17-year-old Breckenridge cyclist recovering from traumatic brain injury
On July 10 in Aurora, Amanda Eckhoff was sitting in a hospital courtyard when a golden retriever named Skipper hopped up and licked her face. For the first time since a devastating accident on June 27, the Breckenridge teenager smiled, if only slightly.
“It was the biggest half-smile I’ve ever seen,” said her father, Bill Eckhoff.
For the past two weeks, he has slept by Amanda’s bedside at Children’s Hospital of Colorado, watching her deal with the pain and waiting uncertainly to hear news on her condition. But in that one instant — when the family dog showed its love and sparked a flash of emotion in return — Eckhoff couldn’t help but feel a twinge of hope.
“You could tell it was all she could do to crack that smile,” he said. “It was a great moment.”
Those kinds of moment have been scarce since a Subaru Outback struck Amanda while she was riding her bike across Highway 9 at the County Road 450 intersection in Breckenridge.
The collision left her with a traumatic brain injury, which, for now, means she’s unable to speak or open her eyes regularly.
Luckily, she is not paralyzed from the accident, which can often be the outcome of such injuries. And she has retained motor function — so much so that she had to be put in a special hospital bed to prevent her from involuntarily kicking the nurses.
Eckhoff said that doctors tell him some people do bounce back from such injuries. Even then, they may live with permanent impairments. Above all, though, he is grateful she has survived what could have been a fatal accident.
“I’m glad she’s alive,” he said.
Tiny, but fearless
When she was born at the Vail Valley Medical Center in 1995, the doctors said Amanda Eckhoff was failing to thrive. For the first four months of her life, she was fed through a tube, her father said. As a result, Amanda has always been small. At Summit High School, where she will be a senior next year, Eckhoff said she was a quiet presence, often keeping to herself. He thinks that has had much to do with her youthful appearance.
However, he said Amanda has never let any of that stop her from pursuing her passions. Despite her diminutive size, she possesses a preternatural bravery and thirst for adventure.
Her father said she would be the first to make the leap when she and her two siblings would go cliff jumping in Browns Canyon. Amanda was a well-rounded daredevil who loved swimming, snowmobiling and dirt biking. But more than anything else, kayaking was her true passion.
In June, she won the FibArk junior girls freestyle kayak competition in Salida. A video from the event shows a small figure bobbing, weaving and flipping in raging water that would terrify most people. She looks unsinkable, like a cork.
Her father said she has recently been laser-focused on becoming a professional kayaker, seeking out mentors locally and attending a top-flight training program in Canada, which is put on by Jackson Kayaks, the company that made a custom watercraft just for Amanda and then put into wider production.
“When she fixated on achieving something,” Eckhoff said, “… she became one of the best.”
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Date of birth
On the afternoon of June 27, Eckoff had returned to his Wellington home from work, hoping to tell Amanda happy birthday. His 15-year-old son, Ryan, said she had gone out for a bike ride. Bill had planned to buy her a new bicycle that night at Pioneer Sports in Breckenridge. The old pink and white Trek she was riding had belonged to her 19-year-old sister Lindsey.
“The old bike, it would miss a gear when you go to shift,” he said. “It was old.”
Eckhoff, a Breckenridge resident for more than 30 years, went back to work at a construction project nearby. Hours later, Breckenridge police would meet him there to break the news that Amanda had been in a terrible accident and had been airlifted up to St. Anthony Summit Medical Center and then to Aurora. Bill gathered his other children and rushed to the hospital.
The force of the impact was immense. Though she was only 4’8” tall and weighed well less than 100 pounds, her hands left indentions in the car hood when she was hit. Her forehead slammed into the windshield, leaving behind strands of blonde hair. She went airborne over the vehicle and landed on the highway, where she lay unconscious, gasping for air and badly battered. She was not wearing a helmet. A nurse who happened to be ridding in a Colorado Mountain Express shuttle ran to administer CPR. Emergency responders arrived on the scene shortly thereafter.
According to the incident report, the shuttle driver, who witnessed the collision firsthand, told police that Amanda had crossed Highway 9 at County Road 450. He said traffic on Highway 9 had a green light.
The report said Amanda appeared to have been coming from the Breckenridge Recreation Center and heading toward the Wellington neighborhood. Police Chief Dennis McLaughlin went to the rec center and looked at the video with the help of staff. They found footage of a female that matched Amanda.
Initially, no one on the scene knew who she was.
Some of the items recovered at the scene included an IPod, sunglasses, Skechers, a blue water bottle with a Jackson Kayak sticker on it and swim goggles. Not on that list was identification.
At first, people on the scene thought she was anywhere from 8 to 12 years old because of her size.
They did not know that she had turned 17 that day.
The police report
The driver of the Subaru that hit Amanda said she was driving northbound on Highway 9, according to the accident report. The female Breckenridge resident told police she was looking for Huron Road. However, the only sign at the intersection said “CR 450.” As she entered the intersection, she looked over her shoulder to look for a street sign. As she looked back to the road, she immediately felt the force of Amanda striking her windshield.
Another car was directly in front of the Subaru, according to police reports. That driver, a female, had swerved right to avoid Amanda at the intersection.
One witness told police that they believe there was no way that the Outback could have avoided hitting Amanda. Officers concluded that the driver had the right of way, and that the stoplights seemed to be working properly.
That conclusion isn’t sitting right with Eckhoff.
“When you see a bicycle rider in the intersection, you’re supposed to wait for the intersection to clear, whether the light is green or not,” he said. “Yeah, it might suck. I don’t think this lady intentionally hit her. I think she was distracted.”
Amanda was brave, but she wasn’t foolhardy, Eckhoff explained. He said he cannot accept she would have entered into an intersection without the walk sign in full effect. He believes it turned green while she was in the intersection.
“Something just isn’t right,” he said of the accident report.
Eckhoff and many others have expressed a concern that the intersection is unsafe for cyclists. He is starting a petition to lower the speed limit on the stretch of road where his daughter was injured. The Colorado Department of Transportation, not the town, sets the speed limit on Highway 9.
“This was never designed for the amount of traffic that’s coming through there,” Eckhoff said. “They want traffic moving as fast as possible. That’s what the traffic circles are about, to keep traffic moving. The ski area benefits from it mostly.”
He is also requesting the video footage the red-light cameras may have captured. He wants to be sure of exactly what happened.
“I just don’t want other families to go through what I’m going through,” he said.
Police Chief McLaughlin said the town is looking to safety concerns about an intersection that will continue to see more traffic.
“Although the recent accident does not appear to be related to any particular safety concerns at the intersection, we had already been discussing at the town level impacts that increasing traffic are beginning to have on the intersection,” McLaughlin said in a written statement. “With the new Huron Landing housing development being built and increasing bicycle, pedestrian and vehicle traffic utilizing the intersection, the police department is evaluating what improvements we might recommend. There are several stakeholders that need to be part of improvements, including the town, the county and CDOT.”
Ben Trollinger is the managing editor of the Summit Daily News. Contact him at (970) 668-4618 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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