Charmaine’s Story

Charmaine’s Story

On February 1 2009, I was practicing for an upcoming Half pipe competition. I had been riding strong all day, having fun with friends, and it was a beautiful day at Mt. Norquay. I was ranked #2 in Canada for Half Pipe, and with the Olympics only 1-year away things were looking really promising and exciting! After 6 years of intense training and dedication I was on the perfect track to qualify to represent Canada and achieve my dream of competing on my home turf at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics!

halfpipe-shot_new

I had been practicing different tricks off various jumps and after lunch decided to push myself to go a bit faster to get more air off the next jump and make the trick look smoother. The best way to go faster when snowboarding is to remove a speed turn out of the approach to the jump, and that’s what I did.

Unfortunately the snow speed had changed since before lunch and I caught the heel edge of my board as I was taking off the end of the huge jump – and I ended up rotating the trick too much, as well as getting off axis, and too far back in the air. I knew something was very wrong as I flew though the air.

After what felt like eternity in the air I landed at the end of the landing of the jump (where the ground is almost flat instead of sloped) directly on my tailbone. Immediate agony set in, I couldn’t move my legs and there was extreme pain in both of my feet. The first thing I did was try to move my legs, and I couldn’t. Panic set in, the worst nightmare of any action sport athletes was creeping into my mind – being paralyzed and never doing the sport I was so passionate about, let alone walking, ever again.

I was able to move my arms, and this gave me a glimmer of hope and relief amid the chaos of the crash. By now my friends (and many onlookers) who saw the crash were surrounding me.Many people had witnessed the crash from the nearby chairlift and it looked bad. Athletes in a sport have a way of knowing how devastating a crash is by the way the body reacts upon contacting the ground, and fellow snowboarders knew that this was going to be a big injury by the look of the crash.

Under my snowboard goggles I was crying and just trying to process what was happening. Ski Patrol showed up and did their best to assess the injury and they could tell there was a spinal cord injury, so I was mounted on a spine board. My faith helped me try to stay calm and I just kept praying to God for the best outcome – more specifically that I would not be paralyzed. I was taken to Banff in an ambulance, but the staff there was not able to help any more then giving narcotic drugs for the immense amount of pain I was in. I was then sent directly to the Emergency Department at Foothills Hospital.

A lot of this experience was a huge blur due to all the drugs I was prescribed for my nerve pain, but there are certain moments I’ll never forget. One particular moment that sticks out to this day is seeing my father with tears in his eyes. The neurosurgeon who was explaining the emergency surgery he needed to perform on my spine had just told my father the worst-case scenario – I potentially would never walk again.

The result of this huge crash was that I had a burst fracture of my T12vertebrae (right in the middle of the back between the neck and the tailbone), fractures of the spinal processes above and below T12,fracture of the L1 vertebrae, the L5 vertebrae slipped forward over my S1 vertebrae – and lastly and most concerning I had a severely bruised spinal cord from the fragments of the T12 vertebrae having thrust into the spinal cord upon the burst. I had surgery to remove the bone fragments from my spinal cord and to rebuild the T12 vertebrae in my mid-back by placing screws and rods above and below the burst vertebrae – in the T11 and L1 vertebrae – in order to help fixate the burst fracture.I now have a lots of pins and screws in my spine helping to keep everything in place.

Through the years of competitive snowboarding, I had truly become an “Iron-Woman” – lots of metal in my back, knees (from previous ACL reconstruction surgery in 2005) and in my right arm (from previous radial fixation surgery in 2007). As a National level athlete in the sport of Snowboarding, injuries are part of the process and just a speed bump to overcome on the way to growing as an athlete!

Broken

The surgery was well done (an overall success) and I was placed in a full back-brace to allow the spine to heal. I spent a month in the hospital re-learning how to do everything from using the bathroom to taking my first steps. Taking my first step was an incredible moment for me, as well as my friends and family, who were there every step of the way. The recovery process from this accident was the most challenging, frustrating, and life changing event in my life, and I will tell you that this experience has helped shape the motivated, driven, and empathetic person I am today.

back-brace

I did daily rehab in the hospital and was able to start walking with more and more confidence every day. I also had to re-learn all my old motor patterns, and over the next 6 months I worked hard day and night to make a full recovery. I put 100% of my mental and physical ability into this because I still wanted to compete at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, which were scheduled exactly 1 year from the injury. My bones healed nicely, but since I suffered severe motor and sensory nerve damage in certain segments of my spine I had a lot of lower body nerve weakness, especially on my left side.

