It was deep into the night. The lullaby hours. Colby Stevenson was driving on a quiet road in rural Idaho when “all of a sudden, boom,” he remembered the moment, back in 2016, where it nearly all went away. “I woke up in a hospital bed with my loved ones around me.
“I didn’t know what happened.”
What had happened was catastrophic. After driving nearly 500 miles from a freeski event at Mount Hood in Oregon, where he’d won best trick and was named the week’s best skier, and was doing what he calls “the best skiing of his life,” Stevenson’s eyelids grew heavy. John Michael Fabrizi, in the passenger seat, had broken his leg at the event and the still-teenage Stevenson – a thoughtful kid, heading the same way – offered to drive his friend and his truck back home to Utah.
The crash, which Fabrizi somehow came through unharmed, left Stevenson clinging to life. The truck flipped over several times. The roof collapsed. There were more than 30 fractures in Stevenson’s skull, the largest right between his eyebrows. The swelling of his brain left doctors pessimistic of a full recovery and they put him in three days of a medically-induced coma.
Just how bad?
It was a matter of how much brain damage Stevenson would have on the other side. The big questions weren’t if he’d soar and spin gracefully over a slopestyle course again, or glide across the rail sections, but, rather, how much of him would be left?
The crash was on Mother's Day and when Stevenson woke and saw his mother, Carol, by his bedside, he apologised for the inconvenience. “She’d been in Hawaii,” on holiday, he told Olympics.com. "I was sorry she had to come back.
“And so that’s when they knew it was still me,” added Stevenson, who’d suffered eight milimetres of brain swell, which is the loose dividing line between full recovery and a future of irreversible brain damage. “They knew, then, that I was still right in my head. You know, that it was still me.”
That moment of brief optimism, relief that there was at least some of the energetic and compassionate Stevenson, still in there somewhere, gave way to pain. Months of it.
“The first two weeks in the hospital was kind of a blur,” he said. “I was so drugged up. I was in bed the whole time, you know, my head was broken in so many places.”
Depression: Real pain
After that, off the daily battery of drugs and back home in Park City with his mother taking care of him, that's when the real pain came. “When I got home was when I really got depressed,” he remembered of he and his mother, each day, pulling a bandage off and dressing the wound in the middle of his forehead. “My skull was showing right through and there was this huge open wound. It was hard to look in the mirror and there were all these regrets and hindsight.
“I just thought it was over, man.”
But it wasn't. There was more to come. And from every conceivable direction. He went from a top-tier action sports hero, flying over the world’s slopestyle playgrounds, to a patient restricted to his bed – only cleared to rise for arduous trips to the bathroom. “If you’ve ever had a broken bone it was like that, but all over my head. Everything hurt. All the time.”
Skiing always remained in the back of his mind. “I didn’t have a back-up plan,” admitted Stevenson, now 24 and among the most veteran riders in a USA freeski team expected to medal in Beijing. “I’d be a ski bum if I had to,” he thought when he was a kid. “But after the crash, I was just thinking: I need to get back to it in whatever capacity I can.”
It wasn’t just a lack of options that kept the embers of a return – no matter how unlikely – burning in the back of his battered head. His love of the sport, of being on skis and defying gravity, is genuine. It runs as deep as the loose-packed powder of the Utah backcountry.
On skis at two
Stevenson’s eyes light up when he talks about skiing and how it runs like a connecting thread through his whole life.
Born in Portsmouth, on the USA’s east coast in the state of New Hampshire, his parents – mom a flight attendant and dad a pilot – moved him to Park City, Utah when he was four. He’d been on skis since he was two and, in Park City – Utah’s former Olympic venue and one of Team USA’s official training centres for winter sports – he started out on the race team specialising in Nordic combined.
“But I always loved jumping off stuff and I just didn’t like following the rules,” chuckled Stevenson of those days, packed into a race suit and suffocated by the strictures of cross-country and old-fashioned ski jump that comprised the Nordic combined discipline. “I just thought the race team stuff was kind of repetitive and, like, not enough creativity.
“I’d be in my race suit and I’d just be sneaking off to go and hit some jumps in the park!”
The aerials and unfettered expression of freeski drew him in more and more. ”It became an addiction of progressing and learning new tricks,” he said of a childhood spent learning in the perfect classroom in Park City – with giant air bags and water ramps to work tricks when the slopes didn’t cooperate – to become one of the world’s top slopestyle specialists.
