A message for all you huckers
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
When I was a teenager snowboarding at Sunlight, I thought I was the man. I felt like I ruled the mountain when it came to “going big.” Nope. I was what true freeriders call a “hucker.” In other words, my ego was bigger than my skill. Eventually that habit caught up with me in mid-air.
I was 16 and showing off for a blond-haired girl. She sat at the edge of the small terrain park, which was located upslope from the top of the Midway lift in those days. Her boyfriend watched with her as I prepared to drop in and soar impressively over the first of two table-top jumps. There would be no speed-checking, to ensure maximum height and distance; I didn’t know any other way.
The icy in-run was ill-defined in gray, flat light. My board bounced around under my feet as I charged toward the lip of a jump I could barely see. I started to go airborne and initiated a backside spin. But something went wrong – my heel edge caught the snow – I’d started spinning too early! Higher I flew into the soupy clouds. My board corked over my head as I continued swirling around. For a moment it seemed I was going to pull it off – I was coming around to 540 degrees (a 360 and a half) and my feet were coming back under my body. But I was overshooting the landing and couldn’t see the texture of the ground. I extended my legs – a landing gear searching for contact – and snagged my heel edge. Suddenly I was flying head-first through the air again and I remember thinking how it was going to hurt as the back of my skull whip-lashed into the hard pack. Boom. Lights out. I had a severe concussion but I didn’t know it yet. I didn’t really know anything at that moment, actually, not even what day it was or how I got there. My friends didn’t know how badly I was hurt, either. They thought I was OK since I had gotten back up and snowboarded to the lodge. I was lucky to stumble into my mom, who noticed I had one dilated pupil and a 15-second memory. She got me to ski patrol, which put me on an ambulance because I was also complaining of neck pain. These memories are all fragments I’ve pieced together over the years. As I was going through it, even as I was waking up in the hospital hooked up to a bunch of machines, I literally thought it was a bad dream.
On the drive home, I kept repeating the same things. “I happened?” I asked repeatedly. “Gahhh! If you say that one more time I’m turning around and going back to the hospital!” Mom said. She was clearly exhausted and in a fragile mood. I turned to the window and decided not to say anything even though I still wasn’t sure what was going on.
They said I was lucky I wasn’t brain damaged and that I could die if I hit my head that hard again. I wore a helmet after that, despite some protesting on my part. My friends teased me, calling me Safety Boy, but I continued to outride most of them. Many of them would later wear helmets as well (a good trend that has proliferated). Most importantly, I started riding for the University of Colorado Snowboard Team in 2002. The coaches might’ve saved my life – they stripped away as much of my ego as they could and honed me into a better, more mature rider. I learned that the difference between me and the professionals is that the pros have perfected their skills from the ground up, rarely risking more than a scratch, even when trying new tricks, because they had prepared for their maneuvers in every other way. To be specific, professionals are consistent, calculated and precise.
After college I came back to Sunlight one day and entered a big air contest for the hell of it. I just wanted some fun. The guy who beat me and took first place reminded me of myself: He hucked an impressive double back flip … and ate snow. I took a close second with a variety of tricks and walked away.
What makes me think of all this now is what seems to be a rising number of injures in such competitions as the X Games. With cash and glory as big as ever, athletes – even pros – are being driven to take higher risks. Often, too, I suspect it happens when a rider tries to outdo an anomaly like Shaun White, who seems to have barely endured a bruise while pushing the edge of what’s possible on a board for several years. That’s why White wins all the time; he is simply that solid. This isn’t to say his competitors are not incredibly skilled, but White is indeed a master among masters.
My message to other tricksters like myself, especially the young ones, is this. Don’t worry about wowing crowds or bragging rights or impressing girls/boys. Learn your craft with all your heart and humility and you will fly higher than you might otherwise. Learn 180s before 360s and learn them solid. You might find that advice extends to just about any area of life.
Derek Franz thanks his biology teacher at the time, Joe Mollica, who drove his car down from Sunlight and stayed in the hospital until 8 p.m. that night. Derek can be reached at email@example.com.
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