Olympic ski jumper Nick Fairall is sitting on top of the 140-meter Paul Asserleitner Schanze in Bischofshofen, Austria, staring down for a silent moment. Just like he did a year ago.
This time, however, the American doesn’t speed down the hill and fly. Instead, he rolls back his wheelchair and takes the lift down.
On Tuesday, Fairall returned to the venue where a bad crash in qualifying for the final stop of the 2015 Four Hills Tour severely hurt his spine. The main damage was a fractured and dislocated vertebra, which triggered paralysis in his legs.
Slowly but steadily recovering, the 26-year-old Andover, N.H., native is still hoping to return to ski jumping one day.
“Being here now is bittersweet, but it is the environment that I love,” he said at a news conference. “I have been ski jumping since I was six years old. It’s such an amazing sport. It’s a sport that I want to return to. Even today, I wanted to jump again so badly.”
Visiting Bischofshofen and the World Ski Flying Championships in nearby Tauplitz next week enables Fairall to personally thank “our ski jumping community that has been absolutely outstanding” in financially supporting his rehabilitation.
“So many people have come out of the woodwork; people I don’t even know, fellow jumpers, colleagues, fans of the sport,” he said while fighting tears. “I am so grateful, I can’t say it in words. I am super excited to be back here, to be able to thank everybody.”
Fairall remembers every detail of that day he crashed. Just two hours beforehand, he had a similar crash during trial jumping, though he avoided injuries and damaged only his skis.
In qualifying, he landed a routine jump of 123 meters, but leaned forward too much, lost balance, and fell awkwardly head-first.
“The moment I hit the ground, I just stuck,” he said. “I kind of knew I was going to fall … I tried to fight the fall but unfortunately the radius pulled me in, and I hit the ground pretty hard. The moment I hit the ground, I knew I hurt something.”
Fairall fractured two ribs, punctured his right lung, bruised a kidney, and had mild internal bleeding. The main issue, however, was the dislocated vertebrae.
Immediate surgery stabilized him, and he spent nearly four weeks in an Austrian clinic before flying home and starting a two-month rehab at the Kessler Institute in New Jersey.
“Each day I am making progress, little by little,” he wrote on his Facebook page in June. “I now have more feeling in my legs and some movement in my thighs. My recovery is an ongoing process and each day I continue to work towards my goal of ski jumping again.”
The following month, Fairall posted a video of him taking his first steps with crutches. In December, he went back on snow on adapted skis for the first time.
“I’ve been working exhaustingly on my rehab,” he said. “But in the meantime, I still spent time to make sure I was enjoying life, seeing my friends, seeing my teammates, seeing all the people that I love in my life.”
Fairall has competed in 13 World Cups since his debut at the traditional New Year’s event at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, in 2009. Later that month he won a competition on the lower-ranked FIS Cup circuit in Eisenerz, Austria.
A year before the crash, Fairall won the U.S. trials to qualify for the Sochi Olympics, where he placed 35th on the individual large hill.
“Now, in this difficult time of my life, where I had to make a ton of changes, I am using the same mental skills I used during that preparation for success,” he said.
Fairall said he’s planning to get his pilot’s license and to write a book about his recovery. And his dream of returning as a ski jumper wasn’t over yet.
“It will always remain a goal of mine,” he said. “I will make whatever improvements I can to reach that goal.”