Skier hopes to inspire others with Pacific Coast bike ride
April 6, 2010
For skier Kevin Yolken to inspire others with his amazing tale of perseverance, it’s as easy as riding a bike.
After he sustained a severe spinal injury skiing in Chile nearly five years ago, Yolken couldn’t move his legs, much less find the power and range of motion to pedal.
But the Winter Sports School graduate will do exactly that in the coming weeks, riding down 1,500 miles of Pacific coastline with high school friend and recently graduated University of Utah skier Chelsea Laswell to raise money for other winter sports athletes who have suffered major injuries. And, Yolken said, to show those fellow athletes first hand just how far they can be taken by a lot of faith and a little luck.
The moment it all changed
In August 2005, Yolken was a talented young alpine skier from Sugar Bowl, Calif., attending a ski camp in Chile during a massive snowstorm. Four feet of snow had fallen the night before he and friends went out freeskiing in low visibility.
Thinking a pillow of powder awaited below, Yolken jumped off a cliff and landed on sheer ice, losing control on the vicious impact and crashing.
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"I couldn’t feel anything in my legs," he said "I was yelling at people to get ski patrol."
He tried to move them but couldn’t, so he figured they were both broken. It wasn’t until he tried to adjust his back that it became apparent there was something else amiss.
"I felt excruciating pain," he said. "It was obvious my back was broken,"
Yolken lay in the snow for 45 minutes until ski patrol was able to navigate through the treacherous conditions. In the meantime, he had come to realize he was completely paralyzed from the waist down.
"I joked with my friends, ‘I guess I’m going to be playing ‘Murderball,"" referring to the 2005 documentary about quadriplegics who compete in wheelchair rugby. "I’ve always been kind of the calm one. I’ve had a lot of injuries. My friends were freaking out, though."
The waiting game
After Yolken was put in the ambulance – it was impossible to take a helicopter into the storm – they began a 9,000-foot descent along a bumpy road to Santiago. There were about 70 switchbacks, Yolken said, and the driver’s haste around cliff edges had the other passengers scared for their lives.
With a spinal cord injury, it is vital to get the patient into surgery as soon as possible, Yolken said, to clean out the injured area and prevent the swelling from causing further damage.
At the hospital, it was determined that Yolken’s spinal cord fracture was incomplete, meaning there was still hope that he would walk again – but no guarantees.
"With an incomplete injury, the possibility of recovery is always there," he said. "But a lot of it just comes down to luck. People work hard all day, every day and they don’t show any progress, and other people just get better."
Yolken remained at the hospital in Santiago for three-and-a-half weeks, spending the first two weeks in intensive care on a liquid diet.
In between sessions of physical therapy and electrostimulation, he was kept busy wheeling to and fro to hospital wards and meeting his many guests, which included the U.S. Ambassador to Chile.
Before leaving South America, he was beginning to experience a little movement in his right ankle and toes.
Upon returning to the U.S., Yolken immediately checked into a hospital in Santa Clara, Calif., for another extended stay. He made further progress on his right side – at first slow, then a little faster.
However, doctors still were unable to measure any muscle function in his left leg. It wasn’t until two weeks after his arrival in Santa Clara – with his mom in the room – that Yolken felt something happen.
It wasn’t much – it barely registered as a movement – but he could again move his left foot.
From there, his progress began to accelerate daily.
He soon learned to stand with the aid of crutches, and he never sat in a wheelchair again. Anxious to get out of a hospital gown and back to the real world, Yolken opted for a trial period of physical therapy at his parents’ house, where he continued to make great strides.
The next step
Trying to return to skiing in 2006, Yolken had another unfortunate accident in Truckee, crashing and breaking his leg.
Today, he is weakest from his knees down, and he has no calf strength in his left leg. This makes it virtually impossible for him to regain his balance if his center of gravity is off, but that did not stop him from taking up surfing and working construction when he moved to Hawaii for three-and-a-half years to attend college.
Yolken picked up surfing literally the day he got to Hawaii, renting a longboard.
"That was pretty exciting for me to catch my first wave on a surfboard," he said. "I was pretty determined that I was in Hawaii, and this is what I wanted to be doing."
He eventually moved to a beachfront house on Oahu’s infamous North Shore – where 20- and 30-foot waves are commonplace – and broke his left heel twice before undergoing surgery for a heel laceration.
Meanwhile in the construction yard, he swung sledgehammers atop scaffolding, testing his strength and balance in precarious situations.
He finally moved back to Truckee, Calif., last October, starting work as a ski coach at Sugar Bowl. In his first full season back on the slopes, he has skied more than 100 days. He had one bad spill, a twisted ankle, but he took it easy the next couple of weeks and felt better than he has since that fateful day in Chile.
"I’m stronger now than I have been since my injury," he said.
Yolken wanted to find a way to encourage others to show fortitude in the face of injury. He just couldn’t pin down the right outlet.
"I’ve been kind of looking for something to get my foot in for the last couple of years," he said. He went on two fundraising bike rides for the Kelly Brush Foundation, which donates money to spinal cord research, but he wanted to do more.
Enter Laswell, who now works in the accounting department at Deer Valley Resort and started cycling as a cross-training method for skiing.
It had been a few years since she had seen Yolken, a friend when they attended the Winter Sports School in Park City (Laswell, a year ahead of Yolken, graduated in 2003), but she thought he might be interested in helping her fulfill a desire to bike down the Pacific Coast.
"The bike ride has been her dream for a long time," Yolken said. "She was looking for a friend who would be willing to take the time off. I’m kind of a person who makes spontaneous decisions, and I think even she was surprised when I decided within a couple of minutes to go."
Yolken’s contribution was to suggest that the ride be done in the name of a good cause.
The 1,500-mile unsupported ride from Seattle to San Diego will collaborate with Biking For a Better World to raise money for High Fives Foundation, a California-based nonprofit. The agency aims to improve the life experiences of winter sports athletes who suffer major injuries by providing scholarships, donations and grants.
Roy Tuscany, co-founder and president of High Fives Foundation, is a good friend of Yolken, and advised him on his fundraising efforts.
Already, Yolken has raised about $10,000 despite soliciting money only for the last two weeks. (It wasn’t a month ago that Laswell first approached him about the idea.)
"I hope the money I raise can help somebody out," he said.
The duo plans to leave April 15, and they are officially scheduled to come back on May 7, with 2-3 days of rest in between. They plan on camping most of the way – with a stop at Yolken’s parents’ house for some home cooking.
People interested in donating should visit highfivesfoundation.org.
"I was so lucky never to have a major injury," Laswell said. "I know so many people who had severe injuries, and I just think it’s a really good thing to give back to the ski community.
"I just hope it doesn’t rain too hard," she added.