After being MIA from snowboarding for 10 years, Brittany Sackschewsky shares her comeback story
When I was 14 I was filled with ambition and I was fearless. Snowboarding back then was a breeze. I remember it was a sunny day when my family and I hit the slopes in 2005. I was with my Dad and wasn’t afraid of being alone, but he stayed with me on the mountain and helped me get back up every time I fell.
Now, I could only assume that I would pick it up right where I left off. However, my memory did not serve me correctly. Snowboarding is not something that could be picked up again without practising.
I pushed myself off of a mountain with the sheer hope that my body knew what to do. My feet were bound to a five foot oblong, fibreglass snowboard. The snowboard was sleek, all black except for the word Burton printed in sky blue in simple, yet bold letters.
Without having any time to prepare, I found my board was caught on a pile of snow already carved by other snowboarders. Suddenly I was falling. I tumbled three times before I reached a standstill.
Photo by Brittany Sackschewsky
It was at this mark on the mountain (elevated 7,000 feet above the base) that my body convulsed in agony after the sting I felt on my tailbone.
My instinct was to vomit, I gagged twice and held my breath. I wriggled on the ground helplessly trying to accommodate my clenched muscles from the pain in my backside, in my head, and every muscle in my limbs.
I brought my wet, black mitten to my face to hide my contorted expression. My eyelids were clenched and I was breathing aggressively, panting through gritted teeth. I was holding back tears.
I couldn’t see my boyfriend Matthew. I couldn’t see which parts of the mountain plummeted, I couldn’t see the signs that pointed me to the direction of the safest run, and I couldn’t seem to shift my weight on my board to get me there the quickest.
Although I was not fearful of dying from a snowboarding accident, I knew there was a possibility of serious injury. Feeling fear is natural in extreme sports; it’s what categorizes them as extreme, they are risky and can be dangerous.
A 2008 study by two Australia academics states, “Extreme sports are defined as leisure activities where the most likely outcome of mismanaged mistake or accident is death.”
When I fell I was certain I had broken a few bones in my body. I hadn’t, but because of this, a run that was meant to take five minutes to finish, took me over an hour because I was extremely cautious the rest of the way.
Had I known that the challenge I was up against would test my willpower, character, and physical strength, I’m not sure I would have been as eager to take part in an extreme sport with my boyfriend and his family.
We arose at 8 a.m. on April 4 in our cozy room at the Hidden Ridge Resort in Banff. My boyfriend’s dad, Scott, was busy making lunches for the day.
We hurried to get organized; we wanted to be the first ones to carve into the 30 cm of fresh snow that had fallen over night. We quickly put on snow pants, winter jackets, sweaters, gloves, then grabbed green apples and water bottles for snacks in the car.
The drive to Lake Louise Ski Resort took about 40 minutes. My boyfriend and I sat together in the back of the minivan next to his brother, John, and his girlfriend Stephanie while Scott drove. The skies were a light grey and all that could be seen out of the van windows were the dark green pine trees and the mountains on the road to Lake Louise.
Stephanie and I had to rent equipment. In the rental office we filled out an electronic form that printed after it was completed. I divulged my height and weight: 5 feet 9 inches, 175 pounds, and checked yes to the “beginner snowboarder” box. The lines to rent snowboards and boots went quickly.
After I was assigned my board for the day a young male employee with blonde hair and an Australian accent asked how often I snowboard I told him “once every 10 years” and we both laughed. He didn’t know my stomach was a knot of nerves.
I looked over at Stephanie as we walked out of the doors of the rental shop and said, “I’m so nervous. I have no idea what I’m doing.” She admitted she was nervous too, that she didn’t go skiing that often either but told me it would be fine, to take it slow and to have fun.
The five of us gathered just outside of the Lake Louise Ski Resort a 24,000 square-foot building constructed out of logs. We put on our helmets and strapped on our goggles, but my boyfriend Matthew didn’t wear any protection on his head. The only thing that covered his face were his silver aviator goggles that shielded his dark brown eyes.
We went up together for the first run of the day and Scott had asked if I’d gone snowboarding before. I said confidently, “Of course, I went when I was 14 and I was pretty good. I got this, let’s do this.”
We chatted idly on the chairlift that took us up the hill called “The Top of the World” bringing us 4,350 feet up the mountain. As we came closer to the top I was filled with fear of getting off the lift. I wanted a ride back down.
