The long road back
October 8, 2006
Nearly three months of professional skier C.R. Johnson’s life vanished. He remembers nothing from the middle of October until Jan. 15 of this year. All memories. All daily events. All interactions. Gone.The 23-year-old Truckee, Calif., native doesn’t remember Dec. 8, the day he sustained a life-threatening brain injury while shooting ski footage in Utah. He’s been reduced to talking with others to fill in the pieces; to reconstruct the day his life changed forever.”I don’t have a lot to say about that day or many of the days surrounding it,” Johnson said Friday at a industry party for The Meeting film festival in Aspen. “Those are three months I know nothing about.”By all accounts, it was a freak accident. Johnson was filming a segment for his latest film, “Show & Prove,” at Utah’s Brighton ski area. He was the first of five skiers in rapid succession to hit a large roller and launch over a cliff. When he landed, Johnson veered hard to the right. He stopped momentarily to gather his gear, according to reports in Powder Magazine. By the time he looked up and saw friend Kye Petersen bearing down on him, it was too late. Petersen collided with Johnson, striking him below the brow of his helmet. “By the time he was in the air, there was nothing he could do,” Johnson said.Johnson was knocked unconscious for three minutes. When he came to, Johnson, confused and delirious as a result of severe head trauma and swelling, thought his body was under attack. He struggled with ski patrollers dispatched to the scene, and said he punched a man who wheeled him into the University of Utah Hospital.Once he made it to the hospital’s intensive care ward, doctors induced coma with paralytic drugs, Johnson said. He was in the coma for more than a week. At one point, doctors surmised that the skier’s chance of survival was little more than 10 percent.
Reality sunk in.”I was extremely paralyzed,” Johnson said. “It was like being a child again.”For 34 days, with his parents and sister, Kahlil, by his side, Johnson struggled to recover. He struggled to learn how to talk and swallow. The world-class skier was humbled as he attempted to regain movements in his arms and legs. He had yet to grasp the difference between dreams and reality.”I felt like I was on a small tropicalisland, with nothing in sight,” Johnson said. “I was in a shack surrounded by cliffs and jungle and could not escape. While I was in a coma, people would come see me in the shack. They would talk to me, and I knew they were there, but I couldn’t communicate.”It was very symbolic of what I was going through.”In the days that followed, Johnson, urged on by friends and family and letters sent to email@example.com by hundreds of well-wishers, continued to progress. By Christmas he was alert, talking in a whisper and moving both sides of his body, according to Powder Magazine. He walked for the first time the day after New Year’s. “I had to call [C.R.’s mother] and say, ‘Hey honey, you know that big wheel chair that C.R. used to use back in the day? Well they just took it out of his room, it’s gone,'” C.R.’s father, Rusty, wrote in a Jan. 2 e-mail published in Powder Magazine. “… You can tell how excited I am.”
Johnson walked out of the Hospital on Jan. 11. As he continued to regain his mental, motor and speech functions, he went to live with his parents in Truckee.Five days later, Johnson had his first real memory in three months. He dreamt he was held captive in a small shack in the middle of the Utah salt flats, he said. There were locks on the door and he was all alone. Somehow, he managed to escape. He jumped onto a moving train and rode from Utah to Truckee. His dad was waiting for him when Johnson woke up. “I remember turning to my dad and saying thank you,” he said. “He said, ‘Thank you for what?’ I said thank you for picking me up from the train. What I didn’t know at the time was that my dad and I had flown home from Utah five days earlier.”In the days following the injury, Johnson was fighting just to live. Now, he is struggling to get his life back on track. He took a major step on March 9. On that day, he was back on skis in Squaw Valley. He was back in his comfort zone. “Oh man, it was awesome,” said Johnson, grinning from ear to ear. “Skiing was the only thing that came back to me naturally. It was like a sixth sense.”For me and my dad, we had come full circle. He and the rest of my family were there for the whole thing.” The ordeal is far from over. As a result of extensive brain damage, Johnson said he now perceives the world differently. In crowded rooms, he is overwhelmed and confused by the amount of sensory input. He often finds it hard to concentrate. He finds it hard to search for the exact words he wants to say.
Johnson’s story of struggle and perseverance is played out on the big screen in his and friend Tanner Hall’s latest film, “Show & Prove,” which was shown at the Wheeler Saturday. It’s a film that exposes audiences to the real world of professional skiing, Johnson said. The film is a poignant and raw reminder of the sport’s trials and tribulations.”This is the story of being a pro skier. It covers Tanner’s year, and it covers my side,” Johnson said. “This is reality. It’s about struggle and triumph. Johnson accepts what happened on Dec. 8. While he said he doesn’t feel like the same person, one thing remains unchanged: He’s willing to put it all on the line to continue being one of skiing’s innovators. “That’s the path my life was on before, and I’m not going to let a weird, freak accident hinder me from going where I was going,” he said. “To come from having a 10 percent chance to live to being a top level pro skier is an incredible challenge, an overwhelming challenge. I’ve learned the perspective of struggle. It’s part of life, and something I can now appreciate.”Now, if I hit my head I could easily be toast. The best-case scenario is not pretty. My parents are 100 percent supportive of me coming back to skiing. I accept the risks and the consequences.”There’s no doubt he’ll be more cautious, Johnson said. He’ll be cognizant of what he and others are doing and how he can avoid potentially dangerous situations. But Johnson, who lost three months of his life, intends on taking full advantage of the time that follows.”This accident has given me an amazing perspective on life,” Johnson said. “I’ve never tried to escape what’s happened. You have to struggle to succeed.”Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org