Changing Course

The Friday before finals week, I decided to take the day to go skiing at Whiteface to let off some steam before the stressful week to come. My friends and I made the 3 hour trek to the mountain and had an absolutely amazing day on the snow together. On our very last run of the day, I hit a soft spot of snow and hit the ground extremely hard… going extremely fast. What follows next is a series of events that I put together from various sources, because I do not remember anything from these moments.

I was skiing in the back of my group of friends, but another person from my school saw me fall and lay there for a while. He came down to check on me as I got up and managed to utter the words “I hit my head really hard.” He tried to get me to ski down slowly with him but instead I got up and quickly skied straight down the mountain. I had my headphones in and my dad called as I was skiing down. From what he said, it was a very weird conversation that didn’t sound like it was me talking. I told him I hit my head, and he told me to go to ski patrol.

Here is where my memory starts coming back. Last thing I remembered was taking a tumble and everything going black. Next think I know I’m sitting in ski patrol with my ski boots off and my normal clothes on, my two friends are there and the ski patroller is on the phone with my dad. Another patroller is asking questions that I knew I should know the answer to; questions like, “When is your birthday? Where do you go to school? What day is it?” I couldn’t answer any of them, and it was so frustrating I started to cry. I had never experienced anything like this before. I have a sharp brain and a high GPA, this was all scary and foreign to me. I went to the hospital and was prescribed a few days of dark rooms and no screens. And so my 6 month recovery began.

The next few weeks were Christmas break, and I did a whole lot of laying around and trying to let my brain heal. I postponed my exams until after January, which helped tremendously. Up until it was time to go back to school, I was dealing with a relatively normal recovery of a few weeks. It wasn’t until I tried to study for my exams from the last semester that I started to break down. After a long rest from any strenuous brain activity, studying for my Genetics exam was quite overwhelming. It felt like my once smart brain was replaced with that of a very different person. I got emotional every time I tried to focus. Studying for this class usually took about 2 or 3 days of straight work. Now, after a week, I had only retained a fragment of the material. This was my sign that I needed to take the semester off from school; there was no way I would be able to take a full load of science courses with this brain if I couldn’t even study for one class.

Looking back on my semester off, I have blocked away most of the pain and try to only remember the good memories. But for the sake of all the other people who may be going through the same thing I did, I have dug up the bad memories from my brain to tell here. Every day, I would go to bed around 8 or 9pm, and sleep or stay in bed until around noon time. It would take all of the energy that I could possibly sum up to get myself out of bed and dressed to go to physical therapy or do my daily exercises. Sometimes I would wake up with a normal amount of energy, and sometimes I would wake up with absolutely none. I had no idea what controlled how much energy I had, I would just have to hope that I would have enough energy the days I needed it. I would wake up and eat toast or cereal, bread and carbs felt like “brain food” to me, they always gave me more energy. So I tried to eat a lot whenever I could, but I couldn’t exercise so I wasn’t always very hungry; quite the catch 22.

For about 3 or 4 months, the extent of my exercise was going for a walk for a maximum of 10 minutes before I would get a debilitating headache that would put me in bed for the rest of the day. On a bike, I could get maybe 15 minutes on a good day. As an active athlete, these were the most torturous months of my life. I wanted more than anything in the world to be able to just go for a short run, or a longer bike ride, but anything that raised my blood pressure was a recipe for disaster. It felt as though my brain was too big for my head any time I exercised. The only thing that helped was time, rest, and listening to my body.

This forced semester off from school, turned out to be the best thing I could have ever done for myself. Despite the extreme pain in some days, I managed to squeeze the most I could out of the few good days I had. I was no longer competing in ski racing and it no longer took up the entirety of my life. I traveled all over New England, reconnected with old friends, and eventually ended up traveling to Montana to visit one of my oldest and closest friends at Montana State University. Seeing this part of the country drew me in more than I had expected, to the point where I transferred there the following fall term. I now have pursued a career in Nursing, along with a career in backcountry skiing, and am currently coaching the local ski team at Big Sky. I have found a new love for skiing as well as a love for the multitude of outdoor activities that are available to me in Bozeman. I’ve become a coach, an avid backcountry skier, rock climber, fisherman, mountain biker, and so many other things. I’ve found a community of people who love the outdoors just as much as I do.

Retiring from ski racing has also allowed me to further explore the sailing world and advance my career in that realm. Working for Sail Caribbean had been my goal ever since I was around 11 or 12 years old, I worked towards getting all of the requirements to become a Mate over the course of many years. I worked my way up to a Rescue Scuba Diver, I obtained my Wilderness First Responder Certification, I lived on a Tall Ship for 2 months, I started working with kids more, and I managed to gain a significant amount of experience on many different types of boats. I planned on applying to work for Sail Caribbean after I was done with College ski racing, which would have been in the summer of 2019 without my concussion.

I knew my concussion would likely halt my efforts of being on the ski team at St. Lawrence, so I decided to send in an application during my semester off. I was expecting to get rejected and apply again the next summer. I was perplexed to have been offered the job for the summer following my semester off; I was fortunate enough to start as a Mate/Medical Officer, and was quickly promoted to a Captain. This past summer (my second summer with them) I had the opportunity to teach offshore sailing with 4 seperate 24 hour passages down to the Leeward Islands and back. I had done many overnight passages in my lifetime, but this was the first time I was able to Captain one. Being in charge of a 53 foot sailboat and making sure all 9 passengers make it to port safely is an experience that is hard to put into words, but it has shaped me in ways I would have never imagined. I couldn’t be happier with my decision to put myself out there and apply to Sail Caribbean before I was certain I would get the job. Ironically, I have my concussion to thank for my success in the Caribbean.

I want people to see the world outside of their sport. Ski racing definitely shaped who I am today, and I will never regret that part of my life, or even my concussion. It all shaped the life I have now, and because I decided to leave it in the past, my life has been filled with so many other amazing sports and friends. I can see how quitting or being forced to quit a sport that has taken up such a large portion of your life can be a very daunting thing, but there is a whole other world out there that is meant to be explored. Never forget your past, but also don’t be afraid to move on and see what else there is out there either. All of the skills you learned in your sport can be applied to so many other elements of life, don’t be afraid to figure out what those are. Lastly, and most importantly – don’t underestimate your abilities. You are way more capable than you believe you are.

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About the Author

Erika Florian

Erika grew up in Southington, CT, however she alpine ski raced out of Wildcat Mountain in NH for 10 years before attending Proctor Academy in Andover, NH to intensify her training. She attempted to enter the Division I realm of skiing and attended St. Lawrence University. While trying to make the Varsity team there, she suffered a concussion that ultimately ended her ski racing career, resulting in her decision to transfer to Montana State University where she is currently studying Nursing and coaching the ski team at Big Sky Resort. She is also am very involved in the sailing world in the summertime, and has been a Captain for Sail Caribbean in the British Virgin Islands and Leeward Islands for the past 2 summers, entering her 3rd summer this year.