At the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, Kaitlyn Farrington’s parents stood at the bottom of the halfpipe holding a sign that read, “Cowgirl Up!” — a phrase coined by a former swim coach to encourage young Farrington, then a barrel-racing, horse-riding athlete.
Farrington “cowgirl-ed” right up to the top. Competing in the Olympic women’s halfpipe snowboarding final against three Olympic gold medalists, she won a gold medal of her own.
Now the 25-year-old snowboarder must “cowgirl up” again, this time facing an abrupt and unplanned change in her life. Recently diagnosed with congenital cervical stenosis, a narrowing of her spinal column, Farrington announced Thursday that she is retiring from competitive snowboarding.
The snowboarder whose parents famously sold cattle on their Idaho ranch to fund her career, Farrington will not be in PyeongChang, South Korea, in 2018 to defend her Olympic gold medal.
On a positive note, her condition will not worsen, she said by phone from her home in Salt Lake City. And she also feels fine. But that, she said, is the hardest part.
“I don’t have any back pain or anything like that,” said Farrington. “It’ll get sore and tight every once in awhile, but I don’t really have any pain. Nothing. I’m snowboarding every day, and it feels totally normal. So it’s really hard to come to terms and not go into the park and be like, OK, you’re not allowed to do this anymore.”
Congenital cervical stenosis is the narrowing of the spinal canal in the neck. The condition exists at birth and is not hereditary. But it puts the affected person at increased risk of injury because when the spine bends and flexes, the spinal cord has no room for movement in the canal.
Farrington’s condition was diagnosed this fall with an MRI, which also showed a disc herniation at C6, where her spinal cord is kinked, reported ESPN. C6 is the sixth vertebrae down from the skull, just above the shoulders.
“I had guarded expectations about what was going on until I saw her MRI,” U.S. snowboard team physician Tom Hackett told ESPN. “When I saw the MRI, my heart sank. I knew it was over.”
Fortunately, the condition does not require Farrington to give up all activity. She can still snowboard and even ride horses again. What she has to avoid are activities where whiplash is a potential risk.
“Taking out high impact snowboarding is something that is going to make it so I can snowboard still,” Farrington added. “That’s what I decided with my doctors.”
Born with the condition, Farrington had no idea that she had it until she fell while snowboarding in Austria in October 2014. She crashed doing a relatively easy frontside 360 (one full revolution) off a jump. After she landed, she could feel nothing from the neck down for about two minutes. She did not panic though.
“I didn’t really know what was going on,” she said. “I wanted to get up. I was more focused on myself, my body. It was a very strange feeling.”
The MRI confirmed the condition. Then she spent the past couple of months meeting with more doctors and specialists, hoping one of them would have better news.
In December, she went to the Dew Tour in Breckenridge, Colorado, as a spectator and told friends that she would be back for X Games. With X Games approaching next week, it was time to come clean.
“It was getting harder for me because I was lying to some of my good friends,” she said. “I was making myself almost believe. When I went to Dew Tour, I was like, yeah, I’ll be back for X Games, and I made myself believe it. I was lying to everybody, and it was eating away at me. It was time to tell people what was going on and what was really the situation.”
Farrington is heartbroken that she won’t be able to drop into a halfpipe again, with the challenge of throwing a backside 9 or frontside 720 for the fans.
She competed in her last halfpipe competition just under 11 months ago at the Rosa Khutor freestyle park near Sochi. She rode two solid runs, then stood in the leader’s box and watched Torah Bright, then Hannah Teter, then Kelly Clark all try to earn their second Olympic gold medals. None of them outperformed Farrington that night.
But Farrington is happy that she does not have to give up snowboarding entirely. She loves “just being able to be up in the mountains and riding,” and has been snowboarding at Brighton outside Salt Lake as much as she can.
“It’s fun to make turns,” she said. “I’m fortunate enough that I still can make turns.”
Her gold medal sits at home. She doesn’t look at it often. But it’s there, if she ever needs reminding of what she did on warm night halfway around the world in Russia. And the “Cowgirl Up!” sign hangs in her basement.
For now, she has no immediate plans. She never thought much about what she would do after competitive snowboarding.
Next week, she will be at the X Games hanging out, signing autographs and cheering on her friends.
“It’s not going to be the same without you,” tweeted two-time Olympian Elena Hight. “But knowing you, lets cheer to going out on top!”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.