Editor’s note: Ahead of PyeongChang 2018, the Canadian Olympic Committee asked a number of its athletes to define what it means to “Be Olympic.” Snowboarder Mark McMorris, the bronze medallist in slopestyle at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, writes about his determination to come back from multiple injuries suffered in a serious crash less than a year before the Games.
I was lying in the snow, struggling to breathe through the blood in my mouth, just waiting for the helicopter to arrive.
Usually, when you get injured, you think about how long it will take to get back on the snowboard again. This time, I was just wondering whether I'd ever move again. Or if I'd even live.
It was March 25, 2017, and I’d been snowboarding in the backcountry near Whistler with my brother Craig. It was a freak accident. The edge of my snowboard dug into the soft snow, and I couldn't stop myself from drifting too far to the left … and into a large tree. I just ran into it out of mid-air, all on my left side. I did a frontside 360, and as I turned around, it was just right there. It was just - boom. I broke 17 bones, in one hit, like I was in a car crash. I was out cold.
When I regained consciousness, about 45 seconds later, the pain was intense. I remember just trying to hang on while we waited for the helicopter to arrive. I was puking. My jaw was broken. I thought I was going to die.
When the helicopter landed, about 90 minutes later, I finally fell asleep.
When I woke up in hospital, I learned just how bad it was: fractured jaw, fractured left arm, ruptured spleen, pelvic fracture, rib fractures and a collapsed left lung. But I was grateful to be alive, to have the chance to try to snowboard again and possibly make it back to the Olympics a year later, in Pyeongchang.
Be Olympic. To me, it’s about determination. It’s about getting up after you fall and working towards your dreams, even if it’s difficult, even if it hurts, even if there’s a risk you might fail. It’s about not giving up. I think that’s something a lot of people can relate to, in many different aspects of life.
I went through a gnarly trauma, and I think that trauma can go one of two ways. It can bring you down and make life more difficult for a long time. But the fact that I was given another opportunity means I can wake up every day and know that it could have been so much worse.
I spent the first 10 days after the crash at the Vancouver General Hospital. I needed surgery on my arm — I shattered my humerus — and on my jaw, to plate it. I couldn’t do much, physically, for about a month and I was on a liquid diet for six weeks.
There was no official timeline for my recovery. Some days it felt like I’d return to snowboarding again. On other days, honestly, it didn't.
One of the things that helped keep me motivated was the support I received from friends and fans. I'd get hundreds of messages a day — texts, emails, Instagram, whatever — and that gave me a lot of energy. Seeing that other people believed I could heal made me believe I could do it, too.
My rehab was to take place at the Fortius Sport & Health clinic in Burnaby, B.C., with Damien Moroney, the Director of Rehabilitation and Performance Integration. Damien had also helped me recover from a broken rib 11 days before the Sochi Olympics and a broken femur in 2016. He helped me feel more confident, and he's built me back from everything, so I had a lot of faith in him and knew he wasn't going to underdo it or overdo it.
The rehab sessions weren't fun. They hurt and I hated them. But when they were finished and I was able to leave, I was happy. I knew I was one step closer to getting back on my board, to doing what I love. I worked my way up to two to three hours a day on a heavy gym routine and hydrotherapy work.
For me, rehab is 50 per cent physical and 50 per cent mental. It’s a struggle. But I’ve found that as you physically progress, you mentally progress because you start to feel strong again. When you're just lying there and having a hard time doing daily activities, that's when it's hard mentally.
You feel like you’re not getting better for a while, and then you’ll hit a week where you just work and work and work, and you’ll start to feel the progress. That’s what keeps you motivated. When you feel pain, it’s not a bad thing, you just need to keep going.
By now, of course, I’d had a lot of experience with rehab.
There was the broken rib less than two weeks before the start of Olympics in Sochi. I injured myself during my final slopestyle run at the 2014 X-Games, where I was going for my third-straight gold medal.
I was in second place, and I knew I had to go all-in to put myself in the running for gold, but I misjudged one of my rail tricks and caught my front edge on the rail. I flipped over the rail, smashing the side of my body into the bar.
I’d never had to work as hard as I did those 10 days before the Olympics. The doctor told me it wasn’t realistic to compete with a broken rib, but he also said that trying wouldn’t injure me more. That was all I needed to hear.
Through a lot of hard work, in the pool, the gym and finally on the board, I went from barely being able to take a shower without debilitating pain to winning a bronze medal. After all I’d been through, the bronze felt like gold.
And just a year before the collision with the tree in Whistler, in February 2016, I broke my leg at the Air & Style Big Air event in Los Angeles. Injuries are freak accidents a lot of the time, and that one was really freaky. I was attempting a frontside triple cork 1440, but my toe edge caught when I landed. I flipped over and snapped my femur.
I wasn’t able to get back on my board until August. Some days, my leg was so sore that I couldn't even make it from my bedroom to the living room. That’s when it was like, “Holy crap, I don’t know if I’m going to make it through this and stay positive.”
The physiotherapists worked me really hard, and I hated it at the start. I felt so much pain everywhere - my hip, my knee, everything, the screws - it all hurt so bad, all the time. They told me it was fine, but I didn’t know it was fine.
At one point, when I was super over it, I just stopped caring about the pain. I realized that it was only going to make me stronger. What’s life, without a little bit of pain? Besides, the pain of breaking your femur is nothing like the pain of losing your season. All the plans, all the events we were going to go to, just came to an abrupt halt.
I didn’t want that injury - or any other injury - to take anything else away from me.
The backcountry accident in Whistler happened in March. By September, I was back training in Australia, trying to build strength on my board and get mentally focused for the upcoming season.
There were also sponsor obligations to fulfill. I've probably snowboarded less this year than any over the past four because of so many obligations and the injuries. There’s been not a lot of time on the snow, but a lot of time in the gym and rehabbing.
I was fortunate that I didn’t have to rush back to competition. I’d already been pre-selected to the Canadian Olympic team for Pyeongchang, so I didn’t have to prove myself this season. I just needed to start riding, to start feeling comfortable again, and to stay healthy. I was stoked.
On Nov. 25, in Beijing, I competed in my first World Cup since the crash. It was a Big Air competition, and I won.
I can’t explain how happy I was to get a win under my belt after that injury. I felt like I was on top of the world. I landed my first and second runs and ended up coming out on top. It was really special and a nice way to return to competition. It made me think I could hopefully take it into Korea and be able to stand on the podium. I would be thrilled to kill it there.
The Olympics are a special event. The X-Games are awesome, they are a huge televised event, a lot of action sports lovers watch them, and anybody that has any interest pays attention. But everybody watches the Olympics - it's on such a greater scale. For me, when I go to events I compete for Canada, but I'm not with Canada. At the Olympics, it’s different, and that’s such a great thing. I’ll be so glad to go to the Olympics again and represent Canada.
There’s a lot of people to thank for getting me back to this point. For one, my brother saved my life. And a few things that could have gone way south just stayed north. The helicopter got to me in time; the ruptured spleen didn’t get any worse. Huge thanks to my physio team and everybody at Fortius. They built me back.
I just feel blessed to snowboard at this level again, to have suffered no permanent damage. A lot of times I didn’t think I’d get back to a professional snowboarding level. The fact that I was given a second chance was the icing on the cake.
Snowboarding has brought me everything I enjoy in life. I am who I am because of snowboarding, and I have so much fun doing it. Growing up in Regina, I played competitive hockey until I was 13 or 14 and then I had to make a choice. Skating wasn't as fun as going out and riding and having fun with my friends on a snowboard hill. I get to travel the world with my friends, with fans all over the world, competing and having the best time. And I've learned to never take it for granted.