Control is a fleeting thing.
Being a kayaker, I should have known that, but as I charged the rapids in the GoPro Mountain Games Steep Creek Race in Vail, Colorado, I felt very much in control. I was in the best shape of my life, racing a specially designed boat that I helped create, as part of a career that I loved. The cable cam zipping above me, the crowd on the side of the river, and the announcer’s echoing voice made me feel like a rock star.
As I powered past the halfway point in the course, I lined up an innocuous five foot drop. I wasn’t worried about this rapid after nailing the line in practice all week, but as I dropped in, my body twisted in a strange way. I lost balance and started rolling left, extending my paddle reflexively in an attempt to save the flip. As I braced, the end of my blade caught a rock, and jerked my arm violently. With the paddle lodged, my boat and body kept going, and I felt and heard my shoulder ripping apart as my arm rotated past where it ever had before.
I knew how serious shoulder injuries were for kayakers. They almost never heal on their own, dislocating again and again, and even with surgery, they often still spell the end of a competitive career. As I rolled up with my other arm, the crushing disappointment of the situation quickly turned to primal fear in the face of a chaotic river. I was in the middle of an angry class V rapid with only one functioning arm. With my left shoulder grinding and shooting pain, I placed the paddle on my good side and realized that I was probably about to get mangled and much more hurt. I felt extremely vulnerable. Any semblance of control was long gone.
Miraculously, I floated straight and true through all three heinous drops, waves and holes crashing over me from all directions, and popped out within sight of the finish line. As I doubled over and cradled my arm, the announcer went silent, and my friends who had just finished their runs stared at me in horror. There wasn’t much to say. The party was over.
I slowly slipped back to consciousness in the surgery room to my girlfriend Ashley sitting beside me, and nonsensical words coming out of the doctor’s mouth. The world was hazy and the whole left side of my body was numb from my fingers to my chest. Ashley and I slowly walked out to her car, and I felt hollow and without purpose. That began a four week period where I needed a lot of help to get even basic tasks done. Taking a shower, cutting a steak, putting jeans on, or signing a check—every painful action required assistance.
While I sat at home doing hours and hours of PT, my athletic relevancy slipped away. Friends stopped calling to go paddling or biking; they didn’t want to rub it in that they were having fun while I was hurt. The paddling community forgot about me. Silence can be deafening.
The primary solace from these worries and the pain of my injury was drugs. I found myself looking forward to the high dosage of Percocet prescribed to me every day, and I can now see why these chemicals cause such big problems for people. I didn’t feel sorry for myself when I was high, but I also knew that road led nowhere good.
Then, suddenly, it was as if the momentum of my life redirected.
The endless physical therapy hours started to slowly pay off, with motion returning to the shoulder joint one agonizing degree at a time. My therapist approved me to go trail running. The endorphins of motion sparked my brain and filtered everything through a more positive lens.
There are two ways to approach any setback in life: you can blame that event and let it defeat you, or you can acknowledge it as an opportunity to explore things in life that might have been overlooked. I did my best to shift to the latter as time went on. And the drug bottle stayed on the shelf.
My injury was a reminder to have compassion for those who live their entire lives with challenges far greater than my petty (and temporary) discomfort. Best of all, the downtime gave me the opportunity to cement every important personal and professional relationship that I had, most especially my relationship with Ashley.
I’ve experienced some very intense things in my life, but nothing that I have ever done on the river has come close to the intensity of kneeling in front of her on a panoramic mountain ridge just before sunset and asking her to be my bride.