Major injuries a rite of passage at Extreme Park

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 15, 2014 at 8:49 am •  Published: February 15, 2014
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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — Mark Caldwell thought his daughter was joking. Then he heard the sobs.

When Ashley Caldwell called her father in December 2012 and to tell him she had just torn the ACL in her left knee — nearly a year to the day after doing the same thing to her right knee — it was all he could do to hold it together.

Yet he knew better than to approach the budding American aerialist about whether she might consider doing something else with her life, even as she underwent her second major reconstructive surgery only months after her 18th birthday.

"It's her decision," Mark Caldwell said. "It's been kind of her decision since she was 14. We've had an encouraging part. It's what she wants to do and she's really driven."

She's hardly alone.

For nearly every athlete who dons a bib at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park in Sochi, there is a tale of injury, rehabilitation and the long and often lonely road back to competition.

"We've all gone through the six-month injury or longer," men's slopestyle skiing gold medalist Joss Christensen said. "You just hope you've got to recover the best you can. It's almost like a wake-up call at least."

For Christensen, it was microfracture surgery on his knee in 2012. He spent three years trying to ride through the pain before succumbing to the reality something needed to be done. Less than 24 months later, the 22-year-old from Park City, Utah, led just the third American podium sweep in the history of the Winter Games.

It would be easy to call his triumph validation for the decision to press forward. Only that's not it. The lure of most of the sports — from halfpipe snowboarding to aerials to skicross — isn't the money, maybe because there isn't much to go around even for those who break through on the biggest stage. For every Shaun White — who is an empire unto himself — there are dozens who have to find work on the side just to keep the dream alive.

And yet they continue on, unable or unwilling to let go.

Blame it on the unmatchable surge that comes when they strap on their boots and point their board or their skis down the mountain.

American snowboardcross racer Nick Baumgartner sustained the first concussion of his career last fall. He was knocked out for several minutes, and then took a few weeks off before doctors cleared him to return. Faced with the prospect of riding alongside five other racers down a series of jumps and turns that would be hard enough to conquer alone, Baumgartner can hardly contain his joy at the challenge he'll face when the men's event begins on Monday.

"If it's dangerous and scary and I overcome it and I do well, that's what I'm looking for: that adrenaline, that rush," he said. "It's the reason I do it. So add more people, make it even scarier, because that's what I'm here for. I want to have some fun with it and enjoy it."