Colby Stevenson, his life saved in 2016, leads first U.S. Olympic freestyle skiing qualifiers

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The first set of freestyle skiers to meet U.S. Olympic team qualifying criteria includes one of the incredible comeback stories in sports today.

Colby Stevenson, left fighting for his life five years ago after a skull-shattering car crash, became the first American slopestyle skier to meet Olympic qualifying criteria via his No. 2 world ranking in a list published Tuesday.

Also meeting Olympic qualifying criteria this week via world rankings: fellow slopestyle skier Mac Forehand, aerials skiers Megan Nick, Winter Vinecki (an all-continents marathoner set to become the first Winter Olympian named “Winter”), Chris Lillis and Justin Schoenefeld and moguls skiers Jaelin Kauf and Hannah Soar.

LIST: Team USA athletes qualified for 2022 Winter Olympics

Stevenson earned his place with accolades including a 2020 X Games Aspen title and 2021 World Championships silver medal.

But none of that seemed possible after what happened on Mother’s Day 2016.

Stevenson fell asleep at the wheel while driving a friend’s truck, it rolled over several times, the roof collapsed, and he suffered a traumatic brain injury. Stevenson shattered his skull in 30 places, his neck was “crushed like an accordion,” along with a broken eye socket and ribs. He was placed in a medically-induced coma for three days.

“I’m in the one percent of people that have this type of skull fracture and no brain damage,” Stevenson said in a My New Favorite Olympian podcast episode to be published just before the Olympics start in February. “My brain swelled eight millimeters, and at nine millimeters is when brain damage starts.”

He spent two weeks in a hospital, then another month bedridden at home, living “painkiller to painkiller” every four hours. His mom fed him a side of oatmeal with the 4 a.m. dose. Memory loss and decision-making problems persisted. He said earlier this year that he’s still not as sharp as he once was and feels lingering neck pain.

“It was not looking good for me, but I never once thought in my head that there was another option for my life,” than skiing, he said. “I didn’t have a back-up plan other than to be a professional skier.”

Five months after the crash, Stevenson returned to training in a preseason camp in New Zealand. He did his favorite trick on the first day, a double cork 1080 grabbing the tails of his skis.

“When I landed that, I knew I was going to come back,” he said.

Stevenson won in his first World Cup event post-crash, but his 2018 Olympic dreams were dashed by a torn rotator cuff in late 2017.

Stevenson, who grew up in the 2002 Olympic skiing venue of Park City, Utah, came back to win the biggest annual prize in the sport — the X Games — in 2020. Then in a 15-day stretch last March, he all but secured a 2022 Olympic berth by placing second at the world championships and winning a pair of World Cups.

Any doubt was erased this week. U.S. Ski and Snowboard criteria states that its top two freestyle skiers per gender in a number of disciplines in world rankings as of Dec. 22, provided they are top six overall, will be nominated to the Olympic team.

The International Ski Federation updates its rankings in most disciplines every two weeks or so — this week and then again the first week of January. Therefore, the list published earlier this week will still be in place on Dec. 22 for aerials, moguls and slopestyle.

Slopestyle skiers can also compete in the new Olympic event of ski big air.

U.S. Ski and Snowboard will not name its full teams until next month. Athletes must be approved by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

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