The Olympic snowboarder suffered a concussion, felt an eye socket shatter and her nose break. For the skier, it was a punctured lung, a lacerated liver, a pair of broken ribs. And the ski jumper — warning: not for the squeamish — a ruptured spleen, six broken vertebrate, six surgeries and endless bumps and bruises.
Just listen to freestyle skier Bobby Brown, whose 22-year-old body might as well serve as a road map to the risks of the mountain: “I broke my back when I was 18 — three places — and broke my sacrum as well. Two Julys ago, I broke my ankle, broke both ankles at same time actually. One needed surgery. Got surgery. Rehabbed. Came back in February. Broke ankle again.”
And so on.
The medical charts at the Sochi Olympics could fill a warehouse. While the Summer Games are all about muscle pulls and sprained joints, the Winter Olympics are built on snapped ligaments, battered organs and broken bones.
Amid safety concerns about the slopestyle course for the Sochi Games, where Norweigan medal favorite Torstein Horgmo broke his collarbone in practice, the Winter Games menu is packed with adventure sports that promote speed, daredevil jumps and danger at nearly every turn. These fearless Olympians are all well-versed in lengthy rehabilitation, prepared for lifelong aches and pains and almost always grateful they didn’t somehow suffer worse calamity.
“We know the risks of our sport,” said Devin Logan, a 20-year-old freeskier who will compete in slopestyle, a new Olympic event where big tricks and big risk go hand in hand.
Those who do get back on their feet all face the same question: How do I return to the mountain and do it again?
There have been moments of doubt. In 2012, snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler was practicing a trick on a trampoline when she landed bad and propelled her knee into her own face, rattling her brain, breaking bones and spewing blood. In the ambulance, her eyes were swollen shut and she was vomiting from the head trauma.
“Snowboarding is not worth it,” she cried out.
Surgery and seven months of recovery followed, and not surprisingly, her assessment changed.
“I know and respect that what we do is dangerous,” said Bleiler, who competed in the 2006 and ’10 Games. “I think it’s important to know and respect it. But it’s also about us as human beings, we need challenges and we need purpose. That’s what this is for me.”
The Winter Games have become only more perilous with each passing Olympic cycle. Since 1998, the International Olympic Committee has added 26 men’s and women’s medal events — including eight short-track speedskating races and 10 snowboarding competitions — adding more speed, air and acrobatics to the mix every four years.
It’s difficult to quantify the injuries at the elite level, but a British Journal of Sports Medicine study surveyed 82 doctors who cared for more than 2,500 athletes at the Vancouver Games in 2010. The research showed that at least one in 10 athletes suffered an injury during the last Winter Olympics. Perhaps most memorably, a Georgian luger died on a training run the day of the Opening Ceremonies, becoming the fourth athlete to die during the Winter Games.
There are plenty more injuries during the four-year cycle between Winter Olympics. The vast majority of snowboarders and freestyle skiers, for example, have suffered broken bones or undergone surgery. They all have horror stories. When the goal is going fast, jumping far or flipping with fervor, nasty falls are akin to growing pains, necessary rites of passage in an inherently dangerous sport. Freestyle skier Simon Dumont once overshot a jump in Park City, Utah, and estimates he plummeted nearly 100 feet through the air, hitting the ground like a rag doll. “Probably should’ve died,” he said. He was lucky: a ruptured spleen and a pelvis broken in three places.
“The physical stuff, it is what it is. . . . They just all kind of pool together,” said Dumont, who’s preparing for his Olympic debut. “I don’t think about it.”
Most of the sports that fall under the U.S. Olympic Committee’s vast umbrella have psychologists on staff who specialize in performance enhancement. One key is focusing on the task at hand, ignoring outside stressors. In short, athletes say there’s no room for fear. It can only compromise their performance.
“That’s when you see yourself make errors,” said Brown, the skier who’s prepping for his Olympic debut. “The whole point is being confident, knowing you can do these things. . . . It’s one of those things where you have to get out of your head. You can’t really think of it that way.”
But when an athlete has already suffered catastrophe, the injury can linger, not unlike the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Edward Chavez, a sports psychologist who runs the Colorado Springs-based Institute of Optimal Performance. Elite athletes already have experience navigating pressure, facing adversity, mentally preparing for competition. To block out fear, psychologists rely on visualization techniques and mental conditioning.
“It’s building their belief system,” Chavez said. “If they can visualize it in their mind over and over again — working on that part of the brain that’s responsible for muscle memory — the more they do that visually, the more that part of the brain becomes conditioned.”
Skier Hannah Kearney, who won a gold medal in moguls at the Vancouver Games, suffered the punctured lung and lacerated liver during a training crash in October 2012. She returned to the same Swiss mountain last fall and had no choice but to stare down the memory of her ill-fated run. In some ways, she says she needed to face it again to move past it.
“I definitely had adrenaline going,” she said. “But it’s a trick I’ve literally done 10,000 times in my life. . . . I guess I assumed it’s probably unlikely it’ll happen again since it’s already happened once. That’s how I reasoned through it.”
Most winter sport athletes began competing at a young age — before they were old enough to appreciate or fear the inherent dangers. Lindsey Van began ski jumping at age 18. Now at 29, the idea of launching off a ramp and shooting more than 300 feet through the air is just second nature. The rush Van feels flying she likens to an addiction.
“The feeling outweighs the fear by a lot,” Van said. “I don’t feel it, really. I’m scared to drive. That’s scary. I don’t feel the same fear when I’m ski jumping as when I’m driving. Driving is terrifying. Ski jumping, I don’t really feel like something will come hit me. I’m in control. Driving, you’re not at all. Large animals, moose, avalanche.”
Winter Olympians say they don’t dwell on what-ifs. Even if they’re all fully aware of the worst-case scenario, their challenge is to respect the danger — not compete recklessly — but also to ignore it. The prospects of serious injury or even death is ever-present, but it’s pushed to the background.
Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke was dominant on the mountain and well-liked off it. “She’s just amazing,” Dumont said. “Gives off this light. I’ve never seen a girl skier with that much passion.” Burke was training in January 2012 in Park City when she fell on her head and went into cardiac arrest. She was airlifted off the mountain and placed into a medically-induced coma but died nine days later.
“She pushed the sport and got us to where we are today,” said Logan, the freeskier and Winter X Games medalist. “We’re still trying to ski for her, keep on her legacy, keep progressing women’s skiing.”
Entering these Sochi Games, Olympians say Burke is more inspiration to elite competitors than any sort of warning sign, and the adrenaline that accompanies danger is more fuel than repellent.
“We know what we’re doing and getting ourselves into at the end of the day,” Logan said.