SOELDEN, Austria – Less than two years ago, Dane Spencer botched a jump and crashed during a downhill race in Montana. He broke his neck and ripped his pelvis.
His life was in danger and the medical statistics were not encouraging: Nearly 80 percent of those with a “hangman’s fracture” die or become quadriplegics.
On Sunday, Spencer was racing on the World Cup circuit.
“It’s what I know and love to do,” he said. “And in terms of fear, well, the type of neck fracture I had happens most often in car accidents. So am I going to not drive because of the possibility of that? No. So why should I shy away from skiing then?”
Last weekend, he finished 45th in the first run of the season-opening giant slalom on the Rettenbach glacier, missing the top-30 qualifying cut. It was an extraordinary performance considering what happened in February 2006.
Spencer was competing in a lower-tier NorAm race while most of his teammates were living out their dream at the Turin Olympics. He had just entered the start hut when his coaches told him teammate Ted Ligety had won Olympic gold half a world away.
Minutes later, Spencer lay inert in the snow, bleeding internally after failing to land a jump.
“My last memory was coming into the jump where I crashed. The next memory was waking up six days later and seeing my parents,” Spencer told the AP. “There’s a lot of blank tape there.”
Doctors induced a coma for six days and operated on his pelvis. He lost 35 pounds in the first month. Doctors used a halo to stabilize his neck.
Surgeons finally fused vertebrae with two plates and four screws. Spencer keeps an X-ray taken during surgery.
“In the X-ray, the last screw is about half way in and there’s a screwdriver going in with a hand screwing it,” he said. “That kind of creeped me out. I had to ask who screws in the screws? Did they bring in a carpenter to do that?”
Everyone on the circuit was elated to have Spencer back. But in a sport where confidence and mental focus is everything, Spencer’s grisly tale was less welcome.
“I started telling (Aksel Lund) Svindal,” Spencer said. “He made me stop, saying ‘I can’t do that right now.’ I just told him I broke my neck and woke up a week later in the hospital. He didn’t like that. He was like, ‘Let’s talk about something more positive.’ It’s understandable.”
Spencer has lost about 25 percent of the rotation in his neck. And though his return can be considered a victory in itself, it remains to be seen if Spencer can overcome his inhibitions.
“At the end of the day he’s going to have to overcome his demons,” U.S. men’s head coach Phil McNichol said. “But even if we just get to where we were today, it’s been an amazing journey to be a part of and whatever he does I don’t care.”