Parkite Leyton Sheppard continues to ski despite life-threatening crash
When Parkite Leyton Sheppard woke up on the morning of March 17, he only had one thing on his mind.
“I wanted to race some NASTAR and get back the No. 1 ranking because while I was in Minnesota, my brother Sebastian was No. 1 and I wanted to take it back,” Leyton said. Leyton knew it would only take one good run to do so, but instead of following through with that he set out to do that day, Leyton called his father, Andrew Sheppard, and told him that he was going to pass on NASTAR and do some free skiing.
“Sebastian has worked really hard this year and he deserves to be No. 1,” Leyton recalled telling his father.
So instead, Leyton hopped into the car with his mom as she drove to Park City Mountain Resort to pick up Leyton’s younger siblings Jett and Skylar, from ski team training.
What happened that day changed the course of his career, though it didn’t diminish his love for skiing
When he arrived, Leyton suited up, got on the chairlift and began his ascent up the hill for some fun runs to stay in shape and focused for the upcoming U16 National Championships.
When Maggie Sheppard dropped her son off at the resort, she expected to hear from him in a few hours on where and when to pick him up. After picking up Jett and Skylar and returning home to take care of some household chores, her phone rang.
For Andrew, who was hours away with Sebastian at a U16 regional championship, he expected to call Leyton with Sebastian’s results before heading home that night to see his son.
Unfortunately for Andrew and Maggie, that was the last time they got to speak to their son for the next month.
Leyton, after successfully landing his first jump during his first run, crashed after the second jump so severely that he was intubated on the hill moments after and had to be airlifted to the University of Utah hospital.
When Maggie’s phone rang, she heard the voice of a police officer on the other end asking her if she was Leyton Sheppard’s mother. Not sure how to respond, knowing Leyton had never been in trouble before, she calmly answered “yes” before her whole world came crashing down.
“It was crazy, because I don’t remember much about the drive because I was in total shock,” Maggie said. “I do remember speeding and praying that a cop would see and pull me over so I could explain what had happened and get to my son faster.”
For Andrew, he found out the Leyton’s status from his daughter Skylar (Leyton’s younger sister), who called her dad after her mom bolted out the front door. Andrew, in shock, had to have Sebastian drive them to the hospital in Salt Lake City, nearly five hours from where they were in Sun Valley, Idaho.
“I don’t even know, I really don’t,” Andrew said when asked of that moment. “There are so many things gong through your head but at the same time, there are so many emotions that you can’t really control anything. All you’re truly thinking is that you hope it’s all going to be okay and to get there as fast as possible.”
As for Leyton, he underwent immediate surgery to relieve brain pressure caused from the amount of swelling and bleeding. Unable to respond to commands or breathe on his own, the doctors put him into a medically induced coma following surgery, knowing that the first 72 hours were critical.
When 72 hours passed following the surgery, the pressure in Leyton’s brain did not decrease, causing doctors to tell Andrew and Maggie to expect the worst.
Over the next 12 days, doctors continued to monitor his progress and prepared to take extreme measures such as freezing his body or removing a part of his skull to relieve the pressure.
Those measures never came to pass, though, as the pressure in Leyton’s brain began to drop and he regained partial consciousness 15 days after the crash. He came to slowly at first, with his eyes opening but not tracking, a small hand squeeze or twitch here and there. When he woke from his coma he could not speak, swallow, move the left side of his body, or breath on his own, but simply being awake was all Andrew and Maggie needed to keep the faith that their son would pull through.
“When you’re going through something like that, all you can do is remain positive and have faith, even though it’s the hardest thing you’ll have to do,” Andrew said. “So when his eyes opened and these little things started happening, it helped us as much as it helped him I believe.”
Maggie agrees, saying things truly turned for her on day 19, when she heard his voice for the first time since dropping him off at Park City Mountain.
“Leyton was going to be transported from the University of Utah Health’s NCCU to the inpatient Rehabilitation Center so we (Andrew and I) decided to go and check out his new residency, not knowing how long he’ll be there for,” Maggie said. “The OT (occupational therapist) on staff asked Leyton what his name was and he responded, although weakly, ‘Leyton.’ We then asked if he knew who we were and he said ‘Mom and Dad, Andrew and Maggie.’ That’s when we finally felt some sort of relief about this whole thing.”
What helped the Sheppards get through the ordeal was an outpouring of support from the Park city community, the Park city ski community, and Leyton’s Buck Hill Ski team in Burnsville, Minnesota, as well as competing teams around the country.
“Obviously all of our attention was on Leyton throughout all this so we couldn’t give our other three kids the proper attention they deserved. Although they understood, it was still difficult,” Maggie said. “But that’s when the community really stepped up. They made sure our family had home cooked meals, got to their practices and competitions with no hassle and just really stepped up. I can’t explain how forever grateful we are to be part of such an amazing community.”
Andrew agreed, saying the sheer number of supporters amazed him.
“The amount of people who followed Leyton’s story and offered support is amazing. Stickers were made to support him, U.S. Ski members reached out to him, including Lindsey Vonn and Steven Nyman. It’s just incredible to think about.”
After being in the hospital for 45 days, 15 of which were spent in a coma, Leyton returned home. While others thought that competitive skiing might forever be out of the future, there was never a doubt to Leyton that he was going to get back on skis.
“I always knew I was going to be back on skis, there was never a doubt about that because it’s just who I am,” Leyton said. “Honestly, I’m more upset that about last year’s national championships than I am at what just happened. I look at it like I got 45 days of rest and now I have to work that much harder to make up for it.”
And “work harder” is exactly what he’s doing.
He has re-trained his brain how to talk, eat, walk, and exercise and now attends the Winter Sports School and is currently back in school full time taking a full class load of school work.
Nearly three months to the day after that accident on the hill, two months since he had to learn how to walk, talk and eat again, Leyton strapped a pair of skis on his feet and went to Snowbird to ski for a few hours, just to prove to himself that he could still do it. Getting that out of the way, Leyton is focused on his rehab and improving his strength.
While he still has a long ways to go to being the nationally ranked competitor he was, Andrew and Maggie won’t rule out a competitive comeback for their son.
“After everything he’s been through, he’s never once complained or thought why me throughout this whole process,” Andrew said. “He’s the same version of my son before the accident and after what he’s done to get back to where he was prior to his accident, he can accomplish anything he wants to in the future.”
If there ever was story to describe Leyton’s determination and focus throughout this process, it happened a week before he was allowed to go skiing.
His physical therapist told him that he would have to balance on a BOSU ball for a few minutes at a time, doing different movements on it to prove that he has the correct balance and coordination to ski again. Within 30 minutes of leaving physical therapy, Andrew went out and bought a BOSU ball and the two of them laid it down in the living room and got to work.
One week later, Leyton had improved enough to satisfy his physical therapist and was back on skis, determined to keep living his life on the slopes.
Andrew thinks that, for his son, it’s all in the name.
“Leyton’s initials are LTS, and after all of this, we believe they truly stand for “Loves to Ski”.”
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