Part of what makes sports so special is the ability to overcome obstacles.
In the spirit of battle – whether that be on the field, court, track or mountain – obstacles are evident. The opponent is trying to defeat you, and you yourself, are trying to perform at the highest possible level.
Life’s obstacles are a bit different than those in sports. They can be unplanned and they come with unknown circumstances. No one knows that more than Colby Stevenson.
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Stevenson, a freestyle skier for Team USA, suffered a traumatic brain injury in a life-threatening car accident when he was just 18 years old. Now, the 24-year-old Stevenson is set to make his Olympic debut in Beijing this year at the 2022 Winter Games.
On NBCLX’s latest “My New Favorite Olympian” podcast, Stevenson recalled the day of the crash, his long road to recovery, how his friends and family helped him persevere and much more:
The day that changed Stevenson’s life
May 8, 2016. It’s a meaningless date to many, but one that Stevenson will never forget.
After a freestyle ski event in Mt. Hood, Ore., Stevenson and his friend John Michael Fabrizi decided to make the 12-hour trek back home to Park City, Utah. Stevenson won MVP at the Mt. Hood West Coast Session Camp, but Fabrizi suffered a knee injury earlier in the day, so the two friends just wanted to get home.
While Fabrizi slept in the passenger seat, Stevenson grinded out the drive. Trying to stay awake, he took a triple shot of espresso and called his dad to keep him company.
“Get a hotel, Colby,” Bobby Stevenson urged his son. “I’ll pay for your hotel, always. Don’t try to drive 12 hours after skiing all day.”
But it was no use. Stevenson was determined to get his friend home, so they could both sleep in their own beds. Instead, neither was afforded that luxury.
While driving through dark roads in Idaho, just a few hours from home, Stevenson began to doze off.
“I remember being woken up when we went over the (rumble strip) over the side of the road,” Fabrizi recalled. “At that point I was startled.”
Stevenson woke up as Fabrizi yelled his name. He veered hard to the left in an attempt to correct his mistake. The old, top-heavy Ford Ranger couldn’t handle the sudden jerk, and the truck went for a tumble. After flipping, the truck’s roof crushed Stevenson’s skull and ripped off part of the skin on his forehead – knocking him unconscious for about five minutes.
“As a miracle, my phone just ended up on my lap after rolling a handful of times and I had service,” Fabrizi said. “Those two things were an absolute blessing. I picked up the phone, dialed 9-1-1. At this point I’m looking over at Colby and it really doesn’t look good at all.”
Stevenson miraculously stumbled out of the truck just before the ambulance arrived, which probably wasn’t the best idea considering his skull was visible and his face was covered in blood.
Fabrizi exited the truck mostly unscathed with just minor injuries, while Stevenson’s skull was fractured into 48 pieces.
‘We’ll keep him on life support’
Paramedics rushed Stevenson to a nearby hospital, where his parents would eventually arrive after vastly different journeys.
Colby’s father, Bobby, first got a message from the hospital about what had happened. His son was about to undergo major surgery as his brain swelled to eight millimeters, and the odds were not in Stevenson’s favor.
Amidst all the chaos, it was up to Bobby to relay the message to Colby’s mother, Carol, who had just arrived in Hawaii for a “dream vacation” with her then-boyfriend Jeff. It was 3 a.m. local time when Carol got the message that they would keep her son on life support until she arrived.
Carol was shocked upon hearing the news. May 8 was Mother’s Day, and she had just spoken to her son earlier in the day on the phone. As a flight attendant, Carol had been on some lengthy flights, but none felt longer than the one back to Salt Lake City – and for good reason. With her son’s life in the balance, she had to go through four stops to get there – Molokai to Honolulu to San Francisco to Salt Lake City.
“It was very difficult to maintain composure, because you just feel so anxious and upset,” Carol said. “I talked with Jeff and I just said ‘Look, I don’t know what his state will be but I know when we get there we have to maintain positivity, because no matter if he’s conscious or not, he can feel (the energy).’”
When Carol and Jeff arrived, Colby was about to be put into an induced coma. His head, as Carol described it, looked like a little foil container that was unnaturally swollen.
“Hi mom, yo Jeff,” Colby said when they walked into his room. “I’m really sorry I ruined your vacation, but I’m really happy I didn’t kill my friend John Michael.”
Those comments, when Colby wasn’t expected to be coherent, made the nurse start crying. To this day, Colby doesn’t remember waking up at all.
“It was just one of those very unusual moments because they didn’t think he was going to wake up at all,” Carol said.
Overcoming adversity with one goal in mind
One thing was clear after the surgery: Stevenson had suffered a traumatic brain injury, which can often lead to seizures and memory loss. He had sharp, shooting pains in his head, even with various painkillers in his system.
But there was a bright side: miraculously, he did not suffer any brain damage from the accident.
“I’m in the one percent of people that have this type of skull fracture and no brain damage,” Stevenson explained. “My brain swelled eight millimeters, and at nine millimeters is when brain damage starts. Then, it swelled back into place.”
Doctors still didn’t know how his cognitive and motor functions would be affected, or if he’d be able to ski again, but avoiding brain damage was a critical step. Still, that didn’t stop the negative thoughts from creeping into Stevenson’s mind.
