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

Luke Mitrani
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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.”

Shaun White an Emmy hit on Twitter

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

John McFall, Paralympic medalist, becomes first parastronaut in Europe

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The European Space Agency made history Wednesday by selecting an amputee who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident to be among its newest batch of astronauts — a leap toward its pioneering ambition to send someone with a physical disability into space.

John McFall, a 41-year-old Briton who lost his right leg when he was 19 and later won a Paralympic 100m bronze medal in 2008, called his selection at Europe’s answer to NASA “a real turning point and mark in history.”

“ESA has a commitment to send an astronaut with a physical disability into space … This is the first time that a space agency has endeavored to embark on a project like this. And it sends a really, really strong message to humanity,” he said.

The newly-minted parastronaut joins five career astronauts in the final selection unveiled during a Paris news conference — the conclusion of the agency’s first recruitment drive in over a decade aimed at bringing diversity to space travel.

McFall will follow a different path than his fellow astronauts because he will participate in a groundbreaking feasibility study exploring whether physical disability will impair space travel. It’s uncharted land, since no major Western space agency has ever put a parastronaut into space, according to the ESA.

Speaking with pride amid flashes of emotion, McFall said that he was uniquely suited to the mission because of the vigor of his mind and body.

“I’m very comfortable in my own skin. I lost my leg about twenty plus years ago, I’ve had the opportunity to be a Paralympic athlete and really explored myself emotionally … All those factors and hardships in life have given me confidence and strength — the ability to believe in myself that I can do anything I put my mind to,” he added.

“I never dreamt of being an astronaut. It was only when ESA announced that they were looking for a candidate with a physical disability to embark on this project that it really sparked my interest.”

The feasibility study, that will last two to three years, will examine the basic hurdles for a parastronaut including how a physical disability might impact mission training, and if modifications to spacesuits and aircraft are required, for example.

ESA’s Director of Human and Robotic Exploration David Parker said it was still a “long road” for McFall but described the fresh recruitment as a long-held ambition.

Parker said it started with a question. “Maybe there are people out there that are almost superhuman in that they’ve already overcome challenges. And could they become astronauts?”

Parker also says that he “thinks” it may be the first time the word “parastronaut” has been used, but “I do not claim ownership.”

“We’re saying that John (McFall) could be the first parastronaut, that means someone who has been selected by the regular astronaut selection process but happens to have a disability that would normally have ruled him out,” he said.

It will be at least five years before McFall goes into space as an astronaut — if he is successful.

Across the Atlantic, Houston is taking note. Dan Huot, a spokesman for NASA’s Johnson Space Center, home to the American agency’s astronaut corps, told the AP that “we at NASA are watching ESA’s para-astronaut selection process with great interest.”

Huot acknowledged that “NASA’s selection criteria currently remains the same” but said the agency is looking forward to working with the “new astronauts in the future” from partners such as the ESA.

NASA stressed that it has a safety-conscious process for vetting future astronauts who might be put in life-threatening situations.

“For maximum crew safety, NASA’s current requirements call for each crew member to be free of medical conditions that could either impair the person’s ability to participate in, or be aggravated by, spaceflight, as determined by NASA physicians,” Huot added.

NASA said future “assistive technology” might change the game for “some candidates” to meet their stringent safety requirements.

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Ilia Malinin in familiar position after Grand Prix Finland short program

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Ilia Malinin landed a quadruple Axel in his free skate to win his first two competitions this season. Less known was that the 17-year-old American had to come from behind to win each time.

An at least slightly injured Malinin looks up in the standings again after the short program of his third event, Grand Prix Finland. Malinin had erred landings on two of his three jumping passes in Friday’s short, where quad Axels are not allowed, then said he had a left foot problem, according to the International Skating Union.

“I’m a little bit injured, I’m playing it safe, protect it to make sure the injury doesn’t get worse,” he said, according to the ISU.

He tallied 85.57 points for second place, which is 3.39 fewer than leader Kevin Aymoz of France going into Saturday’s free skate.

Malinin, the world junior champion ranked No. 1 in the world in his first full senior season, merely needs to finish fourth or better (perhaps even fifth) to qualify for December’s Grand Prix Final, which pits the top six per discipline in the world in a preview of March’s world championships.

Grand Prix Finland concludes with all of the free skates on Saturday.

GRAND PRIX FINLAND: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Earlier Friday, world silver medalist Loena Hendrickx of Belgium led the women’s short with 74.88 points, edging Mai Mihara of Japan by 1.3. Hendrickx and Mihara are in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final. World champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan, South Korea’s Yelim Kim and American Isabeau Levito already have spots in the Final.

The world’s top ice dance couple this season, Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, improved on their world-leading rhythm dance score by tallying 87.80 points. They lead Americans Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker by 6.87, with both couples in position to qualify for the Grand Prix Final.

Italians Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini topped the pairs’ short program by 4.3 points over Americans Anastasiia Smirnova and Danil Siianytsia. The Italians rank fourth in the world this season behind three teams that aren’t in the Finland field but will be at the Grand Prix Final, including world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier of the U.S.

Smirnova and Silanytsia are competing in their lone Grand Prix this season after withdrawing before Skate America, making them ineligible for Grand Prix Final qualification. Their short program score ranks fourth among American pairs this season, putting them in contention for one of three spots on the team for worlds, to be decided after January’s national championships.

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