Luke Mitrani

Luke Mitrani fortunate to be ‘alive and breathing’ after breaking neck in snowboarding crash

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Luke Mitrani was paralyzed for two minutes.

He lay near the bottom of a sun-soaked 22-foot-high halfpipe, unable to feel his arms or legs. He feared trying to move his neck.

“There was a moment where I really thought I could have died,” Mitrani said.

Mitrani, 23, aborted a frontside double cork 1080 in snowboard training and crashed in Cardrona, New Zealand, at about 9:45 a.m. on Sept. 1. It marked another life-altering injury in an Olympic sport growing not only in popularity and scope, but also in amplitude and scrutiny.

Airborne, Mitrani appeared to give up after the first of a planned three flips, tomahawked back into the halfpipe and landed on his head, shoulder and back almost at the base of the pipe.

“He basically did a 30-foot free fall,” U.S. Snowboarding coach Rick Bower said.

2010 Olympian Greg Bretz watched Mitrani’s trick from the top of the halfpipe. Mitrani was near the bottom, about 200 feet away, but Bretz noticed the danger when Mitrani tried to stop his rotation after that first flip. He bolted down the halfpipe before Mitrani crashed on the snow.

“I’ve seen it before,” Bretz said. “I was there when Kevin did his thing.”

On New Year’s Eve 2009, U.S. Olympic contender Kevin Pearce suffered a traumatic brain injury when a double cork 1260 went awry and he landed on his face. Just before, Pearce had beaten Mitrani in rock, paper, scissors to determine who would drop into the Park City, Utah, halfpipe first.

“With Kev, we didn’t know what the hell was going on,” said friend Danny Davis, a snowboarder who broke his femur in last year’s New Zealand trip. “At least with Squid we knew he was alive.”

Mitrani is known as “Squid,” his Halo video-game handle, to his pals, a group of snowboarders deemed “FRENDS” (there’s no “I” in friendship). The group includes Pearce, Bretz, Davis and Mitrani’s older brother, Jack. Mitrani’s Twitter bio reads, “Just another fish in the sea.”

Q&A with Kevin Pearce on his documentary, Sochi plans, more

Seconds after Mitrani hit the snow, Bretz and Mitrani’s girlfriend were the first to arrive. News spread. So did silence as more gathered.

“He was straight-faced,” Davis said. “You could tell he was getting in touch with his … in the zone.”

Mitrani told them his whole body tingled and he couldn’t feel his feet.

“It felt like everything seriously stopped,” said Mitrani, who practices Buddhism and can do a standing back flip, in a phone interview as his mom drove him from his house in Fallbrook, Calif., to San Diego. “It almost felt like I was floating in this weird … everything was vibrating. I didn’t know what was hurting. I was really confused. I’ve never been in a state of being that, almost like a dream state. I was so confused. When you hit your spinal cord like that everything kind of shuts down.”

His body eventually rebooted enough so that Bretz felt comfortable unhitching Mitrani from his snowboard.

“I remember my finger, then building on that,” Mitrani said. “It was the most relieving feeling.”

Coach Bower did not see the accident. He was working with another athlete at the top of the halfpipe, reviewing video of a run on a tablet. Bretz called him down.

“My first reaction?” Bower said. “I was really scared, obviously. We’ve had some nasty wrecks over the years with Kevin Pearce’s traumatic brain injury, some broken bones and stuff. This was the first time someone had sustained a serious neck injury when they were suddenly paralyzed.

“That was terrifying.”

Mitrani was placed on a backboard and dragged via snowmobile to the ski patrol station. He was grateful as he regained feeling in his arms, bent his knees and wiggled his feet.

He flew two hours on a helicopter to Christchurch, where a radiograph showed damage to the C5 vertebra in his neck. In surgery, his C4, C5 and C6 vertebrae were fused together with the aid of a plate and a piece of bone from his hip.

Mitrani spent two weeks hospitalized in New Zealand. One week was in a spinal unit, where all of his peers were in wheelchairs. He was too scared to sleep the first two nights. He heard the din of older patients with breathing problems.

“I would feel that tingling sensation in my legs and my hands,” Mitrani said. “The drugs, everything, I was paranoid. I was really not myself.”

His brother, Jack, and his mom flew to New Zealand. Mitrani couldn’t eat solid food because of throat swelling, so Jack bought a juicer.

Mitrani was very, very fortunate. He can walk now, he can shed his neck brace by year’s end and snowboard again in six to 12 months.

Mitrani was one of the first men to incorporate double corks when the trick became a must-have before the 2010 Olympics. He learned it without an air bag or safety equipment.

In 2009, he escaped serious injury from a double cork when he slammed his face on the lip of a halfpipe.

