This article contains references to suicidal ideation. If you or someone you know is suffering with their mental health, call the National Suicide Prevention Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.
For Colby Stevenson and his loved ones, May 8 is somewhat of a holiday.
On May 8, 2016, Stevenson was driving longtime friend John Michael Fabrizi back to Park City, Utah, after tearing it up at a competition on Mount Hood in Oregon. Stevenson had nearly made it through the 12-hour road trip after a long day of skiing when he fell asleep at the wheel.
The vehicle flipped over on the side of an Idaho road.
Stevenson and Fabrizi could’ve died — or suffered severe long-term brain damage from the impact. But miraculously, they survived. Fabrizi’s injuries were minor, mostly to his elbow. Don’t think it wasn’t a close call, though. Stevenson's skull fractured into 48 pieces and was covered in blood.
Hear the full episode of the My New Favorite Olympian podcast
Here’s how his mom, Carol Stevenson, described the head injury after leaving a vacation in Hawaii to visit her son in the hospital: “His head looked like a Jiffy Pop.”
On the final episode this season of the My New Favorite Olympian podcast, Stevenson speaks about the highs and lows of his recovery after the crash. Hosts Ngozi Ekeledo and Apolo Ohno, Team USA’s most decorated Winter Olympian, heard how Stevenson surviving the crash changed his outlook on life.
How Colby Stevenson recovered from a car crash and returned to skiing
Stevenson had a traumatic brain injury, which can have serious long-term effects. And the threat of missing out on his skiing career, plus the lifestyle change from active to bedridden, was seriously affecting his mental health.
“There were definitely times where I thought, ‘I wish I had died in the crash,’” Stevenson said. “I thought my life was just over at that time. … I just couldn't believe what had happened. It just seemed like a bad dream.”
Despite the physical and mental battles during his recovery, there was some good news. Although Stevenson's brain had swollen from the injury, it was not severe enough to leave lasting brain damage. Brain damage starts when the brain swells 9 millimeters, but his brain swelled 8 millimeters and then went back into place.
Still, the TBI was causing seizures, memory loss and cognitive issues.
Stevenson couldn’t remember his friends’ names. He spent early parts of his recovery holed up in bed, watching highlight videos of himself and other skiers he admired. And he had trouble making decisions.
“Even if you asked him what he wanted for breakfast, he didn’t know,” his mom said. For a while, Stevenson was picking breakfast by flipping a coin.
Trouble with decision making is an especially problematic condition for freeskiers because one wrong, split-second choice can lead to serious injury or death.
“I was really unsure that I was going to be able to ski the same ever again,” Stevenson said. “I was having a lot of vertigo issues. Every time I would lay down, I would just start spinning.”
It took a village to get him going again, including some visits from his architecture teacher, Jimmy Flour, whom you can hear in the full episode. Within five months, Stevenson was dipping his boots back into the snow when doctors cleared him for a ski trip in New Zealand with Team USA. He wasn't registered as a competitor, but he was free to ski and try things out.
On the first day, Stevenson did a double cork 1080 with a tail grab, no easy feat.
“When I landed that, I knew I was going to come back. I kind of did it just to prove to myself that I was going to still have the muscle memory and the abilities that I did before the crash,” he said.
Since his recovery, the moments of joy have gotten sweeter, and the people in Stevenson's life have taken notice.
“That really changed him, I think for the better, and made him really focus and have the desire to dial in his craft,” said Fabrizi. “You have a moment like that, or a wake-up call, and you realize how precious and fragile your life is."
Regardless of what happens in Beijing, it’s only a few more months until it’s time for Stevenson’s yearly ritual: taking May 8 to really appreciate it all.
“That’s a celebration of life day for me, whether that be skiing if you’re in the right place, or just going outside and spending it with your friends or family," he said. "Just celebrating your bonus years on this planet."