesson plans tailored for beginners, veterans, racers, and park riders. Knowing how to do what your doing better never hurts.
Improve your fitness. Strength, endurance, flexibility and balance training can help prevent injuries in a fall and improve your riding ability.
Know your abilities. It’s better to be safe than sorry. If a slope or trail looks too advanced for you, avoid it or take it slow to see what the features are. Then, come back and try it again at a greater but safe speed.
Take a scouting run in the terrain park. Before hitting the jumps, boxes, rails and other features in the park, take a run through it to see what the features are like. Look at what other riders are doing, how they are doing it, and how fast they are going.
Famous Athletes with Mountain Injuries
Lindsey Vonn – The Olympic gold medalist sustained a knee injury in a crash while racing in the super-G at the Alpine Ski WorldChampionships in Austria in early February this year. She is expected to return to the mountain next season and compete in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Scotty Lago – The professional snowboarder broke his jaw while filming “The Art of Flight” with fellow pro boarders Travis Rice and Mark Landvik in 2011. He was attempting a switch double backside rodeo 1080. The trick involves three full rotations in the air while spinning at a horizontal angle. Lago won the Bonze metal in half pipe in the 2010 Winter Olympics. Lago competed in the 2011 winter X-Games with a broken jaw and finished second in the super pipe competition.
C.R. Johnson – The now deceased X-Games skier was in a medically induced coma for 10 days after a head injury at Brighton Ski Resort, Utah. He was discharged from the hospital after 34 days of treatment. He refocused his career efforts on backcountry skiing. He placed third in the Red Bull Line Catcher freeski competition in France in 2010.
Tanner Hall – The X-Games Skier fractured his tibial plateaus and tore his ACLs in both of his knees in 2009 at Stevens Pass, Wash. He returned to training in 2012 and took first place in the halfpipe competition at the Freeski Open competition in New Zealand.