With repetition he became so comfortable with it that, earlier this year, he laid out instructions for how to do a frontside double cork 1080 in a YouTube video with explicit language. His main tip was an explicit acronym: “yolofish.”

Mitrani has said he’s broken “every bone” in his body and ruptured a spleen during a painful and precocious career. He turned pro at 10, had sponsorships with Mountain Dew and Lego shortly after losing his last baby tooth and was probably the most talented man left off the 2010 Olympic team.

Mitrani said he felt better than ever this past season, when the master of flips jumped to fifth in the World Snowboard Tour rankings with two Sprint U.S. Grand Prix podiums. He was on the short list of contenders to make the 2014 Olympic team but tried not to dwell on Sochi.

“He would be a lot more successful as a competitor if he was more focused on winning, if he had that drive that Shaun White has,” Bower said. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing. He just doesn’t have that.”

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Mitrani said he was told his neck is now more vulnerable, more fragile, more susceptible to irreparable damage if he crashes again. He’s spoken with Pearce, who at first was determined to snowboard again but changed his mind after emotional talks with his family. Mitrani is not ready to give up the sport.

“It’s definitely going to be scary to go back to snowboarding, but like everything, you take baby steps,” Mitrani said. “Snowboarding’s part of my life.”

Pearce didn’t say whether he thinks Mitrani should get back on the board.

“I put it into much better perspective for him to understand what I’m dealing with now,” Pearce said. “Obviously, they’re totally different injuries. He can really understand what I have going on with being not able to do this sport that we love so much.

“He’s going to have to find out where he’s at and how fragile his spine is now.”

Bower said he would advise Mitrani not to compete again.

“It’s super risky,” he said. “I wouldn’t within in my right mind. I like the kid too much for something horrible to happen to him.”

The free-spirited Mitrani has plenty to keep his mind off snowboarding in the short term. He spreed at Guitar Center upon flying back to California so he can start a “one-man band.” He said he’s adding chickens to his old-grandma garden of avocados, pears, tomatoes, limes and lemons.

Mitrani can’t drive, but he found a Buddhist temple with Vietnamese monks 4.5 miles from his house. He also found a new appreciation for life.

“I’m alive and breathing, and I’m just very fortunate,” Mitrani said. “It’s a good outcome.”

Details on U.S. Olympic snowboarding qualifiction timeline

14 Olympic silver medalists with best chances for gold in Rio

Silver medalists
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The difference between winning and losing can be minuscule. Olympic gold could have easily been silver if not for an inch here or another second there.

While some athletes can seemingly win gold every time they step into competition, other Olympians are left collecting silver. They’re still remarkable athletes, but gold eludes them.

Some of the world’s best have another shot (for some, their last) at claiming the cherished Olympic gold medal over the next few weeks in Rio. Here are 14 such athletes to watch, in no particular order:

Tony Azevedo, United States, water polo
He’ll become the first five-time Olympian in U.S. water polo history, and he was born in and resides in Rio. It’d be a great place for Azevedo to win his first Olympic gold medal. The U.S. won silver in 2008 before a disappointing eighth-place result four years ago. The American men aren’t favored for gold like their female counterparts, but after taking second in the 2016 FINA World League, they’ve got a shot. Maybe Azevedo’s last shot.

Jordan Larson, United States, volleyball
The third-leading scorer for the U.S. women in 2012 as they fell to Brazil in the second consecutive Olympic gold-medal match, Larson will be just one of four women in Rio from that silver-medal squad. They’re favored to win the first Olympic gold for U.S. women’s indoor volleyball, being the top-ranked team in the world and reigning world champions. But to get that gold, Larson and the U.S. will likely need to take down Brazil in front of their raucous home crowd.

April Ross, United States, beach volleyball
She took silver at the London Games with partner Jen Kessy, losing to compatriots Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings in the final. But Ross is now teamed up with Walsh Jennings, who’s looking for her fourth straight Olympic gold medal. They’ll be the No. 3 seed in Rio –behind two Brazilian teams who, again, will have a boisterous crowd on their side.

Sarah Hammer, United States, cycling
She left London four years ago with two silver medals, but heads to Rio with two chances to grab gold. Hammer placed second the omnium and was on the women’s team pursuit unit that placed runner-up to Great Britain. But Hammer and three new teammates are the reigning team pursuit world champions. She also took bronze at the 2016 Worlds in omnium, so gold in that event in Rio wouldn’t be out of the question either.

Neymar, Brazil, soccer
He was supposed to get his gold in London, but the star-studded Brazilian side was shocked by Mexico, 2-1, in the final. So Neymar is back, competing as one of his team’s three over-23 players, seeking Brazil’s first Olympic gold in soccer (men or women). He was second on the squad with three goals in London; more in Rio would help his nation end the drought.

