USST’s Spencer poised for amazing comeback
Not to get too sappy about the holidays, feel-good tales and two-hankie moments, but one of the warmest stories of the season is being written – and gets a new chapter in Beaver Creek, Colo., this weekend.
The author is Dane Spencer, the no-nonsense 2002 Olympian from Boise who’s spent much of the last couple of years living in Park City as he rebounds from multiple surgeries after breaking his neck and fracturing his pelvis in a racing crash Feb. 14, 2006 at Montana’s Big Mountain.
He had missed the ’06 Olympic Team and, in a bizarre twist of fate that even Stephen King wouldn’t – maybe couldn’t – concoct, crashed in a NorAm race in Montana moments after learning Ted Ligety had captured the Olympic gold medal in combined in Torino. Doctors didn’t think he would live, much less walk or race again.
Maybe Spencer didn’t get their memo. He’s back – no, not (yet) at the speed of a couple of years ago, but he’s got double, maybe triple, the determination to complete with the world’s best skiers.
Spencer, who turns 30 on Christmas, first made the U.S. Ski Team as a 16-year-old in the summer of 1994. He missed out the next year but willed himself back onto the Ski Team for the ’97 season with good race results, and is in his 13th season.
He is understated, leather tough and relentless in his pursuit of returning to racing. Determination is his signature. He doesn’t seek the spotlight, but the spotlight will be on him much of this week; it’s a distraction he doesn’t need, but he’ll deal with it because he understands it comes with the landscape he’s been treading since he got back on skis last winter.
He understands how inspiring his story is, but it’s not in his DNA to chase attention. So, he’ll answer questions respectfully, update the media and friends, family and anyone else…and then get on with this business of racing.
"I take it day by day. I try not to get ahead of myself," Spencer said during a training break in Colorado earlier this month. "I’m on a long road back and there are no shortcuts."
Spencer spent part of last winter rehabbing at home in Park City with teammate Erik Schlopy, who was recovering from another knee injury. He also got back on skis. Sunday, he’ll be in the start when the giant slalom ends the Charles Schwab Birds of Prey races at Beaver Creek for another year. WCSN.com will webcast the race live, starting at 9:45 a.m.
"I’ve been lucky to see some great things while I’ve been with the Ski Team," said Men’s Head Coach Phil McNichol, "but I’m blown away by what Dane’s doing. Just blown away. He had an outstanding series of camps during the summer. He keeps his focus on making each training run count."
"I try not to kid myself. I focus on things to make me ski well," Spencer said.
The freakish timing of his life-threatening mishap almost before Ligety had gotten off the podium in Sestriere – west of Torino, Italy, isn’t lost on the two teammates.
"I’ve told Ted, ‘You have the best moment of your life and I run into the worst moment of my life.’ It was great for him," Spencer said, "and I didn’t get time to enjoy it because I crashed a minute or two later."
If the timing of the crash was bizarre – and it was, a good thing at the time was that an emergency physician happened to be watching the race. He helped provide instant medical treatment. Spencer would spend the next five days in a medically controlled coma as doctors watched his life signs.
Fast-forward to October 2007: after a preseason, which, as McNichol noted, was stellar, Spencer started in the opening race of the 2008 World Cup season. His goal: make it down the hill in without crashing in the first run, then see where that put him. If one swallow doesn’t make a summer, he understands one run doesn’t make a comeback.
He had some butterflies – "I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t," he said – but he kept a lid on the emotions so he could concentrate on the racing.
"I’ve got some hurdles to overcome, some things I need to work on daily. …This road back is going to be fairly long, so I work on keeping it all in perspective. I keep it one day at a time."
He didn’t make the top 30, so there was no second run that day – and there may be none Sunday in Beaver Creek. He’ll mentally file what he learned, re-tweak his engine and technique, and get on with the next chapter in his inspiring tale.
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