Nick Fairall is an Olympic ski jumper. Since the age of 6 he’s been launching himself into space and defying gravity. He calls ski jumping “the closest thing to flight” that humans can do, and he loves it.
In his career, which has taken him around the world and to the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, he’s hurtled down steep ramps and flown more than the length of two football fields.
But this week, Fairall, 26, described himself as more of a ground-hugging football player than flier.
A year after suffering significant injuries in a crash during a competition in Bischofshofen, Austria, Fairall cannot yet walk. He uses a wheelchair to get around. Though he’s hopeful of regaining full mobility and complete use of his legs — and is encouraged by the limited movement and feeling he’s gained — there’s no guarantee.
The one thing he is certain of, however, is that he will continue to grind out progress. He’s relentless in his rehabilitation and determined to make the most of his situation.
“Everyone’s going for a first down and trying to get as many yards as they can,” Fairall said. “But I’m here, I’m still trying to go for that touchdown, but I’m working in inches. I work as hard as I can to get that next inch. And once I get to that inch, I work for that next inch. I continue working hard in that fashion.”
|Nick Fairall waves the American flag as he is carried away from the stadium on a stretcher after his crash at the Four Hills Tournament at Paul-Ausserleitner-Schanze Sepp-Bradl-Stadion on Jan. 5, 2015 in Bischofshofen, Austria.
Fairall, from New Hampshire, had been on the world cup circuit six years when he fell last Jan. 5 in qualifying at Bischofshofen. He said he got “too far forward,” lost his balance and crashed. He knew immediately he was hurt.
He suffered a dislocated and fractured L1 (lumbar) vertebra in his lower back that resulted in a spinal-cord injury. He also broke two ribs, punctured a lung, bruised a kidney and had internal bleeding. The damage to the spinal cord was the most severe blow, causing paralysis in his legs.
After initial surgery in Austria, Fairall came back to the United States and went through months of rehab at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, New Jersey, then the High Fives Foundation in Truckee, California, near Lake Tahoe.
For most of that time, Fairall kept a low profile. He stayed away from the media, focused on his rehab and spent time with family and friends. It was a deliberate decision, he said, that allowed him to put all his energy into getting better.
“That allowed me to progress further and faster than I would if I had tons of distractions going on,” he said.
But as the anniversary of the injury approached, his coach Bine Norcic encouraged him to return to Bischofshofen. Norcic thought it would be good for Fairall to be back with teammates and in an environment he loved.
“Since it was the one-year mark, it just seemed very fitting to go out, talk to the press a little bit, tell everyone how I was doing and, most importantly, tell everyone how grateful I was of all the support I received,” he said. “From there, just show everyone how excited I am for the future.”
Fairall held a news conference Tuesday at Bischofshofen, outlining his progress and thanking all the people who’ve helped him. In fact, the only time he became emotional was when he talked about his gratitude for the wonderful things done for him.
Two days later, Fairall was in Germany, following the U.S. team to another competition. He’s scheduled to return to stateside on Jan. 18. He said holding the news conference and being around his teammates and seeing the ski jumping facilities at Bischofshofen was another big step in his comeback.
|Nick Fairall looks down at the ski jumping hill during his return to the site of his crash on Jan. 5, 2016 in Bischofshofen, Austria.|
“Once I saw the ski jumping stuff, I immediately wanted to start jumping again,” he said via Skype. “I thought that was pretty funny. I was like, ‘Oh, man, I want to go up and jump right now. Someone give me their skis, I’ll go jump.’ It made me very excited.
“I was very happy to be back in that environment. I found it actually to be very motivating. I feel now like it has encouraged me to work harder and to do what I can to get back jumping.”
Whether that will happen remains in doubt. As Fairall says, every spinal-cord injury is unique. He’s been given no specific prognosis.
“There’s no timetable, no exact dates,” he said. “But the progression forward is all that really matters, and that’s what’s happening. All signs have been pointing toward progress.”
At the Kessler Institute, he’d do two- to three-hour rehab sessions per day. He’d return to his hospital room exhausted. At the High Fives Foundation, he’s made further progress through a program centered around Neuro Kinetic Pilates that uses movement and exercises that Fairall says “re-establish connections and new connections” in his body.
“I’ve seen some very good results from it,” he said.
He’s regained his independence, too. He lives on his own when he goes to Truckee, and he can drive again. Fairall lives with his dad in New Hampshire but travels to see friends and family. He traveled on his own to Bischofshofen.
Yet the road back hasn’t always been smooth. Fairall went from being an elite, Olympic athlete (who finished 35th in the large-hill event at Sochi) to a young man dealing with paralysis, an uncertain future and — at least for a while — dependence on others.
|Nick Fairall celebrates during his return to the site of his crash on Jan. 5, 2016 in Bischofshofen, Austria.
“There’s definitely been hard times for sure,” he said. It was easy to get down when there were setbacks and slow progress. He talks about the “ups and downs” and the frustrations that were tough to shake.
“That happens and I’m human and it happens to everyone,” he said.
But he said he made up his mind to not dwell on the negative. He reached back to the mindset he had leading up to the Olympic Trials for Sochi when he was able to stay positive about the task at hand. Now that task is to keep getting better.
“If you decide to dwell on (the negative), then what’s going to happen is you’re going to hold yourself back,” he said. “But if you decide to move forward, and understand and accept that, ‘OK, this is a tough time, I have bad days, it’s all right,’ now that lets you move forward.”
In the meantime, too, Fairall is keeping his spirits high by feeding his adrenaline-craving soul through adaptive sports: water skiing, alpine skiing, golf, wheelchair rugby and skydiving.
“There’s no limitations to what I can or cannot do,” he said. “I just have to put some sort of adaptation to that.”
Someday he hopes to once again slide down a long ramp and fly. He just has to continue making progress, inch by inch.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.