I spent hours in the gym, at physiotherapy, and working on staying positive even though frustration crept in on a daily basis. My first turns back on my snowboard were in Whistler, BC on the high altitude glacier in July – just 6 months after the crash! This experience was humbling because snowboarding felt so foreign to me, due to the nerve damage, but I was grateful just to be able to be back on the board! Determined to continue to heal and push for the Olympic Team I flew to New Zealand to train in August and September (since it was their winter).

new-zealand-winter-riding

Ten months after the injury I was in Colorado ready to compete in the 2nd last qualifying event for the 2010 Olympics.I still had my heart set on the Games, but sadly my body wasn’t where it needed to be. I was afraid and discouraged at how I was riding, and I ended up falling in a training run and broke my tailbone.

This was a really frightening experience, given what had happened less than a year prior, and I was forced to the sideline in order to take a good look at my life, what I was doing, and what I wanted to do in the future.

I made the painful decision to take 6 weeks off and let my tailbone heal, which meant I was ultimately making the decision (with the strong influence of my doctor) to let my body heal rather than to keep pushing to qualify for the Olympics.

Although I realized that life, having a family, and pursuing a meaningful career after athletics were all extremely important, it was still the hardest decision I have ever had to make. It was the right decision, but it was not easy to give up that dream.

Because of my ranking in Canada as a National team athlete, I was invited to be an alternate/forerunner for the Canadian team at the 2010 Olympics. I had the opportunity to forerun – which means I was able to ride the Olympic Half Pipe with all my friends and other athletes I had known and competed with for the past few years. This was the next best thing to actually representing Canada at the Games – and I had an amazing time participating in the Games! It was really the perfect closure on a really fun career and any bitterness was washed away as I changed my mindset to be grateful for all I had experienced as an elite snowboarder and all the exciting things the future would inevitably bring!

charpipe

Two years after the crash I had a fairly extensive EMG and nerve conduction studies done, and the results were not what I was hoping for. I had worked tirelessly in physiotherapy and the gym to recover, but unfortunately I couldn’t fully control how fast and how fully the spinal cord could heal. I was told that I had permanent, moderate-to-severe nerve damage in several major muscles in my legs (more severely on the left side). My Physiatrist told me that I should not expect a whole lot more improvements because 2 years is the window where people see the healing occur, after that 2 years any further healing is negligible.

The Physiatrist that conducted the studies said that she was amazed I was even able to snowboard at any level based on the extent of nerve deficits I still had. As an athlete I had always worked as hard as humanly possible to see better results, so the hardest part was that no matter how hard I pushed my body there were now real limitations to how much I could do as a result of the spinal cord injury. The results of this nerve testing were discouraging, but also further motivated me to keep up my rehabilitation exercises – and to this day, over 5 years later, I still have 1 workout a week dedicated to strengthening the more challenging areas from my injury so I can maintain some function in the damaged areas.

char-lunge

I gave it my all in my push for the Olympics, and I am thankful that I had the goal of the Olympics to keep me pushing forward towards a full recovery – because without that I admit that I would not have recovered nearly as well!

I still have a love for the sport of snowboarding, and it will always have a special place in my heart. I stay involved in the sport of snowboarding as a participant, as well as doing some coaching and judging, and pre-season fitness conditioning to help people be as strong as possible on the snow! I also got a huge opportunity for one last shot at snowboarding glory – I was featured as one of the snowboarders (as well as the snow-angel girl) in the recent Travel Alberta ads. I’m wearing blue pants and a grey jacket – the video can be seen here

char-fun-snow

After the 2010 Olympics, I finished my last semester of Kinesiology at U of C and became a personal trainer to help people with their fitness and injury rehabilitation goals. My career in snowboarding has taught me perseverance, the importance of goal setting, and taking risks that push you out of your comfort zone on a daily basis. I use the power of positive thinking, meditation, and regular goal setting to keep moving forward in life and keep myself filled with purpose, passion, and joy! I really believe that everything happens for a reason and without all the events occurring as they did I might not have met my amazing husband Patrick who I married in February 2013 and now run Ironside Fitness with!!

PAT-&-CHARMAINE---2.23

outside-of-studio

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