The incredible story of Canadian skeleton athlete Evan Neufeldt
While being treated in hospital for epilepsy Evan Neufeldt fell out of bed and broke his neck, yet months later, the skeleton slider was aiming for his very first Winter Games at Beijing 2022. Olympics.com spoke exclusively to the Team Canada athlete.
“In breaking my neck in hospital, in the place I'm supposed to be safest, I recognise that life is dangerous,” Evan Neufeldt told Olympics.com in an exclusive interview in December.
The Canadian athlete was explaining why, despite being diagnosed with epilepsy and then breaking his neck after falling out of a hospital bed while being treated for the disorder, he doesn’t see it as dangerous that he’s gone back to the skeleton track little more than a year later.
The 34-year-old’s aim is to make it to his maiden Olympic Winter Games having just missed out at PyeongChang 2018. But let’s back up. How did the Saskatchewan native even get to this point?
Neufeldt is talking to Olympics.com from beside a sliding track in Latvia, where he’s currently training for one of the three remaining World Cups that will decide not only Canada’s quota spots for the Games, but Neufeldt's personal qualification ranking, and ultimately his Olympic fate. He will find out whether he’s made the team at the last World Cup before the Games, in St Moritz, Switzerland on 14 January.
Angling his phone out of the window to reveal corner 15 of the Sigulda track, which he currently overlooks while chatting over a Zoom call, Neufeldt enthuses about this hugely technical track in which sliders have no time to even make a split-second decision on a run, the race is purely instinctual. His glee is palpable.
Due to this nuance of the sport, the more experience on tracks around the world, the better the performance. This is where Neufeldt is at quite the disadvantage to his contemporaries this Olympic season having not only been away from the sport for a couple of years but also been through trauma, too.
In the early part of his skeleton career, Neufeldt climbed the ranks quickly, the fitness from his early years as a track athlete aiding him in his new endeavour. By the third year of taking up the sport, Neufeldt was competing internationally, by the fourth, he competed in his first World Cup race. In the three years that followed, he saw a couple of world championships and just fell short of making the Canadian team for PyeongChang 2018, ultimately named the alternate.
Persistent headaches for around 18 months, though, prompted him to take a break from the sport, ultimately accelerating his unofficial retirement. In autumn 2019 he had his first grand mal, a seizure that causes a loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions.
A hospital visit in May 2020 wrought additional challenges.
“I had had a seizure overnight at home, so I bicycle to hospital to get the docs to take a peek at me. I was fairly new to protocol – what does an individual do, is it necessary for me to go to hospital, et cetera. They asked me to hop into the bed just to put a precautionary IV in my arm in case another seizure happened and they could easily give me an anti-epileptic medicine intravenously. Then a couple of hours passed and while I was waiting, while I was in the bed, I had another seizure and I fell out of the bed there and I landed head first and broke my neck.
“Luckily I didn’t break the disc,” says Neufeldt but he had broken off one of the arms of the C7 vertebrae, the impact of which caused, among other things, atrophy in the muscles of his right arm and a loss of feeling in his fingers.
“My arm shrunk, my right arm was tiny. I don't have big pecks but my peck was gone and my arm was in constant pain. They didn't know if I would regain feeling in my fingers… I could still use my hand but I … didn't have feeling in any of my fingertips. I slowly got it back, one finger at a time.
“They didn't know if I would regain full function of the right arm, it seems as though I have; my index finger still goes numb, sometimes sooner than anything else, which is interesting but hopefully there's not any long-term repercussions. It’s a little bit unknown.”
Back to skeleton
By this point, Neufeldt had a lot to process and going back to skeleton wasn’t exactly top of the list. Thanks to his athletic background he recovered quickly from the neck injury but his epilepsy was ongoing. He was learning how to keep it under control with medication and lifestyle changes and was managing this new phase of his life when he got a call.
Joe Cecchini, one of Neufeldt’s former competitors, now retired and a coach at Sniper skeleton club in Whistler, Canada, suggested – having checked with Neufeldt’s doctors first – that his old rival rock up to his sliding camp and have a go again.