Photo courtesy of Matthew Kendal
Once we reached the top and the chairlift gave us a gentle push off, I was clinging desperately to Matthew and his dad. My left leg was strapped onto the snowboard and my freed right leg was meant to push the board toward the starting point of the run. The movement was awkward and the muscles in my inner right leg burned intensely. Before we launched our first run I was certain I was going to break my leg.
Matthew taught me how to keep my balance. Once I pushed off he yelled to me, “You got this babe. Bend your knees, and concentrate. Remember, don’t be afraid to use your toe edge!”
His guidance gave me the confidence I needed to re-learn the basics of getting my balance, how to shift my body weight to accommodate the snowboard, and I learned how to carve a hill. I regained my patience. The snow worked willingly with my snowboard and gravity took me down the hill. I let out a quick scream of excitement.
The time came as I glided through the snow when I understood why snowboarding was the fastest growing winter sport, increasing at a rate of 17 per cent each year, according to a study titled Serve Snowboarding Injuries by J.A. Prall, K.R. Winston, and R. Brennen. I was ecstatic. I was going down the hill at 30 m.p.h. and I felt free. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t snowboarding every weekend.
I wanted to come back to the hill everyday. My mind raced to a future where we would come snowboarding every other weekend. A study by Kristen L. Anderson found that in 1988, snowboarders only made up around six per cent of those involved in downhill snow sports. But by 1992, snowboarders constituted 24 per cent of those active on the slopes, and I knew I was about to become a part of the rising snowboarder statistic.
The smile on my face extended from ear to ear. My arms were pointed outward one forward down the hill, the other behind pointing to the top of the mountain. My knees were bent and I now had the confidence of being a snowboarder.
I appreciated the soft bite of the snowflakes on my cheeks and I didn’t mind the sting in my muscles after shifting my weight to one side of my body to the other. I was gliding down the side of a mountain; it was thrilling.
Snowboarding requires a great deal of concentration. My muscles and my mind were fatigued. Though I was speeding down the side of the mountain, there was no time to relieve the pain. I had to concentrate on my path, carving on my toe edge to my heal edge. It was a feeling of utter bliss.
By the third run, the sun was beating furiously down on my turquoise snow pants and matching jacket. My concentration was failing me. The tiny bit of grey sweater that was poking out of my jacket on each arm was soaking wet and collecting clumps of snow the size of golf balls from falling so much. I could feel strands of dirty blonde hair stick to my forehead from sweat. My body was shaking, struggling to keep up with my desire to get down the hill one last time. I would not be deterred.
Most of the injuries in the study by Prall, Winston, and Brennan found that 76 per cent of injuries occurred during the afternoon, when snow conditions are often worse and fatigue may affect both performance and judgment.
On the last run of the day, I had to take several breaks. I’d glide to the edge of the run, slowdown and plop on my backside to catch my breath. I had lost Matthew, John, Stephanie, and Scott but I knew if I wanted to meet up with them again I had to make it down one last time.
I put everything I had into the last run of the day. When I finally made it to the bottom, I was greeted by Matthew standing on the edge of the run. He threw his right fist in the air as I came to a standstill at the base and yelled, “You did it, babe!” The smile on his face was almost bigger than mine.
Stephanie came running down a small hill to greet me, “You made it! We have a cider waiting for you.” The three of us walked through the crowd of men and women, all carrying skis and snowboards. We found a table in the Kokanee Lounge and I plopped myself between Scott and Matthew.
Photo courtesy of Matthew Kendal
The five of us compared our experiences on the slopes. Scott asked, “How’d you do out there?” I hardly had enough energy to respond. They talked about how great the snow was and the tricks Matthew and John did in the snowboarding park. I sat there quietly, reflecting on the transition my mind made from being overwhelmed by fear to extreme joy.
I could hardly clench the Big Rock apple cider in my hand, but I found a way to lift my arm to bring it to my lips. I was so exhausted. But I was left with the feeling of accomplishment. I had done something that terrified me, without getting seriously injured, and I felt like a new person. I was proud of myself. I was overwhelmed with joy and surrounded by people who cared about me. It was an experience I will never forget.
To contact the editor responsible for this story; Melissa Kadey at email@example.com