Kaitlyn Farrington forced to retire
Today's the day.
It's been three months and an eternity, and as much as she thought she was prepared for this moment, Kaitlyn Farrington is fighting back tears. She's nervous; more than before any snowboard contest, her Olympic debut or the moment the national anthem played in celebration of her Olympic halfpipe victory in Sochi. Once she says the words, she knows this will all be real. She stands up from the couch in her Salt Lake City home, gathers her thoughts and tugs on her black The North Face hoodie. "All right, this is happening," she says. "Let's do it."
The defending Olympic snowboard halfpipe gold medalist is retiring at 25, because of a degenerative spine condition called congenital cervical stenosis.
"I thought I was too young to hear the word 'retirement,'" she says. "There's so much I still want to do in the halfpipe. I thought I'd be pushing the sport for many more years and try to make the Olympic team in 2018. But the risk of snowboarding in a halfpipe or hitting jumps is too high. It's been tough to accept, but I'm retiring from competitive snowboarding."
There. It's out. Now she can breathe. And tell the story of how a recent fall in Austria and a routine MRI led her here, to the day when she announces she can't compete in snowboarding anymore.
It was late October 2014 and Farrington was in Hintertux, Austria, for a product shoot with Giro, one of her sponsors. When they arrived, the weather was beautiful. But a storm moved in and two days into their trip, the glacier where they were shooting was closed. She and a couple of teammates built a jump with a powder-covered grass landing and took turns filming one another launching tricks.
"The jump was tiny, maybe 10 or 15 feet over a ledge, but the landing was sketchy," Farrington says. "I planned to do a frontside 360, but I caught my heel edge on the takeoff and barely cleared the wall. I rotated into a half backflip and landed on my upper back and neck."
It wasn't the worst crash of her career -- far from it, actually. But what happened next constituted the scariest two minutes of her life.
"My body went completely numb," she says. "I couldn't feel anything from the neck down. I was looking up at the sky thinking, 'Get up. Just get up.' All I wanted to do was stand up and walk. I heard the guys yelling, 'Are you all right?' and all I could say was, 'Help. Help. I need help.'"
Giro marketing manager Todd Kupke and pro snowboarder Eric Willett ran to her. Kupke held her head as Willett removed her board.
"I saw Todd digging around near my right side," Farrington says. "He said he was looking for my arm. It was wrapped behind and underneath me, but I couldn't feel it. I couldn't feel anything."
That sensation lasted for almost two minutes. Then, slowly, the feeling began to return to her body, first with a tingling sensation in her hands and arms, and then in her legs and feet. With the help of Todd and Eric, she sat up and then stood and began to walk around on legs that felt like they had fallen asleep.
"It was hard to comprehend what was happening," Farrington says. "Once I stood up, I felt this incredible burning sensation in my shoulders. They felt like they were on fire."
By the time she returned to her hotel, Farrington says aside from numbness and tingling in her shoulders, she felt relatively OK. So much so that she didn't see a doctor and went snowboarding the next day. When she returned home to Salt Lake two days later, she began physical therapy in hopes of stretching and strengthening her neck and back. But after two weeks, one spot in her neck still bothered her, so she scheduled an appointment to see Dr. Brandon Lawrence, a spine specialist in Salt Lake.
She explained her recent fall to Lawrence and told him about those scary two minutes. She said she wanted to make sure nothing was broken.
I thought I was too young to hear the word 'retirement'. There's so much I still want to do in the halfpipe ... But the risk of snowboarding in a halfpipe or hitting jumps is too high. It's been tough to accept, but I'm retiring from competitive snowboarding.Olympic snowboard halfpipe gold medalist Kaitlyn Farrington
"I told him I lost feeling in my body," she says. "He seemed hopeful, but I could hear the light go out in him when I said I lost feeling all the way to my feet." Lawrence explained the term "transient quadriplegia," which can be caused by hyperextending the neck and pinching the spinal cord or by a herniated disc doing the same. He ordered an MRI and X-rays to rule out anything more serious.
