Lying on a ski slope four years ago today, Courtney Strait couldn’t move her hands and feet.
An icy fast track caused her to overshoot a jump, hurling her off a second jump during a skiercross trial in the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colo.
“I landed past the landing on one of the first jumps and got compressed and smooshed like a slinky,” said Strait, now 29. “I caught way more air than I was catching in training.”
She’d broken her neck — fractured her C6 vertebrae — and her planned comeback to ski racing after college was over. Her spinal cord was spared, except for the temporary pinching of it she felt on the slope when she couldn’t move her extremities.
If the vertebrae had broken just a bit differently, she would have been paralyzed.
“I remember specifically running into three people that next year who had fractured C6 and they were in wheelchairs. It was really weird to be on the lucky side of it,” Strait said.
Four years later, Strait is coaching skiing and enrolled in a doctor of physical therapy program at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, N.H., a career her recovery led her to consider.
“The thing that I saw that was missing was an empathetic side where they could actually understand the pain that their clients are going through,” Strait said of some of the physical therapists she saw after multiple surgeries from various injuries during her ski career, including the broken neck. “I don’t want to see people get discouraged from their injuries.”
It’s been hard for her to not get discouraged.
The Clifton Park native and former Shenendehowa High School student was a 15-year-old prodigy when she was accepted to the U.S. Skiing Team, the youngest at that time. She competed around the world and hoped to get back into the sport at the Winter X Games in 2007.
The loss of her professional ski racing career is still a huge gap in her life.
“My whole ski career is just going through one big transition,” Strait said. “I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. I need some kind of supplemental adrenaline rush every day.”
She can still hike, walk her dog, Jupiter, and even surf if the waves aren’t too high.
But that’s not much for a former physical daredevil — skiercross is a downhill obstacle course with jumps and drop-offs — and Strait said she’s lost relationships because she can’t do the things she used to: “I’ve lost that part of my identity, and that’s been the hard part.”
Because three of her vertebrae were fused together in surgery, Strait’s neck bones are vulnerable.
“They put my neck back together by harvesting something from my hip,” she said.
That day, her parents, Bruce and Kathleen Strait, saw her accident on projector screens as they waited at the bottom of the course.
Strait spent three days in the hospital, came home to Clifton Park and started rehabilitation after about a week. She was outside snowshoeing with her mom after two or three weeks. She wore a neck brace for months.
A year later, she was back on skis.
“I casually ski. I try not to let my skis leave the ground,” Strait said.
She recovered by working on a fishing boat in New Hampshire and coaching skiing.
She’d worked for eight years before the accident on the 41-foot Duffy on chartered day trips around the Gulf of Maine.
“I couldn’t do too much for the first few months,” Strait said. But the captain let her steer the boat out at sea, and eventually she was able to catch and filet fish and maintain the boat.
“For me, that was kind of a big part in rebuilding my confidence.” She got her own captain’s license afterward.