March 26, 2014
Colorado Springs, CO
The US Olympic Training Center (OTC) is much like a small college campus where Olympic and National Team athletes can live and train year round, often for many years in a row. Instead of classrooms and lecture halls there are workout facilities, gymnasiums, an Olympic size pool, and an indoor shooting range (particular to the OTC in Colorado). There are three OTCs in the US, each with very different training facilities. One in Chula Vista, California where many track and field, BMX, field hockey, and rowing athletes train; another in Lake Placid, New York where many of the bobsled, skeleton, and luge athletes train; and Colorado Springs, Colorado where many wrestling, weightlifting, triathlon, swimming, shooting and alpine skiing athletes train. The OTCs all provide very good food in such a way where it is very easy and encouraged to eat specifically for the needs of your body and your sport. The campuses are worlds unto themselves, providing for every athlete’s basic needs and are really neat places to see if you ever visit any of these cities.
A few days before the Sochi Paralympics officially ended, I flew to the OTC in Colorado Springs to begin physical therapy to repair strained and bruised muscles caused by my downhill crash, as well as monitor the substantial concussion I sustained. The OTC here has an amazing sports medicine facility where you end up spending a lot of time once you have broken yourself in the pursuit of excellence. They have many different methods for fixing you including massage, strength training, hot and cold plunges, muscle zapper machines (it’s a technical term, I swear), ultrasound, as well as MRI, X-Ray, and DXA scan machines. Sports Medicine is always staffed by several highly trained physical therapists and doctors who can fix just about anything.
Part of the process of diagnosing what I damaged in my Sochi crash has included several encounters with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines, which are fascinating. It produces a magnetic field around your body that excites hydrogen atoms in your tissues, causing you to produce a radio frequency. The machine can detect how quickly the frequency returns to normal, the rate of which determines the difference between bone, muscle, fat and other tissues, thus giving you an accurate image of your innards. The technology is much like a microwave oven, in fact, causing your body to heat up noticeably.
A few days ago I spent an hour in one of these machines, trying to lay perfectly still while it microwaved my spine, no easy task due to the immense amount of pain in my lower spine. The MRI technician assured me that the microwaving aspect of the machine was safe, but the heat building up in my body did not put me at ease. I endured the pain, the cause of which was determined to be bruising of the first two lumbar vertebrae in my spine. Considering the forces involved in my crash at the Sochi Paralympics I am lucky to have escaped with a bruised spine being the only damage to my skeleton.
Recovering from the concussion has been particularly challenging. Since my crash I have gone through periods of intense dizziness, nausea, and vomiting with overwhelming sensitivity to light and noise. In the first week I could barely withstand being outside my quiet, darkened room for more than ten minutes. Flying home was another challenge. I got to fly first class the whole way, with the beds, good food, big TV screens, and supermodel flight attendants, but I could enjoy very little of it because I was too sore to sleep, would throw up the food, and couldn’t stand looking at the brightness of the monitor. It was also challenging to look outside as trying to focus on near and far objects quickly proved to be very uncomfortable.
I am getting better. I spent the first week here sleeping most of the time, emerging briefly for meals and therapy. Each day the pain and discomfort become a little bit less and it is a bit easier to do everything. Now most of the concussion symptoms have passed, I can sit in my chair and push around easily, and I have been able to do light workouts. I am still quite sore in my back and core, but I expect to fully recover in another few weeks. The staff and facilities at the OTC have been instrumental in the healing process and I am very thankful for all their help.
March 8, 2014
Rhosa Khotor, Russia
Paralympic Downhill Race
Beep! 30 seconds. I push up to the starting gate, trying to find a good place to put my outriggers so that I push through the starting wand with maximum speed. I must breath! My heart-rate is too high. Remember to reach with the outside hand and drive with the uphill hand! I must remember to do that. Beep! 10 seconds. People are yelling behind me. Encouragement. I take a quick and deep breath, planting my riggers in the snow. Nothing but the run. I just need to focus on the run!
Beep! 5 seconds. Breath hard.
Beep! 4 seconds. Breath hard. People are still yelling.
Beep! 3 seconds. Breath hard.
