Skier paralyzed in big air event |

Skier paralyzed in big air event

Shauna Farnell

COPPER MOUNTAIN – The sight of the step-up jump at the Ford Ranger Freeride Challenge at Copper Mountain was intimidating to many individuals watching and participating in the Saturday event. But even competitors who were severely injured in the contest said they knew what they were getting themselves into.

The step-up contest was the first of its kind on snow, and consisted of skiers and snowboarders launching off a steep lip that sent them up and over a bar between two uprights, much like a goalpost. Competitors said the highest the bar was placed was 24 feet up from the jump.

Breckenridge resident Matt Wyffels, 20, who was riding for Team Uvex, was leading the field of individual snowboarders in the superpipe and big air contests preceding the step-up event. Then, a bad launch off the lip sent him up and over the step-up bar and down onto his head.

“I had hit a bump or something along those lines before I went off the hit,” Wyffels said from St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver where he was taken Saturday via Flight For Life. “I was upside-down when I went over the bar. On a jump like this, you had to be over your feet perfectly. I was upside-down when I went over the bar. I attempted to turn out of it, but it was like a 40- to 50-foot drop.”

Wyffels said Monday he has lost feeling from his waist down, and that doctors told him he broke his T-1 and T-2 vertebrae – an injury that can cause permanent paralysis.

“Right now, it’s not too optimistic,” he said of his prognosis. “I had surgery (Sunday), and for a while, I’ll be at Craig (Hospital) in rehab.”

Wyffels is uncertain how long he’ll be at St. Anthony’s, or if he will be able to pursue a career in snowboarding. Wyffels recently earned his associate in science degree from Colorado Mountain College, and is excited about his competition success, which had recently taken off. He landed a a second-place in the Spring Massive slopestyle contest last week at Breck, a win in the triple big air a couple weeks ago at the Extreme BoarderFest in Crested Butte, and a new sponsorship with Unity Snowboards. When asked if he thought the Copper contest was dangerous, he said it was, but that he, like the rest of the athletes, knew that ahead of time.

“At first, I was really afraid of it,” he said. “It was my fifth or sixth jump off of it. Before I messed up, I was feeling pretty sketchy. That jump is extremely dangerous, but I’m the kind of guy who looks at a jump and says, “Let’s do it.’ There were a lot of people in the whole contest who didn’t want to hit it. But that’s the risk you have to take. We all knew how big we were going.”

Prior to the step-up event, contest organizers told the athletes they could opt out if they wanted to, and some did.

“We spoke to the athletes and told them they didn’t have to do anything they didn’t want to do,” Copper spokesman Ben Friedland said Monday. “If they wanted to continue, that was fine. Those who chose not to continue, I applauded them for their decisions.”

The youngest competitor, 15-year-old Junior Martinez, competed in the halfpipe but bowed out of the step-up, said Greg Tuffelmire, who, along with Omar Otte, won the event. “He took the mature way out of it. He didn’t feel comfortable, so he didn’t do it. You could bow out at any time.”

A couple other athletes sustained knee injuries in the contest, and Otte had a crash that teammates said “rattled” him. After the first couple step-up runs, ski patrollers crushed snow on the landing to make it softer.

Friedland said organizers met with the athletes following Wyffels’ injury, and it was the athletes who decided to go on with the show.

“The remaining competitors, we put our heads together,” Tuffelmire said. “We decided, well, it’s competition. People get hurt all the time.”

The step-up concept was inaugurated in motocross freestyle competition, and, despite the injuries in the event’s inaugural snowsport display Saturday, competitors said it should not be blacklisted from freestyle skiing and snowboarding competition.

“I think there is a place for it,” said Joe Vallone, who was competing on Team Pearl Saturday. “I think there’s some quirks that need to be worked out. The landing could have been longer and steeper. There should be more testing and more feedback. I like the concept, though, I think it’s really cool. Everything is trial and error, and all we did was try. Obviously, we all know the risks, and we didn’t have to do anything. In the future, if something like this happens again, maybe more preventative measures should be done.”

Athletes had a chance to practice the step-up Friday and on Saturday before the contest started. Tuffelmire said Wyffels was hitting the jump without mishap before his accident.

“It’s step-up; the guys from the U.S. Freestyle Team could come out and do a triple back flip 40 feet in the air off their jumps,” Tuffelmire said. “I thought (Wyffels) was riding well all day. When he got hurt, it just looked like he missed his pop then tried to flip out of it, which just inverted him even more. Action sports are dangerous. When the reality hits so close to home like this, it opens a lot of people’s eyes, but it’s the risk we all know was there. It’s too bad it had to happen that day, because things were going so well. Matt was one of the coolest kids out there. We’re all pulling for him.”

Wyffels’ accident is at least the second serious injury to occur at Copper Mountain this year during a special event. Gary Fountain of Denver was critically injured Feb. 2 during the KBCO-Budweiser Cardboard Derby.

Fountain, who suffered a severed aorta and fractured vertebrae, was discharged from the hospital March 4 but s till is undergoing rehabilitation at Craig Hospital in Englewood.

Shauna Farnell can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 236, or at paralyzed in big air competition

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