I used to feel invincible while snowboarding. Looking out over miles of mountains and lakes as the sun broke through the clouds and the day blossomed, I was on top of the world. And as I carved effortlessly down the mountain, time seemed to stop, but strangely, each run was over too soon. And each time my disappointment faded as I boarded the lift for a new adventure.
With the methodical whirring of the lift cables above, I often pondered the significance of their sturdy metal strands. If they broke I’d plummet to the exposed rocks below, but I knew somewhere deep down that they would never break. After all, I was invincible, wasn’t I?
I occasionally heard stories of people getting injured while skiing or snowboarding—a family friend who broke a leg on a college ski trip or a neighbor who almost suffocated after being trapped in a tree well—and to my thrill-seeking 16-year-old self, such stories seemed just that: stories; they would never happen to me. Even sightings of ski patrols with stretchers in tow failed to convince me of the sovereignty of the mountain.
The circumstances of December 2017 made the beckoning slopes even more irresistible. A promising freshman year of high school track and cross country had hooked me; I was addicted to speed. Sidelined temporarily with a hip flexor strain that cut my sophomore cross country season short, I found myself an addict, deprived of my metaphorical drug. So when I was cleared to go on my family’s annual trip to Lake Tahoe, there was no doubt in my mind; I was going to snowboard. An invigorating taste of speed was exactly what I needed to quench my thirst for action.
When the day finally arrived, I desperately wanted to be ready but something just didn’t seem right. As I dismounted the lift for the first run, the treacherously icy surface beneath me threatened a hard fall but what was the worst that could happen? A few bruises or a sprained wrist. I wanted to believe that my hip was fully healed but the ever-persistent soreness made me wince with every turn. Yet, I tried to rationalize my decision and figured that my hip would loosen up as the day went on and the ice would turn into forgiving slush under the beating rays of the midday sun. Maybe they would’ve with time, but they never had the chance.
I caught an edge, throwing me off balance. This wasn’t unusual. I would just fall, get back up, and continue on my way. And so, I fell. But then, I kept falling. The tumble launched me over the boundary of the run onto the steep, untraveled slope below. I couldn’t stop myself. I was going too fast with nothing to grasp onto except the loose snow that slipped cruelly through my fingers. I’ll never forget the horrible sinking feeling that wrapped itself around my chest, suffocating me as I plunged toward my uncertain fate. I was at the mercy of the mountain.
“You’re lucky,” remarked the doctor at the ER several hours later, “I’ve seen much worse from similar accidents.” He informed me that I’d suffered from a broken arm, a deep bone bruise on my knee, and a partially torn ACL. I must’ve looked incredulous since he went on to explain the risks of life-changing head and spinal cord injuries from comparable falls. Whether it was a curse or a blessing, I don’t know, but as fate would have it, a massive pine tree had abruptly halted my fall. If the tree hadn’t been there, maybe I would’ve landed safely in a soft snow bank, or I’d have continued down the slope of the mountain, gathering speed as I plummeted toward my eventual demise. I’ll never know. But in that moment, broken and humbled, I finally viewed myself with candor: I wasn’t invincible. I was vulnerable.
I was indeed lucky, but in many ways the fall still changed my life. “When can I run again?” I inquired. I was anxious to know but afraid to ask. The doctor provided a lengthy response, detailing the steps to recovery that would likely span several months. I heard every word but absorbed nothing. I wasn’t equipped with the patience required to allow my body to heal or adhere togradual rehabilitation protocol. I suffered numerous setbacks as I pushed myself too hard too soon, disregarding the advice of my doctors and physical therapists. My minor injury battle developed into a prolonged war between my mind—which still craved speed—and my body which simply couldn’t keep up with my injuries. It was agonizing to watch from the sidelines. My high school running career turned from one of great promise to one of unfulfilled potential.
Now, nearly 20 months after the accident, I’m finally back to full strength and ready for one more shot at redemption as I enter my senior year. In retrospect, I appreciate my accident for everything it gave me, even if I resent all it took away. I may never be an elite runner, but I’ve gained lifelong perseverance and patience. And I may never feel the rush of invincibility, but I’ve gained humility and a deep appreciation for life.
Kyle Tsujimoto is a 17-year-old senior at Monta Vista High School. He is a varsity member of his school’s track and cross country teams and publishes a blog about the science behind running. In his spare time, he enjoys practicing portrait photography and playing with his golden retriever Toby.