Six months to the day after his spine-wrenching crash at the U.S. Freestyle Selections, Jake Hickman's skis hardly touched the snow as he floated down the slopes at Mt. Bachelor, an elated teen.
"The first day back, I felt like the biggest gaper ever," said Hickman, joking about the experience in Tahoe tourist terms. "But then the second day everything came back, and the third day I was skiing like 70 percent of what I used to be. I felt really good."
That was June 2012.
A half-year earlier, the former J-2 National Champion, then 17, was riding an emotional high that culminated with a pair of fourth-place finishes at the U.S. Freestyle Selections in Steamboat, Colo. Hickman's performance the first two days of competition likely earned him a World Cup start - a childhood dream for the still-rising star and former member of the Heavenly Freestyle Team.
On Day 3 of the event, however, that dream screeched to a halt with one miscalculated launch.
"He came into the bottom air - and it was just a fluke thing - he caught his tip and got thrown backward a little bit," said Jake's father, Eric, who witnessed the Dec. 23, 2011, accident. "He was going to land on his neck and he decided that that wasn't a good idea, so he threw a loop and landed on his back instead. It was a good decision on his part, or else it could have been a lot worse."
Hickman remembers it well - the ill-fated takeoff, his surprisingly simple thought process in the air, the jarring impact and the frightening aftermath.
"I went off the jump and thought, 'Ah, this is dumb.' And that was about it. And then once I hit the ground I was like, 'Something is really wrong.' I just went numb right away. I couldn't move anything or feel anything, and I just had to lay there," he said. "That was the scariest part."
Hickman was rushed to a local hospital before being transported to Denver Health Medical Center, where he underwent more than eight hours of surgery to repair a T7-T8 spinal cord injury. He had suffered a compression fracture and dislocated vertebrae, which caused a pinch to the spinal cord. Doctors inserted 10 screws and two 16-centimeter rods into his back.
And yet, he was fortunate to escape in that good of shape, his father said: "It didn't break both sides of the vertebrae, or else it would have been game over, a complete spinal cord injury."
Nevertheless, Hickman was down and out, and facing the reality of an uncertain future. Not only might he not return to the sport he loved, he might not ever walk again.
"There definitely was a panic that set in," said Hickman's longtime coach Jimeel Ferris, director and head coach of the Squaw Valley Freestyle Team. "He had a broken back, so not only were you concerned about him never skiing again, it was more about being able to be a kid, and walk again, and even live. It was a sketchy situation there for awhile."
With an army of supporters rallying behind him, Hickman said keeping a positive attitude in spite of his misfortune was not difficult. His parents set up a "Jake Hickman Rehab" Facebook page where hundreds of friends posted comments and stayed up to date on his status. The Tahoe-based High Fives Foundation also took Hickman under its wing as a Winter Empowerment Fun Athlete, allowing people to donate money toward his recovery.
"It was never really a question of spirits, because I have such a great support group with my family and all my friends," Hickman said. "Tahoe is such a good, tight-knit community, and that really helped. And I had so many ski friends who were all super helpful. They knew kind of what I was going through. Everyone has to deal with injuries in the ski community, so it wasn't ever really a question about morale. It was just kind of like, 'OK, I've got to get through this.'
"Through all the other injuries I've had, you kind of learn to stay positive and keep working toward it."
So that's what he did. Within five days of the injury, Hickman was already walking with assistance. He was soon transferred to Craig Hospital in Denver, where he steadily progressed on a rigorous rehab regimen.
"Skiing was not even on the radar until we started to get into his rehab." Ferris said. "Doctors were giving him some good prognosis, and then he just flipped a switch and was like, 'I'm going to come back, and I'm going to come back stronger than ever."
After seeing Hickman on the snow for the first time since his accident, the Squaw Valley coach did not doubt his words.
"We were skiing on snow exactly six months to the day after his accident, and it was unbelievable. I sat there with a bunch of other coaches from all over the country with our jaws on the ground," Ferris said, chuckling at the memory. "It was impressive."
Hickman, who is currently working out with Chris Cloyd from Performance Training Center in Truckee, said he feels stronger than ever following a summer of intense physical therapy, as well as a fall of off-snow training at Woodward Tahoe on Donner Summit. The nerve pain above his belly button has almost completely subsided, while he said his back feels normal, "but really stiff."
In August, he was cleared by doctors to "compete in any sport at any level," which for Hickman meant a green light to dive back into moguls competition full bore.
"We'll see how it goes, but I feel pretty confident about it," he said. "I'm just kind of taking it step by step. I can't really say if I'm going to be on the U.S. Ski Team, I can't really say I'm not. It's hard to say at this point. I really don't know. Making the U.S. team is a huge goal for me, but I also need to realize that it might not happen this season, because I've gone through a lot. I might just be training this season, working hard to get back to where I was."
Ferris has little doubt that Hickman, whom he has coached since the age of 10, can return to his past form, and even exceed it. He just isn't sure when that will happen.
"It's going to take a while. Moguls skiing is a gnarly sport; it's an aggressive sport," Ferris said. "You're jumping, you're flipping, you're landing, and it's very technical. Will he be able to come back? Yeah. But it's a mental sport as much as it's a physical sport. Your mind has to be in the right place if you're going to do double flips and all these tricks and haul down a moguls run.
"His body is already back, really. It's more about a mindset now. He wants to, he has the physical conditioning to and he can. It's just a matter of when they say, '3, 2, 1...'"
When that times comes, Hickman said he'll be ready.
"I've ran over it a million times in my head. I've gone over it and over it and over it, and I don't feel like there's any way I could do it again," he said of the crash. "So I feel like that's not really a huge scare for me or fear issue as far as returning to competition goes. There are definitely going to be some things I'm a little smarter about, but I feel like that's a good thing for my skiing and for my body."
While Hickman remains confident in his ability, watching him compete will never be the same for at least one of his biggest fans - his mother, Sheila.
"Oh, it scares me," she said of the thought. "But we spent so much time at Craig Rehab that it made me realize that people get spinal cord injuries from tripping over a power cord or falling down stairs. And these athletes are so well trained, I think it was just a freak accident like anything else. But it does scare me and I don't know if I can watch him on snow. So we'll see when he gets out there. I may just wait and see the results and not watch him."
No matter what's in store for Hickman, the North Tahoe High School senior said his skiing accident has given him a different, more refreshing perspective on life. And for that, he will forever be thankful for his fate.
"I'm a completely different person now," he said. "Night and day. It's kind of funny how before an injury you take everything for granted. And now, every day, I'm just so stoked to be able to chase my dream again - to go off a jump or go ski or do what I want, instead of being stuck in a chair. It's definitely a blessing."