“There were just no rules,” he added of slopestyle skiing and his passion for it. “And unlimited opportunity.”
Perfection with style
“It’s insane,” he said on a video chat from his hotel room a month before the Beijing Games – a pastoral scene of a mythical American West on the wall behind him, covered wagons and buffalo roaming. “To win a slopestyle competition you have to have the fluidity, creativity, amplitude, you know, going big, and, like, basically perfection," he said with a laugh. "So imagine every feature, rails and jumps, you’re trying to do something that’s technically hard, perfectly, and with style.”
It’s a tall order, but Stevenson excelled early. He managed a double podium in 2014 at the USASA Nationals (first in slopestyle and second in halfpipe). He competed for an Olympic place, at the tender age of 16, when the sport made its debut in Sochi. Despite failing to qualify, his future was about as bright as anyone on skis in the United States.
All that shine had come to a very likely end when the truck flipped, rolled and landed, steaming, in a ditch off the side of a remote Idaho highway on that horrible night in May of 2016.
But every tiny step forward was a victory for Stevenson in his recovery.
“I learned to love the small things. A hot shower was the highlight of my day,” said Stevenson, who talks ruefully of the temptations of his early days on the tour, the“ too much partying” and the wide-open freedoms of a young man on the road for the first time. “And playing cards with my grandma. I was just so grateful to do that and it was so fun, and I wouldn’t be thinking about anything else.”
The small stuff
When he was first able to get back out in the world, on his beloved mountain bike, it wasn’t fear that ruled Stevenson but a profound gratitude and thankfulness.
“Getting on the bike was huge for my mental health,” he said. “Just being able to go outside and enjoy, you know, the planet. I had this newfound love. Like, just to watch a sunset was like, ‘holy sh*t, man, like we’re livin’ it, you know?”
Five months after the crash he was back on skis. The doctors, who’d made such frightful early diagnoses, were stunned. But even though he was cleared to return, Stevenson was plagued by pain in his neck (his vertebrae were compressed in the accident). There was also near-constant vertigo, which, for a professional slopestyle freeskier, could spell the end – or, short of that, competitive irrelevance.
“I just thought I’d never be able to go upside-down again,” he said before heading to New Zealand, where he strapped on skis for the first time since his wreck. “I landed that first trick [one of his favourites – a double cork 1080 blunt] and I was like: ‘It’s on. I’m not done. I’m coming back.'”
He was “skiing for the right reasons,” Stevenson remembered of his first competition back since the accident. Up in the smoky Dolomites in northern Italy. The range’s jagged, peculiar peaks inspired him. “Just being in that magical place helped me,” he said. “I remember before my final run just closing my eyes and thinking about all my loved ones and stuff. All the people in my life who have an impact on me.
“I’d never thought of anything like that before in a competition,” he said of the event in Seiser Alm, which turned out to be his first-ever World Cup gold medal. "It was a surreal experience; I just landed my perfect run."
Changed for the better
Stevenson, who went on to win two X Games golds in 2020 and, most recently, a Dew Tour event on Copper Mountain, is in the form of his life ahead of his next big test – the Beijing Olympics. The fear after his accident was that he wouldn’t be the same. But it’s a change that’s moved him forward. He’s the same, yes, but different too. More grateful. More in-the-moment and more alive to the possibilities.
“I’ve never been in such a grateful state and just so full of love, I guess, for the sport," said Stevenson, who won the Dew Tour slopestyle event in December with an elegant nose-butter double cork thrown in the mix at the last minute. “I think that was the secret in the end for me, just doing it out of love rather than trying to win or to make money to pay for my travels and all the other stressors that weighed on me before the crash.”
He also knows now to not push so hard. It’s the reason the still “dangerously competitive” Stevenson cites for failing to reach the PyeongChang Olympics in 2018. He “got wrecked wanting to win the first qualifier so bad,” and had to sit out the Games, and the entire season, with a torn rotator cuff.
That lesson, like so many for Stevenson, came the hard way.
“I guess that’s why the crash is one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he said, an easy half-smile on his face and the scars of his great turning-point fresh and shining between his eyes. “I have a great perspective on life and, yeah sure, I got a huge scar on my forehead and a bashed-in skull, but it’s working. So I’m good.”