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Big Air and Broken Bones: The Beginning

At 16, after a summer at the Olympic Training Center in Park City, Utah and several months skiing the glacier in Whistler British Columbia, the sun began to set as the jump was illuminated for my first professional big-air skiing contest. At the base of the Steamboat Springs ski area (my local mountain), was this 60-foot table-top jump, built specifically for this event of night time big-air skiing. This was in 2002 when snow sports were progressing at a remarkable rate. Only a handful of elite skiers worldwide had learned the latest trick named after Mike Douglas himself, called a D-spin. I’d all but mastered it on the trampolines and jumping into pools at the Olympic training center that summer, but I’d never attempted it on snow. The D-spin basically looks like a third of other big flip tricks in the X-Games today, but in 2002 it blew people’s minds. Today they also have formulas and fixed plans to evaluate and design jumps with proper in-runs allowing you to reach the speeds necessary to clear the table-top and land on an inclined slope of the out-run. Not enough speed and you “deck” it, landing painfully short. Worse still is taking too much speed where you out-jump the table-top and the inclined landing area. This is about as painful as it gets, falling from twenty feet in the air without any degree of slope helping to break the fall. Ankle bones and feet have exploded within ski-boots from landing so hard. Just ask the Sean White of skiing, Tanner Hall, whose ankles burst in a famously awful video clip.

The World Cup was in town for mogul skiing, bringing the best skiers in the world together with this big-air invitational setting the stage for the next day’s mogul events. I was years away from competing in World Cup mogul competitions but was fourth in the nation under 18. I’d been disqualified in previous mogul skiing competitions for throwing back-flips off the second jumps when going inverted was grounds for disqualification. You might remember the years of Johnny Moseley (who was all over MTV shows for years) winning Olympic Golds in moguls for both his mute grab 360, and his trick the Dinner Roll, which was his off-axis answer to the restriction of inverted jumps. Just a few years later the rules changed, and now inverted tricks in mogul skiing are the norm. Anyways, I’d all but given up on mogul competitions, choosing to take my talents to the newly expanding world of free-ride, big air, and slope-style skiing. Mogul skiing was progressing slower than I was, realizing I was made for big air.

I’d hit this newly built jump four or five times around sunset, warming up for the competition. I was so comfortable in the air back then; I could spin as much or as little as I wanted with absolute control of my body in the air. Long story short, I pulled it off coming up just slightly short of the ideal landing area. It wasn’t pretty, but with only one other competitor doing D-spins, my chances to win were strong. I had landed two or three exhilarating D-spins in a row, each one slightly cleaner than the last. With one last practice jump before the contest began, the sun disappeared behind the mountain as the jump was fully illuminated, glowing in the night. All I remember from my last jump is coming out of the inverted and corked 720-degree “D-spin”, to spot my landing in terror realizing it was soaring by beneath me. There is a moment of divine clarity resulting in terror or joy when coming out of a rotation and spotting the landing. It’s in that microsecond that my brain sensed destruction. l was probably fifteen feet in the air still as my rotational momentum carried me from inverted, to upright, and again horizontal with the ground, landing directly on my back. I’m told I bounced. I couldn’t breathe with the wind crushed from my lungs. The last moments of setting sun had hardened the snow on the in-run causing me to have a great deal more speed than I wanted. The impact caused me to lose my sight and my hearing in a moment of total darkness. As life seemed to rush back into me, I just remember hearing the roar of the crowd as I struggled to move. I was held down despite trying to get up, and taken to the hospital on a stretcher where I learned I’d shattered several vertebrae in my lower back. I was angry I’d missed my first and last pro event.

I wish my ski career ended in injury, but that isn’t the case. Despite broken and cracked vertebrae, I was back on skis within a matter of weeks. The injury didn’t require surgery, but it did include Oxycodone. Yeah, I wish the injury only took skiing from me. That first prescription of opioids led me from the mountaintops to the darkest corners on earth. Three overdoses, numerous treatment centers, and years in the state penitentiary for victimless, non-violent, drug-possession charges, I'm now going on eight years opioid free. Sitting in Colorado's sprawling Canon City Prison Complex back in 2013, I found a love and purpose in literature and decided to pursue a college degree. It has taken a couple years longer than expected, but this June of 2020 I will graduate from the University of California Santa Cruz with my bachelor’s degree in English Literature. In the immortal words of the good Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, “Too weird to live, too rare to die”.


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