"When I went back to have him read the MRI, the first thing he said was, 'You have congenital cervical stenosis and can never snowboard again,'" Farrington says. "I burst into tears. I yelled at him and told him to get out of the room. I wasn't ready to hear it. It was the worst conversation of my life."
Over the next month and a half, Farrington saw additional doctors and had many more tough conversations. Each time, she was dealt the same diagnosis. She'd never heard the term congenital cervical stenosis, but she was fast becoming an expert in the condition she'd had since birth. On her MRI, the stenosis, or narrowing, of her spinal column is visible to even an untrained eye, as is a disc herniation at C6, where her spinal cord is visibly kinked.
"Stenosis is not hereditary, it's just something she was born with, like brown eyes," says U.S. Snowboard team physician Tom Hackett. "Cervical refers to the part of the spine, in her case her neck, and stenosis means narrow. Essentially, the canal formed by her vertebrae that the spinal cord runs through is too narrow in that area of Kaitlyn's spine. There is no room to allow for any movement of the spinal cord when the spine flexes and bends, to prevent the cord from getting kinked or pinched. In Kaitlyn's spine, there is no room for error. It's only by the grace of God that nothing worse happened before this injury."
At first, Farrington chose to process her diagnosis privately. She wished she'd never found out she had the condition. She cursed her body for betraying her. She didn't tell her friends or most members of her family.
"I was trying to avoid dealing with it," she says. "I was in denial."
She had planned to compete in the halfpipe at the Dew Tour in December and was named second alternate for the slopestyle event. Instead, she flew to Breckenridge to watch and support her friends. "I was lying to everybody about what was going on, and I think by lying, I convinced myself it wasn't happening, that I'd be back in time for X Games," she says. "I couldn't accept it yet."
Her road to acceptance began with a conversation with Hackett on Dec. 17, the day before her 25th birthday. The other doctors she'd seen were specialists, but they didn't know her, didn't understand her personality or what snowboarding meant to her life. Hackett did; he'd traveled the world with her since she was a kid. He knew she was tough and resilient, that she was the rider who showed up at the Winter X Games in 2013 less than a day after undergoing surgery to repair a broken right thumb and competed wearing a cast specially designed so she could grab her snowboard. He'd made the cast. And he was the final doctor to deliver the devastating news.
"I had guarded expectations about what was going on until I saw her MRI," Hackett says. "When I saw the MRI, my heart sank. I knew it was over."
It was an emotional conversation for both doctor and patient. It was also the moment Farrington says she began to accept her diagnosis and figure out what it meant for her life moving forward. In Austria, she had experienced the almost-worst-case scenario of her condition, and she wasn't interested in pushing her luck further.
"Kaitlyn knows what it was like to lie on the ground conscious and not be able to move," Hackett says. "I reminded her what that felt like. I said, 'That's the risk. That's why you can't do this anymore.'"
But there are things she can do.
"I can walk. I can still snowboard," Farrington says. "I just have to keep my feet on the ground. I still want to be a professional snowboarder, I just have to figure out what that means."
In that conversation, she began to focus on the positives instead of what she is being forced to give up. Then she called her mom and told her the news.
"It was hard. We cried a lot that day," says Suz Locke, Farrington's mom. "The hardest part for me was knowing she was born with this and has done what she has for 25 years. Why didn't I know? I felt like I put her life at risk. It's great that she got to go as far in her career as she did, but I'm happy we know and I won't have to watch her drop into another halfpipe. It's bittersweet. She's so good at what she does. But she'll find something else she's really good at, too."
Farrington knows that had she and her family known about her condition sooner, she might never have ridden a snowboard. Had she been diagnosed a year earlier, she never would have competed in Sochi or had the feeling of winning the final Grand Prix contest of the season and making the U.S. Olympic team.
"The timing is crazy," Farrington says. "The last big halfpipe run of my career, I won [gold at the Olympics]. It's been a wild year. I had the highest high of my life to now this complete life-changer. The next quarter of my life is going to be extremely different from the first. I have to figure out how to make it just as great."