Beep! 2 seconds. Push out! Push, push, push! Yelling fades behind me. I flip my outriggers down when the speed picks up. I need to calm back down for the first turn, to get my body back under control from the adrenaline. Ok, I’m calm. The first turn is easy, just a little bit of edge and look for the exit. I don’t need too much direction, not as much as last run. I’m coming out of the first turn now and I see the next one. I’m going to nail it this time! No sliding, no holding back. I’m carving this one. Ok, release turn one, see the rise line, and start the pressure. I feel the edge engaging. This is going to be a great turn.
I can’t move. Everything is bright. I can hear people moving around me. Have I been sleeping? It must have been a really good sleep. I can hardly move after a really good sleep. I hear a dragging sound underneath me. I am being dragged. Why am I being dragged? Where am I? What was I doing? Nothing. I’ve got nothing. Ok, what do I know? For some reason my head is locked down tighter than anything else. I hear dragging. Dragging side to side. A sled! I must be in a sled. Where are there sleds? Ski areas! Ski areas have sleds. Wait, they have sleds for injured people. Damn. I’m in one of those. Ok, I’m injured, at a ski area. Don’t panic. Where am I, though? Come on, memory! Where am I?! Wait, do I hear a helicopter? That’s cool. I like helicopters. I’ve always wanted to ride in one. Ooh! The people are picking me up and sliding me into the helicopter! That’s awesome! Helicopter ride!
Russia! I’m in Russia! Why am I in Russia? Paralympics! Those are happening right now! What event was today? Downhill! I think I was worried about the downhill for some reason. Oh damn, I messed up my run somehow and now I am being flown off the hill in a helicopter. It must have been one heck of a crash. I wonder how far I made it? Damn, can’t remember. Not important. Ok, can I feel everything? Lets check. Stumps, where are you? Hey! There you are. I can feel those. The injuries must not be too bad. No bad pain yet, but I am sure that will come. That neck brace is probably for precaution. I wonder if the Russian paramedics speak english? I need to tell them what hurts so they can tend to me properly. I really don’t want them to screw anything up. Oh, hey there! “Hello! Where pain? Tell!” He says.
That is what I remember thinking and experiencing the moments before and after my crash in the Paralympic downhill at Rosa Khutor, Russia. I had never experienced anything like it and I never want to again. I won’t watch the crash footage, but from what I can gather from other people, I had an amazing run going until gate nine where I hit a unique sequence of bumps that my body and suspension couldn’t compensate for. I had not expected this part of the course to be a problem, but I was thrown head over heels several times, lost consciousness, broke some of my equipment, and ended up in a crumpled heap a few hundred meters down from the bump I had just launched off at more than 60 miles per hour.
When I got to the hospital the doctors immediately cut all my clothes off, covered me in a sheet, and sent me through a CAT scan as well as an MRI. Miraculously the results showed me to be unbroken both times. If you saw the crash you would have thought otherwise. An hour after the crash the pain started. If you are curious as to what that felt like, go work out everything in your body to complete exhaustion, then keep doing it until you are physically incapable of movement. Then have someone smash a baseball bat upside your head.
I consider myself extraordinarily lucky that I was not more injured. This crash could have ended up far worse. I am very sorry for scaring people and that was never my intention. What I was trying to do was win the race. I had a plan worked out before I ran that would have done just that and I had executed it flawlessly up until the crash. My plan included nothing that I wasn’t sure I was physically capable of doing, but as I have said before, you can be the most well trained, prepared person on the hill but luck still plays a role.
I am on the mend now and improving daily. I have no permanent damage and I fully intend on getting back on skis and going fast again. I am a little upset for having another unsuccessful Paralympics, but overwhelmingly happy to be healthy. Russia has put on a very good Paralympics and the people I have met here are amazing, but it is now time to go home.
Tyler Walker is a member of the U.S. Adaptive Ski Team and the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Alpine Skiing Team. He won three 2013-14 World Cup globes: Overall, as well as for Speed and Slalom events. He is a national and international sit-ski champion in several alpine disciplines as well as a 2006 and 2010 Paralympian and a three-time X-Games gold medalist.
Tyler graduated in 2008 from the University of New Hampshire with a dual major in geography and international affairs, with minors in political science and German. He currently lives and trains in Franconia, New Hampshire.