C.R. Johnson on the rebound | SierraSun.com

C.R. Johnson on the rebound

Ryan Salm/Sierra SunTruckee's C.R. Johnson finds a powder stash at Squaw Valley on Wednesday.

The dexterous practice that is professional freeskiing was second nature to C.R. Johnson.

Now, more than 14 months after a skiing accident that landed him in a Utah hospital and in a coma for 10 days (see “The accident” below), Johnson has come to terms with the reality ” and full extent ” of his recovery.

“It’s taking time to get my confidence back. I’m trying to get back into the sport I almost died doing last year, and that’s not the most comfortable thing,” Johnson said. …

“It always came so easy to me, and now it’s more challenging. It requires more concentration and skill; it’s not as natural for me anymore.”

A 23-year-old Truckee resident, Johnson made a name for himself throwing huge technical tricks above halfpipe walls, over terrain park booters and off backcountry cliffs. As a teen he was ahead of his time, spinning tricks never before seen in the park and pipe.

“C.R. is pretty famous for his 1260,” said Kent Kreitler, a professional skier and friend of Johnson’s who lives part time in Olympic Valley. “He did a 1260 before anyone on skis or a snowboard. He also did a 1440. So he’s kind of legendary.”

Suffice to say, Johnson was at the top of his game when he went down last season.

Now he’s trying to return to his familiar form.

A six-week trip dedicated to halfpipe skiing at Breckenridge, Colo., early this winter ” alongside pro freeskier and close friend Tanner Hall ” put in perspective the difficulty of that task.

“It didn’t really come back to me,” Johnson said of his halfpipe skills. “I got to a certain point that was nowhere near where I used to be in the pipe, and then I stopped progressing. So I gave up the idea of trying to compete in halfpipe.”

Johnson, a perennial top contender in halfpipe and slopestyle at the Winter X Games and other competitions, said he was airing five to eight feet out of the pipe at Breckenridge “doing 540s and straight airs, and that was it.”

Before his head injury, he was pulling 900s about 15 to 18 feet above the walls of halfpipes while progressing at the same rapid pace as other top freeskiers.

“Trying to ride the pipe made me realize that my confidence is pretty shaken,” he said. “I never felt comfortable. … It made me feel very frustrated and discouraged because one freak accident that really was nobody’s fault … just one day … and I can’t ski halfpipe now.”

That’s not to say he won’t somewhere down the road.

“I have to rediscover the talent I have, and I definitely still have it,” Johnson said. “The muscle memory is incredible, it’s just the mental part that’s not there. But I think it will come back.”

He’s also hesitant to let loose with his biggest tricks in the park.

“I did a 1440 when I was 15, and now, at 23, I can only do a 540. But I definitely still have the ability to do it,” he said.

While Johnson is frustrated about his setback, Kreitler said the struggles are typical and should be expected after such a major injury. Based upon his experiences with injuries, an entire season is needed to return to form. And after skiing twice with Johnson at Squaw Valley this year, Kreitler has little doubt that his friend is on his way to becoming a better, more well-rounded skier.

“Now I think he’s approaching the whole mountain. He has the potential to incorporate what he knows in the park into the backcountry freeride scene,” Kreitler said. “For someone with his trick skills, to get more involved in big mountain riding, that can be a great combination.”

Johnson confirmed that he is taking his skiing in a new direction, and that big mountains will be involved. He also has plans to film with Matchstick Productions this winter.

“My goal is to return to filming and continue to progress my skiing,” said Johnson, who already has done some filming this year at Mt. Baker, Wash., with Hall. “I want to get back to where I was initially and progress from there. I also just want to promote the sport and myself in the most positive way I can.”

Said Kreitler: “He’s kind of reinventing himself, and he may even become a better skier than before.”

Johnson and several other skiers and snowboarders were working on a film at Brighton Ski Resort in Utah on Dec. 8, 2005, when Johnson’s injury occurred.

During a sequence in which each athlete hit a small natural feature in succession ” described by pro skier Evan Raps, who was skiing with the group, as a “three-foot dip with a lip” ” Johnson somehow fell at the front of the line.

Raps, who was in the back of the line and did not witness the accident, said by the time he reached the scene Johnson was lying on his back unconscious, with his head facing downhill. Kye Peterson had trailed Johnson, Raps said, and following in the same line collided into him.

The collision opened a small gash above Johnson’s eyebrow and knocked him unconscious for about three to five minutes, Raps said.

Johnson was sedated and airlifted to the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City, where he remained in a coma until opening his eyes on Dec. 18. When Johnson awoke, he could not speak or move his arms or legs. He also had developed pneumonia.

On Dec. 26 he became able to sit up in bed and speak in a whisper, as well as eat solid food for the first time since the injury.

Shortly after, he started therapy (occupational, speech and physical), and soon progressed from having to use a wheelchair to a walker to walking under his own power.

He was released from the hospital on Jan. 10 after a 34-day stay.

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