“He said, ‘Come out to one of my camps. It's fun’,” says Neufeldt now. “And true enough, I went to a Snipers camp and it was a blast… remembering how to slide in Whistler and getting back into it. I had been off a sled for a thousand days, and the first time I hit 140km per hour again was fantastic.”
So the physical joy of the sport was still there, the camaraderie of the club a boon to Neufeldt’s challenging few years but how did he manage the mentality of heading back into an extreme sport considering his recent difficulties?
“One thing I recognise is that, in breaking my neck in hospital, in the place I'm supposed to be the safest, I recognise that life is dangerous. (Driving) to work or crossing the street in a busy downtown centre is dangerous. Skeleton is a controlled environment where risks are relative to the skill of the athlete and the best of the best still crash at times.”
Speaking with medical professionals and deciding to have another go on the ice again is one thing but what did friends and family think of him going back to skeleton?
“My mom would say, ‘Oh, Evan, I don't know if it's a good idea, and my stepmom definitely thinks it's dangerous. So those are folks who already thought it was a dangerous sport, they're not necessarily considering whether it's more dangerous or whether I'm at risk.
“Speaking with the professionals about it, there’s no more risk for an epileptic to be involved in contact sport than there is for any other individual.”
It is this perhaps surprising aspect of having epilepsy that Neufeldt wants to get across to those who also manage the condition in its various guises and not just in sport, but in every walk of life, via his role as an ambassador to charity Epilepsy Canada.
When first diagnosed Neufeldt was of the mind that that was it for his sport career. But with his athlete’s eye for detail he explored his new diagnosis, talking to neurologists, psychiatrists, psychologists, and the like, with one of his main takeaways, that around 67% of epileptics were in control of their symptoms using medication and other means. But that still meant a hefty 33% were not. Neufeldt wasn’t sure where he’d fall but thankfully for him, it turned out to be the former.
After talking with a couple of coaches and his “fleet of professionals” about taking up skeleton again Neufeldt started slowly, “experimentally controlling variables and seeing if sliding had any negative side effects”. So far it’s been smooth sailing, he says, “besides hitting a few walls along the way”. Par for the course in a sport such as this.
The time away from the sport threw up more standard issues, though, fitness being one of them.
“It took me a year just to get back in physical condition, to get back in shape for sprinting. I'm 34 now, and if an individual stops training, it takes a while to get back in shape. So I could jog 10km pretty easily but I couldn't sprint 30m very quickly, and that's what took me a long time to work back to.” After working hard, Neufeldt felt almost as physically fit as he had in his 20s.
Even if Neufeldt doesn’t make the team, he’s proud of his journey, and the awareness he’s raised for those who share his epilepsy diagnosis.
“Even getting back to World Cup now and I am proud of it. I don't know this, but I'm sure I'm fairly certain I'm the first epileptic skeleton athlete on World Cup. Somebody can correct me on that for sure, but I don't know of anyone else."
Neufeldt also receives support from his peers in the skeleton world. Partial to a bit of pottery making, Neufeldt sold some items to German slider Axel Jungk. "I got him a couple of cups and he paid me way too much for them, so I'll give that to Epilepsy Canada," Neufeldt says, smiling.
Taking on the ambassador role with Epilepsy Canada has given him a whole new perspective as to why he's fighting on. "I'm still a selfish athlete but I get to represent a whole group of folks and understand some of the problems that come with this disorder, so it's it'll be more than satisfying if I can qualify for the Games. It'll definitely be meaningful.”
Ultimately, Neufeldt says he feels lucky. Lucky to have the opportunities he has, lucky to have all the support he’s had along the way, and lucky to be able to represent those who have less support than him. There’s something he wants to say to them, which no doubt resonates with us all:
“Even to somebody who doesn't have all the pieces of the puzzle in place that I have, maybe I can show them that one puzzle piece at a time makes the difference. It's not always a full picture immediately.”
The skeleton event at Beijing 2022 runs from 10-12 February with both men's and women's events.