Snowboarder’s recovery putting him on track as Olympic hopeful
vail » Eleven years later, Steven MacCutche on recalls the strange sensation he felt while soaring and falling 30 feet in a boardercross accident at Copper Mountain before landing on his head, suffering a traumatic brain injury that nearly killed him.
His survival was so improbable, the Vail native and his family regard it as miraculous. Hewould leave the sport for six years, believing his Olympic dream to be gone. Nowhe’s competing again in hopes of making the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and if he gets there, he wants to share his “miracle” with the world.
Mac Cutche on was 17 years old the day of the accident— April 6, 2005.
“I remember falling, and itwas a pretty amazing experience,” MacCutcheon said. “I’m a strong Christian, and I felt like it was God’s hand pulling me slowly down. It wasn’t scary, it wasn’t a fearful
“I’m learning it’s not about making it somewhere, it’s about the story I can communicate to others to bring hope and joy into their lives.” Snowboarder Steven MacCutcheon, on returning to his sport years after a traumatic brain injury
experience, I felt like I was held in somebody’s hand, being brought down.”
The peace he felt before being knocked unconscious was followed by urgent efforts to save his life. His mother, Pam, was having lunch in the base area when she got the news that something terrible happened to her son.
“Afriend of his came running in and said, ‘We need you out here,’ ” Pam said. “I heard some girl say, ‘I don’t think he made it.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, Lord, help me.’ I’m just crying out to the Lord, like, ‘You’ve got to give me strength.’ ”
Steven had to be resuscitated at the site of the crash and was placed in a medically induced coma in the clinic at Copper. Hewas resuscitated two more times on the Flight for Life trip to the old St. Anthony Hospital in Denver. When they cut off his race suit, they found the American flag Steven always carried when he raced to honor his grandfather, an Iwo Jima survivor.
“The Flight for Life guy folded the flag in the trauma room, gave it to me and said, ‘I’m so sorry,’ ” Pam said.
It’s no wonder he thought Steven wasn’t going to make it. MacCutcheon had suffered two brain hemorrhages, which seemed certain to cause swelling of his brain. Doctors were prepared to drill holes into his skull to relieve pressure when Steven suddenly sat up. Later, as he slept while familymembers surrounded him in prayer, another amazing thing happened.
“We were saying, ‘Steven, we have so many years ahead of us,’ ” Pam recalled. “A little tear came down (from) his eye. Then he opened his eyes. They asked him if he knew his phone number, his name — he knew everything.”
In addition to the brain hemorrhages, Steven had suffered a “shear” injury. One hemisphere of his brain moved more than the other, disturbing connections between the two.
“Even though Iwas sitting up, talking, apparently it was very limited and it wasn’t like I was making any sense,” said Steven, 28. “Therewas still a fear ofwhat the future would hold, but it was definitely God’s intervention to save me.”
He never had any swelling of the brain but faced a long, hard recovery. He required home care with a speech therapist. It was hard for him to speak, to come up with the right words even though he knew what he wanted to say.
“The highlight reel was definitely in the hospital, waking up, but then everything kind of hit true rock bottom in my life,” Steven said.
He had shattered his right shoulder and torn the rotator cuff. That had to be surgically repaired, so he couldn’t snowboard the following winter.
“I was really depressed,” Steven said. “It was April when the accident happened. I made it through the summer, but as winter was approaching, Iwas very, very upset because I was not preparing for snowboarding. Iwas on a lot of medications, too. They were afraid of seizures and a lot of things that happen after a traumatic brain injury. I was pretty medicated. That was challenging in itself, because it led me into a dark road.”
He moved with his family to South Carolina, where his grandparents lived, thinking it would be better to be far from snow, but that made things worse.
“I was away from snow, which was good, but I didn’t have any passions to fulfill these Olympic-sized dreams I had,” he said. “I was known in the Vail Valley as an aspiring Olympian. Next thing I know, I’m sitting in a chair playing video games, thinking about the old days when I could do that.”
He found an outlet in music, discovering a talent for keyboards he never knew he had. Soon he was playing with the worship band at a church in Myrtle Beach.
“I thought, ‘OK, this is what I’m doing. God has replaced my ambition for snowboarding, he’s put this ambition of music in my heart now, so I’m going down this road.’ ”
He moved back to Vail. When Christian musician John David Webster came to town for a concert, Steven got to play for him. Webster was impressed, offering to record Steven and his brother at his home studio in Indiana. Soon Steven was living in Indiana, playing with Webster’s band.
Then Webster took a job as the music leader at Calvary Chapel in Edwards and Steven moved back to Vail for the second time. Steven still thought hewas through as a competitive snowboarder, but that changed one day when he and Webster went snowboarding for fun. Webster was blown away by the way Steven ripped that mountain.
“He was like, ‘You’re a good keyboard player, but snowboarding is your gift. Nobody else can snowboard like you,’ ” Steven said.
Thatwas 2011, six years after the accident. Steven got a brain scan, which showed his brain was completely normal, so he got the go-ahead to compete again.
“If that’s not true confirmation of the miracle and the direction of the story for (God’s) glory, I don’t knowwhat is,” Steven said. “I’m just a guy who fell on his head.”
He had to work his way up, but in 2013 he earned his first-ever World Cup start, fulfilling a childhood dream. He didn’t qualify for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but last season he had four podium finishes in NorAm Cup races. He got married in August, and in December he claimed his first NorAm victory in a race at Buck Hill, Minn.
“I’m learning it’s not about making it somewhere, it’s about the story I can communicate to others to bring hope and joy into their lives,” Steven said. “To see people who are downand realize, ‘Iwas there once, too,’ I can relate, I can communicate in a much grander way.”
He would love to make the Olympics to represent his country and “fight for a medal” to honor his grandfather’s service. But there’s more.
“I have these dreams of being there, having my family there, having the people who were there the day of my accident, watching the impossible become possible, the thing that could never happen happen. That’s what I’m going for, to become that inspiration. Whatever comes in life, with the power of prayer, the power of God— I give him all the glory because he’s the one that can empower these steps to finish the journey set out for you.”
Professional snowboarder StevenMacCutcheon does a run at Beaver Creek on Thursday. Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
StevenMacCutcheon, pictured at Beaver Creek, had four podium finishes in NorAm Cup races last season. He gotmarried in August.
StevenMacCutcheonwould love tomake the Olympics to represent his country and “fight for amedal” to honor his grandfather’s service. Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post