By Dani Fried
Just as pro skier Eric Pollard hunkered down in preparation for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, a really bad fall left him with a broken leg. Sidelined by the injury and a slew of subsequent medical complications, Pollard started an uphill battle to get back to the slopes.
“I didn’t want to push it too far,” he says. “I didn’t want to reinjure myself before I gave myself the chance to heal. I was always holding myself back because I really didn’t want to go too far too quickly.”
We spoke with Pollard to get an in-depth look at his experience—from the first accident in February 2013 to now—as he works towards the upcoming season.
In February 2013, with Sochi in your sights, you went to Russia to train. Tell us about the day you got injured.
I’d been to Sochi three times prior to my injury for fun, and I really enjoyed the Sochi ski area. I went back, knowing that it was going to be a lot different because of the Olympics that were to be held the following year. The Nimbus Independent crew and I were there to explore.
When we got up to the Sochi ski area, there was a bit of fresh snow on the ground. We figured we’d work through the day, hike around, and explore a bit in the sub-alpine and in the low-alpine terrain. I found a little natural pillow to jump off with 40 to 50 feet of air and I did a Rodeo 360 (an off-axis flip). I landed it, and then tried to shut it down before I hit a ten- to 15-foot drop-off on the really steep pitch to a cat-track.
But I didn’t quite shut it down in time, launched off the cat-track, and splatted on the ground. I broke my leg and tore my rotator cuff in my shoulder. I was in shock. I’ve broken a lot of bones over the years but this one was certainly the most painful and made all other breaks pale in comparison.
There was no ambulance, ski patrol, or heli available. The team and I got down to the gondola from the backcountry, and made it to the base of the ski area. We jumped in the back of some random local’s Subaru and rallied ourselves to a hospital in the town of Krasnaya Polyana. Once we arrived, we had all sorts of problems at the hospital and that’s what set off the initial injury. The hospital was rundown and the doctors were unhelpful.
You ended up with compartment syndrome. Can you tell us about that and how you dealt with it?
When I broke my leg, the Russian doctors put me into a cast, which put me at risk for compartment syndrome—something my friends had had and told me about. It’s a condition where pressure builds up in muscle compartments and can lead to damaged tissue and nerves. We were trying to get a proper diagnosis. I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable being operated on in the Russian hospital. The crew and I got on the phone and were trying to get out of the country as soon as possible.
I didn’t have many options in terms of relocation. An air ambulance company told me that I was going to have to have surgery in Turkey, but I wouldn’t accept that. I begged for anywhere in Germany, Switzerland, or France. Why? I was going off the advice of three surgeons in the United States. Eventually I took a private Learjet air ambulance to Germany.
I ended up suffering from compartment syndrome, although the doctors in Russia actually refused to believe it. Essentially my muscles just swelled in my leg so much that—unless surgeons opened the compartments—there was nowhere for them to go. One by one my muscles and nerves were starved of blood supply. I had eight surgeries in Germany from February through March, plus three more surgeries in the U.S. from March through April. The first surgery was to put a titanium rod into my tibia, the next two were fascia procedures and a few more were to remove damaged tissue.
I also had a skin graft, but not before a doctor attempted to close the wound in my leg each day. I had staples on the border of my wound, and rubber tubing laced through the staples. My leg looked like a shoe. The doctor would come in each day and tighten the laces to close the wound as much as possible. There were a lot of things like that procedure that I endured that were not surgeries, so although I had 11 surgeries in total, I feel like I had 30.
How has the road to recovery been and what steps have you been taking to make sure that you’re good for the ski season?
Once I got back to the US, I started rehab to try to get full range of motion in my leg. The step-star-reach-squat program was the most beneficial to me. Basically, you do one-legged squats and reach out one leg in front of you and one to the side of you and do a twisted rear motion. When I finally did get back on skis I only had a little bit of time before I went on my first trip.
I felt silly doing ski drills, carvers, and groomers. But my whole family and I moved to Japan for some vacation time for all of January 2014. I continued to progress and left that trip feeling like my old self.
Did skiing come back naturally to you?
Oddly enough, there’s a part two to that story. I was in British Columbia, at the Pemberton Icecap, with my family and Chris Benchetler. Two weeks into the trip, I re-broke that leg 30 miles out in the backcountry. Benchetler and I found a perfect barrel feature. As I made a turn and tried to release my tails, the texture of the snow kept me locked into that rotated position. My leg was really twisted. Since I had a spiral fracture the first time, that force was just too much for it and it fractured again on the same bone site. Apparently I was not strong enough to handle skiing at that level.
Are you expecting to be skiing this coming season?
I am. However, I’m being extra cautious. I’m grounding myself to a walking cast for the next month. The only saving grace is that this time of year I’m glued to a computer doing post-production on movies. We released our “Coordinates Project.” Watch it below.
Photos Courtesy of Eric Pollard | Nimbus Independent