Slopestyle, aerials, ski cross, halfpipe, alpine, freestyle … if the Winter Olympics have given us anything, it’s been dramatic, acrobatic, seemingly impossible athleticism to wonder at – and any number of spectacular crashes and falls that reinforce the risks these athletes take every time they gear up for training and competition.
Some concerns have been expressed during the Games that the neither the FIS (the International Ski Federation responsible for skiing and snowboarding) nor the International Olympic Committee (the supreme authority for the Olympic movement) require independent neurological assessment for those athletes that suffer concussion.
Concussion protocols do exist, but they are in effect recommendations. It’s up to the team doctor and the athlete to decide if they are fit to return to the slopes; there are no rules about who makes the assessment, and no protocol to be cleared before any athlete returns to competition.
Given the focus on sports-related concussions across the world in recent years – brought into the spotlight particularly by the NFL – it’s hard to believe that such a high profile event as the Winter Games wouldn’t be used as an opportunity to promote greater concern for and awareness of brain injury.
Mathilde Gremaud put down several more slopestyle runs just 36 hours after hitting her head during a training run. Her fall was bad enough that she was taken to the hospital for tests, but she was cleared to compete. She took the silver medal, but some say that her biggest achievement was not causing further damage.
The long game
British freestyle skier Rowan Cheshire suffered a serious concussion in training immediately before the Sochi Olympics in 2014. It was months before she was back on skis, but another concussion towards the end of 2014 left her suffering anxiety and depression and she walked away from training for another six months and only returned to competition in 2016.
In PyeongChang this week, she achieved seventh place in the women’s ski halfpipe competition, which is an immense tribute to her resilience and recovery.
Professional snowboarder Kevin Pearce wasn’t able to return to competition. He suffered a traumatic brain injury whilst training for the 2010 Olympics which led to years of rehabilitation. He had to relearn motor skills, improve his memory and learn how to function day-to-day. He still has trouble with his vision. But he still rides his board. And works with a charitable foundation that promotes awareness of brain injury.