*by MacKenzie Ryan 


The scariest moment of my life: a ginger-bearded ski patroller hunched over me and, as he secured my neck collar, asked me if I could feel my toes. 

It was below zero in February. The ten minutes or so I waited for him to arrive decreased any feeling I had anywhere. But I could move my snowboard boots around to indicate I was not paralyzed. 

Maybe twenty minutes before I had overshot a medium-sized jump at speed, missing the landing entirely and nearly making it to the takeoff of the next feature in the jump line. A completely flat landing. The oh-shit moment occurred mid-air. My snowboard hit first and my my body snapped like a whip. Something displaced in my spine. There had been no transition, nowhere to go, and my lower body and core absorbed it all. 

I lost an entire season in a single moment of inattention. I cried hysterically, not because of the pain from the spinal fracture in my lumbar or the legitimate concern I might have long-term nerve, but because I couldn’t compete. The Copper NorAm was one of about six boardercross races and twelve total contests I was scheduled to compete in last winter. 

All that time training: in the weight room, turning drills, passing drills, gliding drills, jumping. All that time meant nothing because now I could barely walk, let alone snowboard. 

I was supposed to pull a start right around the time ski patrol navigated around my race bib and three layers of Under Armour to put me on a backboard. For some reason, I repeated the Lord’s Prayer over and over as the ginger beard skied me down to the clinic. 

I used to put a lot of stock in external accomplishments: the lines I rode in Alaska, where I’d placed in some race or big mountain contest, who coached me, who sponsored me, the kinds of high-level athletes I trained with, the technical knowledge I had about boards, turning, jumping, waxing, whatever. These things used to represent a kind of resume. It was a twisted equation with my goals at the front end and my self-worth on the other side of the equal sign. Make the Freeride World Tour, ride these lines on Thompson Pass, and that means I’m good at what I do, and therefore I like myself. 

On great days, I’d be flying high. But anything less than a great day was not okay. I’d spend the car ride home from Park City or Snowbird obsessing over every turn gone sloppy or every scared moment I hated myself for feeling.  

Breaking my back shattered any existing self-expectations I had. 

Over and over I learned to accept my current limitations, and then recognize they were only current limitations. Theraband exercises in physical therapy eventually turned into core work. Walking turned to hiking, and then to running. When I could carve green groomers, it was one the happiest days I had on a snowboard. 

As my back healed, my mental game started to shift. My gratitude grew exponentially, and so did my intrinsic motivation. I wanted to ride more difficult terrain and bigger lines because of the challenge they presented, but I didn’t hate myself if I rode them sloppily. I wanted to get up on Sunday and go splitboarding because I cared more about the quality of my turns than the quantity. I befriended other athletes who didn’t care so much about what their contests results were, or what snowboard industry people thought. Days where I didn’t ride well, that was okay, too. Tomorrow would be better. If not, that’s okay, too. My self-worth ceased to be connected to anything I accomplish. 

By mid-summer, I could run four miles. I started lifting weights and doing calisthenics with a conditioning coach. 

Sometime in late summer or early fall, I met and surpassed my previous concept of 100%. Now I train five days a week, following an intense conditioning program at Massif Athletics in Salt Lake City. In between sets of throwing and catching weighted ball last Saturday, I told my coach between pants how stoked I was to be working this hard. It’s an exciting thing to appreciate what your body can do and fulfilling to pursue what you want to--just because you want to.