Marta, Brazil, soccer
A five-time FIFA World Player of the Year, Marta is a two-time Olympic silver medalist. She helped Brazil to runner-up status in 2004 and ’08, before struggling to sixth in 2012. The U.S. won each of those gold medals, as well as the 2015 World Cup (where Brazil was eliminated in the round of 16), leaving it as the decided favorite for Rio. But Brazil seeks its first Olympic soccer gold medal, playing the country’s most popular sport in front of the world’s most passionate fans, so Marta and Brazil certainly have a shot.

Alison Cerutti, Brazil, beach volleyball
He nearly had gold in London with beach legend Emmanuel Rego, but the Brazilians fell in the third set in the final to a German pair. Now, Alison has Bruno Oscar Schmidt by his side and the reigning world champions will be the No. 1 men’s seed on home sand at Copacabana Beach.

Yohan Blake, Jamaica, track and field
The runner-up to compatriot Usain Bolt in both the 100m and 200m four years ago, Blake did win a gold medal with Bolt on his team in the 4x100m relay. But he’s never won individual Olympic gold. He owns world championship gold, as Blake took the 100m at the 2011 Worlds after Bolt was disqualified for a false start. But Bolt may be at his most vulnerable in his Olympic career, so Blake, three years younger, hopes to capitalize.

Anita Włodarczyk, Poland, track and field
She’s the world record holder in hammer throw and favored for gold as the reigning world champion, especially considering the defending Olympic champion is Russian and won’t be present in Rio. Tatyana Lysenko won gold in London after defeating Wlodarczyk by .58 of a meter, but her country’s doping scandal will keep her home.

Caster Semenya, South Africa, track and field
Known for a gender-testing controversy that has followed her since 2009, Semenya is the favorite in the women’s 800m, and she could race the 400m too. She took silver in the 800m at the London Games, finishing behind Russian Mariya Savinova and ahead of Russian Ekaterina Poistogova. Neither of those women will be in Rio due to Russia’s doping scandal. Semenya owns three of the four fastest 800m times this year.

Laszlo Cseh, Hungary, swimming
Were it not for a guy named Michael Phelps, Cseh would’ve won three gold medals at the 2008 Games. Instead, he owns five career Olympic medals (three silver, two bronze) all in races won by Phelps. But Phelps enters his final Olympics not nearly as intense as in years past. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, but Cseh has a shot at knocking off Phelps in the 100m and 200m butterfly. Phelps holds the best time in the 100m since 2013 (50.45) while Cseh is third (50.86); Cseh owns the best time in the 200m since 2013 (1:52.91) while Phelps is second (1:52.94).

Qiu Bo, China, diving
Of the eight diving events at the Olympics, China won gold in six at the 2012 Games and claimed silver in the other two. Qiu Bo was one of the two to take second, as he was edged by American David Boudia in the 10m platform. Qiu has since earned gold at the 2013 and 2015 Worlds, relegating Boudia to silver both times. The two should do battle again in Rio.

Pau Gasol, Spain, basketball
Gasol’s chances of obtaining gold are slim considering the U.S. men’s dominance in international hoops, but Spain’s chances of cracking Team USA are better than anyone else’s. Spain has met the U.S. in the past two Olympic finals and actually stayed with the Americans until the fourth quarter both times. The 2016 U.S. team is thought to be its weakest since 2004, though it’s still heavily favored.

Lee Chong Wei, Malaysia, badminton
Lee owns two silver medals after losing in the 2008 and ’12 Olympic finals. He also holds three silver medals from world championships, falling in the final at the past three such competitions (2011, ’13 and ’15). Lee was knocked off by China’s Lin Dan in four of those events, including both Olympics, and by China’s Chen Long at the 2015 Worlds. But his hope for Olympic breakthrough comes from these rivals’ most recent meeting at the 2016 Asian Championships – Lee took out Lin in the semis and defeated Chen in the final. Lee will be the No. 1 seed in Rio.

MORE: Rio Olympics schedule highlights, daily events to watch

Anderson Varejao will miss Olympics

Anderson Varejao
AP
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One of Brazil’s most recognizable Olympians (to a U.S. audience, at least) will miss the Rio Games.

Golden State Warriors big man Anderson Varejao will miss the Olympics due to a back injury, the NBA team said Wednesday.

The Brazil men’s basketball team is now down two of its top four scorers from the 2012 Olympics.

The team was already without Atlanta Hawks big man Tiago Splitter, who underwent NBA season-ending hip surgery in February.

Splitter and Varejao were the third- and fourth-leading scorers on Brazil’s 2012 Olympic team that was eliminated in the quarterfinals after not qualifying for the Games in 2000, 2004 and 2008.

Brazil’s Olympic roster includes four other NBA players — Leandro Barbosa, Marcelo HuertasNenê and Raul Neto.

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