A week ago Breckenridge snowboarder Eric Willett was on his way to a potential spot on the first U.S. snowboarding slopestyle Olympic team.
After coming in second behind Shaun White in the Dew Tour’s first-round qualifiers, the hometown favorite finished a disappointing ninth in the finals. But finishing as the fifth best American in the competition, Willett was just one spot out of Olympic contention heading into the Sprint U.S. Grand Prix at Copper Mountain — the second of five U.S. team qualifiers.
That path to the Olympics came to an abrupt end Dec. 19, however, when Willett crashed on a practice run prior to the Grand Prix qualifiers.
“The course was really good, just some downhill wind. I just went way too big,” Willett said during an interview at the Grand Prix slopestyle finals Sunday.
He was trying a new move — a back 10 double — when he said he landed on his rear end, causing a compression fracture of the T-7 vertebra on his spine near his shoulder blades.
“It knocked the wind out of me,” Willett said recalling the accident. “I knew something was up. I couldn’t even really talk.”
The good news for Willett is that doctors said he’s expected to fully recover in eight weeks and potentially be back on the snow two to three weeks after that. Unfortunately for the soon-to-be 26-year-old Willett, that will be after February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
“It’s kind of a crazy feeling. I’ve never had something taken away from me that quick. Nine in the morning I was going to go to the Olympics, by 10 my whole season — like that — was just over. It’s just kind of weird. We’ve been building this up for two years, then all of a sudden it’s just instantly gone, like that.”
When it comes to the world of freeskiing and snowboarding, injury seems to be an almost unspoken, but increasingly common reality.
It’s the topic of HBO’s recent film “The Crash Reel,” which documents snowboarder Kevin Pearce’s recovery from traumatic brain injury suffered during a 2009 training accident in a halfpipe at Park City, Utah.
Willett joined a growing list of potential Olympians who have met with injuries that have either put their Olympic hopes in jeopardy or postponed them altogether until 2018. The list includes Team Breckenridge’s 19-year-old freeskier Emilia Wint — who recently tore her ACL for the second time — and 18-year-old Aspen native and halfpipe skier Torin Yater-Wallace, who punctured his lung for the second time in a month when he cracked two ribs during a Dew Tour practice. Wint will be off snow for the remainder of the season; Yater-Wallace’s timetable for return has yet to be announced.
Willett was in good spirits Sunday, smiling and chatting with fellow team members during the Grand Prix slopestyle finals.
As to what breaking your back feels like, he said, “The first day was pretty painful. Now it just feels like if you were to take your knuckle and just push it into your back and hold it there. That’s what it feels like. It’s just a little uncomfortable. It’s not like I’m in pain or anything.”
He’ll have to wear a back brace for the duration of his recovery to maintain posture, and then rehab to rebuild any muscle loss. But Willett said it is expected to heal just like any other bone fracture, and beyond the brace it doesn’t limit his day-to-day function.
While he seems to have adjusted to the reality of the injury, he said it was difficult to swallow when he and his wife, Candace, were given the diagnosis.
“It was a hard moment for both of us. We just sat there and broke down for a little bit,” Willett said of the day of the injury.
As for moving forward, Willett will be 30 when the next winter Olympics open. “I’m going to try for the next Olympics,” he said. “Whether it’s going to happen or not ... This might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that’s kind of not there anymore.”
In the meantime there will be plenty of X Games and Dew Tours we can assume the four-time X Games medalist will set his sights on when he recovers.