“There were definitely times where I thought I wished I had died in the crash,” Stevenson said. “You know maybe I’d have gone out with a legacy or something because I thought my life was just over at that time. I just couldn’t believe what had happened. It just seemed like a bad dream.”
His feelings are backed up by experts, who find similar emotional responses to brain injuries.
“There’s a sense of grief that goes with it sometimes, which is a very emotional response,” Dr. Billie Schultz, a Mayo Clinic Physiatrist, said. “We have people who can get very, very agitated after brain injuries. We have people who can have a worsening of depression or anxiety after brain injuries.”
Surrounding Colby with positivity became everyone’s goal. Even if he couldn’t ski again, he had to maintain a good quality of life.
Jimmy Flour, who was Stevenson’s former architecture teacher, became the person who helped him through the toughest of times. Flour was also a skier, and he too was in a serious car accident when he was 18 – keeping him off the slopes for over a year. To keep Colby’s mind engaged, Flour read books to him for an hour or more every day in the hospital.
“I found that people with traumatic brain injuries, if you read to them and they continue hearing the auditory, their brain can start to reconnect and come back,” Flour said. “So, I just figured I would read to him. Nice and calm, for about an hour, until he fell asleep. I must’ve had a very boring and monotone voice. I wanted to make sure that anything he could hear was helping him.”
Returning home after two weeks in the hospital didn’t make life any easier. Stevenson still had months of recovery before getting back to what he hoped would be “normal,” but no one truly knew how his brain would respond to certain situations.
“I was really unsure that I was going to be able to ski ever again,” Stevenson said. “I was having a lot of vertigo issues. Every time I would lay down I would start spinning.
“Every time I would look in a mirror I would just scream in disbelief,” Colby said. “The thought of not skiing again was tearing me apart.”
And that wasn’t all. His first few nights back home were marred by nightmares. Stevenson would wake up yelling and his mother frequently woke to check on him – and to make sure he was taking his painkillers every four hours.
Slowly but surely, Stevenson began to inch back toward normalcy. He was walking around the house within weeks, and soon afterward he was walking outside and then biking without any issues. Everything seemed to be progressing well, until his parents started noticing the cognitive problems they were warned about.
Colby had trouble making simple decisions, like what he wanted for dinner. And for a freestyle skier, decision-making is critical. When you’re flying through the air, split-second choices are everything – any slight delay can result in major injuries.
There was a legitimate fear that Stevenson’s future wouldn’t be up in the air, it would reside firmly on the ground.
‘I knew I was going to come back’
By November 2016 – five months after the accident – Stevenson was itching to get back on the slopes. He was biking regularly, and doctors eventually cleared him to return to the slopes if he felt comfortable.
That’s when Colby got a call from his ski coach, inviting him to travel with Team USA athletes to New Zealand for a competition.
Stevenson wouldn’t compete with the other skiers, but his coach hoped to get him some time on the mountain to see if returning was a realistic goal. And to everyone’s surprise, that question was answered pretty quickly.
“I was able to do my favorite trick on my first day,” Stevenson recalled. “I did a double-cork 1080, grabbing tail. When I landed that (trick), I knew I was going to come back.”
“He was pretty elated,” Carol said. “And his coach was really the one that relayed it (to us) more than Colby. Coach called and (jokingly) said ‘Why didn’t we just put him in the competition?’”
Stevenson was soon able to return to competition at the 2016-17 Freestyle Ski World Cup. He won the slopestyle event at Seiser Alm in Italy on Jan. 28, 2017 – just under nine months after the accident.
“I got goosebumps when he did that,” Flour said, “because that meant he was back in the game.”
He has bounced back even stronger as he nears his Olympic debut in Beijing. Stevenson, who missed the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics due to a torn rotator cuff, won the silver medal in slopestyle at the 2021 Freestyle Ski World Championships in Aspen before officially qualifying for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
In Beijing, Stevenson is expected to compete in slopestyle and big air.
‘It really changed him, I think for the better’
More than five and a half years later, Stevenson finally feels like himself again – on and off the mountain.
“I would say I’m mostly 100 percent, besides maybe some decision-making problems. Now, it’s just dealing with some neck pain from the crash.”
Now, at 24 years old heading to his first Olympics, he has gained immeasurable life experience.
“Once I was able to gain back that drive and determination to do well and realize that I still have the abilities, it just made me want it that much more,” Stevenson said. “It’s been my whole life’s dream to ski, and just do that my whole life – whether that be at a professional level or just at the best I can. Almost having that ripped away made me much more determined to do well and that much more grateful to be able to travel the world and ski year-round. It’s more about enjoying the moment and enjoying the day.”
Colby’s friends and family notice the difference in himas well.
“It really changed him, I think for the better,” Fabrizi said. “It made him really focus on the desire to dial in his craft.”
Now, the two friends treat May 8 as a holiday of sorts – where they get together and ski. They remain grateful that they are still alive and able to do the things they love.
“That’s a celebration of life day for me,” Stevenson said. “Every year it’s like, ‘All right, let’s do something fun.’ Whether that be skiing or just going outside and spending it with your friends and family, just celebrating my bonus years on this planet. Very easily I could have been gone and missed out on all these fun adventures.”
Stevenson will first hit the slopes in Beijing on Feb. 7 – one day shy of 69 months since the accident that nearly killed him.