On January 15th, 2015, Olympic Halfpipe gold medalist Kaitlyn Farrington suddenly announced her retirement from competitive snowboarding upon discovery of a congenital spinal condition resulting from a fall in Austria this past September. We caught up with Kaitlyn about her recent life-altering announcement at the recent Winter X Games.
Interview by Shay Williams (questions omitted)
I have congenital cervical stenosis.
It is the narrowing of my spinal canal around my spinal cord. And I don't really have any room for spinal fluid around my neck. It affects my neck and half of my back.
The consequences are that I'm a high-risk paralysis patient.
It has been a lot easier now that everyone knows that I have this condition and there is nothing I can do about it.
I went through December wondering how I was going to fake it through the season. I had told everyone I'd be back in January so once January hit, I got so many requests that it was just time for me to tell people.
But now it's just out there and people know and it's made it a lot easier to be out here.
I felt really alone when I didn't tell anyone. It was because only I knew and maybe four other people. It was really hard. I was lying to all my closest friends.
Now to be here and have everyone know, it's a lot easier. It's not me having to explain myself and my injury since you can't see it.
It's been hard being at X Games; an emotional time. All the athletes are coming up to me and giving me hugs; I've cried with a few of them. It's just nice to be here and know that I have that support.
This would have been my eighth X Games.
Being here and knowing I can't compete and knowing I'll never compete again is definitely hard. It was unexpected that I got cut from competing; I feel like I was never finished. That's the really hard part.
But people don't know how to talk to me about it, either. Being [at X Games] it's funny because they'll come up to me like "It's so good to see you," but then you can tell they want to say something but they don't really know what to say.
This fall I was in Austria and had a crash where I lost feeling throughout my body for about two minutes and that was one of the things the doctors have told me I'm lucky to have popped back up from. When I fell it was definitely one of the scariest moments I've had on a snowboard. Not the worst crash I've ever had, which was the weird part. I lost feeling all the way to my toes and I just laid there.
Someone was like, "Are you ok?" and I just yelled, "No. Help."
All of the sudden I started getting a tingling back. I just had this really bad burning sensation and that's one of the reasons I don't have feeling up there. It's just a symptom of stenosis, I guess. They call them stingers.
They are really common in football players from the high impact of hitting each other. Usually, it's only an upper body thing but since it went all the way to my feet, [the doctors] eventually were like, "You need to cool your jets on snowboarding."
I went to Brandon Lawrence who is a spinal guy in Salt Lake. He comes in the room and says, "You need to go get an MRI because we see something that we think you were born with." He kind of told me it's potential stenosis, which I had no idea what that was. I just walked out of the room thinking, "What the fuck is going on?"
Two days later after the MRI, the doctor came in the room and told me, "It's confirmed, you have congenital stenosis and you can never snowboard again."
I was like, "What the fuck," and pretty much started freaking out. I was just bawling and in tears, of course. So I just left the hospital and never talked to Brandon Lawrence again until recently after I'd found out through Hackett and all the other guys. I had to send him an email apologizing for being really mean, but at that time I wasn't ready to hear it.
I probably saw four different doctors and was sending my MRI all around the country trying to get every opinion. Once I heard Dr. Hackett's opinion, I knew I had to be ok with it. Each conversation with a doctor was the same. It was them telling me I shouldn't be walking right now and with the condition I have, it's lucky that it hasn't come up before with what I've been doing for my entire life. It was a really hard, terrible conversation to have with each doctor.
I told my Dad first and didn't tell my Mom until months later. I didn't think she could handle it. It's weird because my Dad was terrible about it. He didn't believe it. He just didn't get it. I'd literally have the doctors call him and I wouldn't even talk to him because he thought, "No. That can't be right." It was really hard for him to grasp. I think it's still a little difficult for him.
But then I finally told my Mom and she was so supportive. She got it. I actually have a cousin who went paraplegic at 18 and she went through it with her sister.
I went from the highest high to a really low low. That was one of the things that I realized when I had to come out with this. I looked back at what I've done for the past 10 years: I have X Games medals, I have an Olympic gold medal. Really, I have the pinnacle of everything that I'd want in competitive snowboarding.
It put a lot of things in perspective.
The first doctor told me I could never snowboard again, so the thought did cross my mind. But I didn't accept it. I snowboarded the next day. I had been snowboarding since the crash. I told the doctor, "So, I should never get in a car again, then. Because that's pretty much what you're telling me in regards to snowboarding."
I never accepted the fact that doctors told me I could never snowboard again.
Right now I'm a grounded snowboarder. I'm hoping to get into some backcountry trips with The North Face and getting into some touring and adventure snowboarding, as I've been calling it. But I really can't put myself in a position to be doing super steep lines. I have to be careful. I can't tomahawk down a mountain 20 times. But really, I have the risk every time I get on a snowboard.
It's something that definitely is always in the back of my mind. But I run the risk of it everywhere. I could walk outside and slip on ice. I could get in a car and someone hits me from behind. It's the same thing. So it's one of those things that I can't be scared of it all the time. I can't let it control me.
I will not stop snowboarding. I just can't leave the ground now.
It's definitely bittersweet. It's one of those things that… I wish I could still be here competing at X Games, but I've accomplished so much in snowboarding. Now it's just on to the next chapter.