With the Burton U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships scheduled for Vail, Colo., this weekend, concussions are at the forefront of the competition.
USA Today on Tuesday wrote about a recent documentary film surrounding the sport, “The Crash Reel.” The movie was based on the traumatic brain injury competitor Kevin Pearce sustained in 2009. It also pulled back the curtain on the danger of the sport.
In The Crash Reel, a documentary chronicling Pearce’s accident and recovery, (Shaun) White said he’s suffered nine concussions in his career. White declined to comment. Samantha Hill, White’s publicist, could not confirm that number but suggested it was a “ball park guess.”
Like any sport, snowboarding and freeskiing come with risks and to the extent that is possible, athletes do their best to mitigate them. But with elite athletes suffering multiple concussions at a young age, more questions than answers remain about a culture perhaps nonchalant in its attitude toward concussions and the effects on their long-term health.
For Pearce, there are answers to those questions after struggling to accept the impact it has had on him. Following his accident, Pearce underwent years of rehab to relearn motor skills, improve his vision and memory, to function in everyday life.
The article noted the sharp rise in concussions when snowboarding is allowed on the ski slopes.
A study by researchers at the University of New Mexico published last month in The American Journal of Sports Medicine found the rate of closed head injuries more than doubled at one resort, Taos Ski Valley, after it allowed snowboarders on the slope starting in March 2008.
Without snowboarding, the resort saw a rate of 9.3 people suffering a closed head injury per 100,000 mountain visits. That jumped to 19.5 per 100,000 mountain visits after the resort allowed snowboarding. David Rust, the study’s lead author, said the large majority of head injuries involved concussion-type symptoms, with only a small proportion requiring an advanced imaging test.
While the study offers a small glimpse of the impact at one resort, anecdotally it does not differ from the experiences of the sports’ elite. Of a dozen athletes interviewed at or after this year’s X Games, three said they’d had fewer than four concussions. All were freeskiers.
It seems as though, like football and hockey, there is a concussion culture that exists in snowboarding.
Among those athletes interviewed for this story with four or more concussions were four gold medalists from this year’s X Games. Pearce and his good friend Scotty Lago, an Olympic bronze medalist in the snowboard halfpipe, both claimed to have had six or seven.
“It seems like all the kind of top dogs are so good, they kind of put themselves through that to get to that level because of how dangerous these sports are,” said Pearce.
“When you’re in it … you’re just having so much fun, you’re just living this life of a rock star, it’s like, ‘I’m not gonna stop this if I go hit my head. Whatever. I’m fine. I can come back.’ “
Snowboarding officials have tried to make practices safer for snowboarders and skiers.
While the tricks come with risks, it’s the way those are mitigated that athletes want people to understand. Moves that viewers see on TV are often practiced repeatedly in safer environments before they are tried in a competition. Double corks and triple corks — off-axis flips that are the latest, toughest tricks in the sport — aren’t just learned on snow.
At the U.S. Skiing and Snowboarding Association’s (USSA) Center of Excellence in Park City, athletes can practice tricks on a trampoline. On the mountain, many use large airbags or foam pits to provide a soft landing.
But, like other sports, snowboarding is looking to pro football for answers about head trauma.
It will likely take decades for researchers to understand what these types of brain injuries, and their frequency, mean for these athletes. Some of the first generation of these athletes — those like (Kelly) Clark, (Shaun) White and (Gretchen) Bleiler — are still competing.
“We certainly don’t know (the long-term consequences) in skiing and snowboarding because we just haven’t had the research,” said Melinda Roalstad. former medical director with the USSA who now runs a program that helps educate athletes about concussions. “What we’re learning from is football.”
– Bill Bradley, contributing editor