Freeride skiing: Will going big ever become too big?
About three weeks ago, Tom Royce was driving on Highway 89 and biting his fingernails. He was behind an ambulance headed for a Truckee hospital, its red lights spinning chaotically in the afternoon sky. Inside the ambulance was his daughter, Courtney, who was laying on her back, immobilized.
“There isn’t a worse moment for a parent, knowing your kid is in the back of an ambulance and there’s nothing you can do,” recalled Royce.
A few minutes earlier at Alpine Meadows, Courtney launched off a kicker and glided a little too easily over a 65-foot gap. When Courtney landed, her skis slid out from under her, one popped off, and her lower body bent backward. Her butt slammed into the icy surface.
A few hours later, X-rays revealed the impact had crushed 40 percent of her T-12 vertebrae and caused a minor compression fracture in her T-6 vertebrae. The vibration missed splitting her spinal cord by a centimeter, which would’ve left her paralyzed.
“I think there are injuries in every sport,” Courtney said. “People are going to get hurt if they are trying new things. A sport is never going to grow if you’re worried about getting injured. It will just die out.”
Dying out is not a term that describes the freeride skiing movement. Explosion is more accurate.
Ever since twin-tip skis were introduced about a decade ago, skiers have been dropping into halfpipes, sliding rails and landing backwards off big kickers. These maneuvers were simply unheard of during the freestyle era of ’70s and ’80s.
By the late ’90s, freeride skiing was flourishing and mogul skiing was being phased out. The younger generation of skiers, the future of the sport, embraced this new style and adopted a no limits mantra.
“It’s progressed so fast,” said Doug Falkanger, an assistant coach for the Heavenly Ski Foundation’s freestyle/freeride team. “We didn’t really expect it to progress this fast. People are becoming such good skiers so fast and doing things that are crazy. We always talk about that, wondering what the sport is going to be like in the future. There’s really no way to tell.”
Here’s the problem. When will going big ever become too big? What has to happen before freeride skiers acknowledge the stakes and choose working limbs over potential stardom? I guess it depends on how many spinal cords are snapped.
Courtney crushed vertebrae not in the X Games but in a practice run before a Far West big air competition. She wasn’t attempting any rotations. It was a simple straight air, something she’s done a hundred times before.
When I visited 16-year-old Courtney last weekend, she greeted me with a weak handshake and a grimace. Not because she despises the media but because she was wearing a plastic back brace and in pain. She must wear this brace for the foreseeable future, as well as struggle through physical therapy until next winter, when maybe, just maybe, she can click into skis again.
Last winter, Courtney was busy at nationals, finishing 13th in moguls and third in halfpipe. Now doctors are saying she’ll never be 100 percent again.
Also during my visit, Tom Royce showed me his daughter’s picture album. On the front cover was a photo of Courtney sandwiched between freeride stars Tanner Hall and Truckee resident C.R. Johnson.
These two skiers are examples of what every freeride skier wants. To be known or to have sponsors. But the only way to accomplish either is by sprouting out of a growing pool of talented skiers, athletes that are always willing to go bigger, perhaps out of necessity and misguided enthusiasm than pure desire.
“For sure kids are looking at guys on TV and saying, ‘Wow, I want to do that, I want to be like that,'” Falkanger said. “It’s all about starting off slow, getting comfortable in the air and working your way up. But accidents are definitely going to happen.”
While Courtney is correct that there are injuries in every sport, there is something more imminent and certain if something goes wrong flying a 65-foot gap. The risk is enormous, in a much different sense than when a 225-pound linebacker with pads tackles a 225-pound running back with pads.
“I think every kid wants to be good,” Courtney said. “They’re not out there to suck. It’s one fall. It’s not a mistake. I don’t want to be paralyzed. I think I’ll be little more tentative when I get back. I don’t want it to happen again. But in this sport, it’s not a question of if a fall will happen but when.”
If you’re a freeride skier after fame and moderate fortune, is the risk worth it? But if you truly love the sport, then what choice do you have?
– Jeremy Evans is a sportswriter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune. He can be reached at (530) 542-8008 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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