Summit County snowboard coach Chris Waker begins slow recovery after breaking neck in ‘freak’ crash
Snowboard community raises $99K to help Waker recover
The snowboard community near and far has rallied for one of its own, local snowboard coach Chris Waker.
Waker suffered a “freak” neck injury while riding at Copper Mountain Resort on Christmas Eve, breaking the C5, C6 and C7 vertebrae in his neck. He is recovering at Craig Hospital in Englewood after multiple surgeries — the first at 4 a.m. Christmas Day — including the installation of several cervical plates.
Waker’s wife, Darien, said Thursday that Waker has made recent progress at the hospital, which specializes in spinal cord injuries and rehabilitation.
Two weeks ago Waker was limited to laying in bed. Since then, he’s progressed from being able to sit in a wheelchair to using a manual wheelchair for the first time Thursday. Darien said her husband was able to move the wheelchair using the bottom of his hands. Also in recent days, Waker has been able to use a fork attached to his hand to feed himself and even throw a bean bag at a cornhole target as part of occupational and physical therapy, Darien said.
These tasks reflect major progress, but Darien said there’s still a lot of unknown regarding her husband’s abilities in the future. She said doctors think he will remain in the hospital through March.
“We’re still in a gray area,” she said. “He does have slight feeling on his left side of the body, but really nothing on the right. He doesn’t have feelings in his fingers, beside his lower hand and his arms. He can move his arms just fine.”
Waker’s friend Harry Edmonds was the first to his side after the accident, which occurred on a sunny afternoon at Copper. The pair was lapping the Woodward Express chairlift with pro snowboarder Jake Canter and one of Canter’s friends. Edmonds said Waker — U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s 2019 Domestic Snowboard Coach of the Year — was coaching and filming Canter in Central Park before riding a green run back down to the chairlift.
Edmonds said the accident happened where the groomed green trail met a catwalk. He thinks Waker caught his toe edge while riding fast and doing a 180. Edmonds said Waker hit the snow chin first, resulting in the neck injury.
“We hit that run dozens of times that day, and that’s something Chris has done 10,000 times in his life,” Edmonds said. “Chris Waker is one of the best snowboarders I’ve ever ridden with. You can ask him advice for absolutely any trick; he knows how to do it. He knows how snowboarding works. His board control is next level. The fact that this happened to him on a groomer, it’s definitely a freak accident.”
Darien said Waker was riding a new board that day, which she thinks might have contributed to the crash.
While Waker was lying in the snow waiting for ski patrol, Edmonds said Waker asked him to squeeze his calf. When Waker couldn’t feel it, they both knew the injury was serious.
During Waker’s recovery, Darien has been trading three- and four-day blocks at the hospital with Waker’s childhood best friend Tyler Emond, who flew from his home in New England to be by Waker’s side. With the help of other friends, Darien and Emond rented an apartment near the hospital.
Emond met Waker, three years younger, during his time at Stratton Mountain School in Vermont. Emond said Waker became the brother he never had. Waker followed Emond’s footsteps into snowboard coaching, and Emond officiated the Wakers’ wedding in their old stomping grounds in Manchester, Vermont.
On their days together at Craig Hospital, Emond said the biggest thing he and Waker talk about is mindset. They all believe a strong mind will facilitate Waker’s physical recovery from the trauma he suffered to his spinal cord.
“And I think that his experience and his specific mentality is going to be incredibly valuable to the world, to be honest,” Emond said. “So far in life, he’s got to impact a lot of snowboard athletes. Now he has the ability to impact a much larger community, not just in the community of spinal cord injury but beyond. His mind and determination is really rare, and I think he’s going to be able to share that.”
A GoFundMe fundraiser set up for Waker has raised more than $99,000 of a $125,000 goal as of Friday thanks to 600 donors.
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