I don’t talk much about my ordeal 31 years ago. Now I am ready to do so and to let you know (and “them” know I know) what happened.
I’d had a wild ride as a young ski racer growing up in Austria, with all the possible ups and downs.
I won most of my age group races from when I was 7 years old. I was (and still am, I think) the youngest ever British Senior Slalom Champion at 15.
In 1988 I went to the Calgary Olympic Games at the age of 18 and came in a respectable 21st in Slalom.
After that, I got cocky and started to think I was superman — I slacked, partied too much — my form dropped.
Luckily I managed to find my discipline again after a very stern talk from my parents. Thanks, guys!
I was good at the time, but not great — something had to change, or I was toast anyway at this stage. My parents (and company sponsor) enrolled me in training with the world’s best at that time — the Norwegian Ski Team.
Across the disciplines, they boasted 4 Olympic and World Champions. They were hard-as-nails Vikings who trained like crazy without ever making a fuss, and their attitude and focus were unmatched — plus, they had an excellent coach from Austria.
Fast forward — the Fateful Day.
It’s November 1990. I’d now been training with the Norwegian Team for around 1 year. The results were astonishing. I went from average (for the top of the league) to the top of the league!
My accident happened on the last run of the last day of the last week of training before the first World Cup race.
We were about to drive from Austria to France and compete at the Val d’Isere World Cup race, where I was on a mission to smash it!
We’d been practicing a high-speed downhill course with a 70-meter steep jump involved all week long. We raced the course 6 to 8 times every morning.
Several other national teams did the same, and we competed against each other in time trials.
I was regularly in the top 3 out of 30 guys, and often first, beating the then Olympic Champion.
Things were looking good for me to break into the world’s top 10.
Wearing nothing but a catsuit, a helmet, and our skis clamped on by the bindings, at speeds of around 110 km, we raced down to the jump, jumped, and glided off to the finish line as fast as possible.
On this fateful morning, I was first out of the gate.
We had about 15 coaches and assistants handling the course and its safety. Most of these guys carry shovels. Why?
Before each timed run, the group slides down the course to inspect the snow and conditions — as this changes all the time.
When 30 big guys on long skis slide up to a drop-off jump, you move approximately 20 cm of extra snow onto the lip.
The coaches must remove the additional snow to ensure we can “pre-jump”, and safely fly over the lip, landing on the steep run out.
At those speeds, you pre-jump the actual jump 10 meters or so before, so you take to the air, reach forward hard, and glide elegantly over the drop-off and down the hill.
The coaches forgot to take off the extra snow.
I pre-jumped, hit the snow on the lip, and was catapulted into the air — skis and my eyes looking up and up into the sky.
There was no way for me to control the failed jump.
I flew down the hill and landed on my back. With no pressure on the bindings, I heard a snap, crackle, and pop— my right leg and knee were shredded.
I broke my bones in 3 places, ripped all the ligaments in my knee, and broke the knee cap.
I realized it was game over when I saw my leg pointing in the wrong direction, and bent out of shape.
Next, the unbearable pain sets in — I’m screaming like a stuffed pig.
It took the rescue helicopter over an hour to arrive while I was in agony, shaking, and losing consciousness.
Finally, the doctor was at my side and administered the morphine to stop my pain. That took forever as she couldn’t find my veins— I was in shock and fading fast.
The Helicopter Ride.
Once I got the shot and was strapped onto the side of the helicopter, I experienced the most beautiful open-air flight of my life through the Austrian alps to the helicopter landing pad on top of the hospital.
Now I was thinking, don’t worry, it’s not so bad, and you’ll be fine.
Sadly morphine wears off pretty quickly, and once I arrived, was X-Rayed and my surgeon came to talk to me — reality set in fast.
Rob, you blew up your knee and broke several bones. We have to operate now, or you may lose the leg. And that’s what he did.
6 hours later, I awake in the recovery room to find out I still had the leg, but it was a damn painful one!
I didn’t find out the coaches failed to remove the excess snow until 2 years later when one of the assistants and a former teammate confessed to me that that was what happened.
They had studied the video, which then quickly disappeared.
For 2 years, I lived thinking I messed up and ruined my career — when I didn’t. That was a relief but also added more mental pain and anger.
I’m not saying this happened on purpose — it’s worse than that.
I know — because I saw — the night before some of these individuals were drinking from dinner time until dawn. We heard the all-night party in the hotel roll on until morning.
In essence, they had not slept, were still drunk, and were not focused.
Hell, it was the last day, right? But it almost cost me my life, and it ended my career.
Thanks for reading,