Tahoe teen, standout moguls skier recovering from spinal cord injury
One second, Jake Hickman was on top of the world, still relishing two of the best moguls performances of his life as he casually skied through a training run on Day 3 of the U.S. Freestyle Selections in Steamboat, Colo.The next moment, the 17-year-old Squaw Valley Freestyle Team standout was sprawled out on the snow, shaken and frightened, with virtually no feeling from his belly button down. He could not move his right leg, and he felt a tingling sensation in his left leg.It was a freak accident, explained his father, Eric, who scurried to his son’s side after Jake called out for help.andamp;#8220;He came into the bottom air andamp;#8212; and it was just a fluke thing andamp;#8212; he caught his tip and got thrown backwards a little bit,andamp;#8221; said Eric Hickman, recalling the Dec. 23 accident. andamp;#8220;He was going to land on his neck and he decided that that wasn’t a good idea, so he threw a loop and landed on his back instead. It was a good decision on his part, or else it could have been a lot worse.andamp;#8221;Medical personnel secured Jake to a backboard and rushed him to a local hospital. He was then flown to Denver Health Medical Center where he underwent more than eight hours of surgery to repair the T7-T8 spinal cord injury. His father said he suffered a compression fracture and dislocation of the vertebrae, causing a pinch to the spinal cord. Doctors inserted 10 screws and two 16-centimeter rods into his back.andamp;#8220;But luckily,andamp;#8221; Eric said, andamp;#8220;it didn’t break both sides of the vertebrae, or else it would have been game over, a complete spinal cord injury.andamp;#8221;For that Jake feels fortunate. He and his family are also relieved that he seems well on the road to recovery, even walking with assistance about four or five days after the accident. andamp;#8220;He’s doing well. It’s impressive how every day there’s a little bit of progress,andamp;#8221; said Jake’s mother, Sheila, who flew out to Denver with his younger sister Lynne immediately after the incident. andamp;#8220;He’s able to stand and walk, just barely, holding on to us. So things are looking pretty good.andamp;#8221;But even so, the North Tahoe High School junior can’t help but think about his drastic swing in fortune. After all, he had just recorded a pair of fourth-place finishes against a world-class field of moguls skiers from six different countries, likely earning him a World Cup start. Last season the former J-2 National Champion was nominated for NorAm Rookie of the Year, finishing 14th overall at the U.S. Freestyle Nationals and making the finals in every NorAm event he entered.On Tuesday he was transferred to Craig Hospital in Denver, which specializes in spinal cord injuries, rehabilitation and research. Jake had a chance to discuss his injury briefly between rounds of testing and medication.andamp;#8220;I’m getting better,andamp;#8221; he said. andamp;#8220;I’m working on it. But it’s definitely pretty hard.andamp;#8221;Asked how he’s holding up emotionally, Jake said, andamp;#8220;I’m also working on that. It’s a lot going from where I was to laying on my back in a bed. I can move my feet now, and I pretty much have full movement and I can kind of walk. But it’s rough. andamp;#8220;I mean, I wasn’t planning on relearning how to walk.andamp;#8221;Jake, who remembers the incident clearly, said he still feels a considerable amount of nerve pain, mainly from his chest to his belly, due to the crushed nerve roots. His back remains sore from surgery, and he said he’s doing his best to cope with the limited use of his legs. andamp;#8220;It’s weird because your body knows what to do, but feeling your feet under you, where they are in space, is different,andamp;#8221; Jake said. andamp;#8220;My right leg kind of was messed up initially; it didn’t have any movement. So that has been trouble. It kind of drifts in and I look like a drunk guy walking along.andamp;#8221;And with that, Jake handed the phone back to his father. andamp;#8220;I have to go take my meds,andamp;#8221; he said.
Jake Hickman was a rising star, improving by leaps and bounds each year as he steadily polished his skills on a moguls course. andamp;#8220;He would have been considered our top skier this year, by far,andamp;#8221; said Mark Kendrick, head moguls coach with the Squaw Valley Freestyle Team. andamp;#8220;Jake is one of the most talented skiers I’ve ever seen.andamp;#8221;Kendrick recalled the young skier breaking his fibula some five years back before returning to the sport without a hitch upon his recovery.andamp;#8220;When he came back it was like he had never left; he was way better than he was before. And it’s like that every time he steps in the gate. It’s like he performs many levels better every single time he competes,andamp;#8221; said Kendrick. andamp;#8220;He always has a super positive attitude and he’s always encouraging other athletes around him. It’s just been a real pleasure coaching him.andamp;#8221;With such a promising future, the Hickman family is not counting out a full return to moguls competition. And Jake certainly has not thrown in the towel, his father said, despite the obstacles he faces.andamp;#8220;He wants it more than anything. It’s what he does. So he plans on it, I’ll tell you that,andamp;#8221; said Eric. While Kendrick was hesitant to speculate about Jake’s return, he didn’t completely rule it out.andamp;#8220;It’s going to be up to Jake. After going through this particular injury, it’s hard to for me to think that the risk would be worth the reward andamp;#8212; at least, competing at the level he was,andamp;#8221; the coach said, adding that Jake was posting times that were 2 1/2 seconds faster than the next-fastest competitor at the U.S. Selections. andamp;#8220;To ski at that level is phenomenal, and I just can’t say whether or not he’ll be able to return. That’s completely up to him and how his body feels.andamp;#8221;Jake’s father said doctors andamp;#8220;have no idea yetandamp;#8221; when he might be released from Craig Hospital, or whether he’ll be cleared to compete in the future. andamp;#8220;He’s doing better every day, but they are assessing him still. They just don’t know yet,andamp;#8221; Eric said.
One thing Jake looks forward to every day is reading encouraging posts from friends, family and even competitors on a Facebook page set up by his family. The andamp;#8220;Jake Hickman Rehabandamp;#8221; page had received 296 andamp;#8220;likesandamp;#8221; as of Thursday, with dozens of comments wishing Jake well. Jeremy Bloom, for example, a two-time Olympic moguls skier and former football star at the University of Colorado, left the following post: andamp;#8220;Keep rockin bro, in your corner.andamp;#8221;Wrote Lynne, his sister: andamp;#8220;My family sends a huge thank you andamp;#8230; Jake looks forward to reading your posts every day.andamp;#8221;Additionally, the Tahoe-based High Fives Foundation named Jake as its Highlighted Athlete in the Winter Empowerment Fund, allowing people to donate money toward his recovery.andamp;#8220;He has his ups and downs right now,andamp;#8221; his father said. andamp;#8220;He feels lucky that he wasn’t more damaged, but he’s disappointed and upset that it did happen. It’s just one of those things. One day you’re at the top of the world, the next day you’re in a bed not knowing which way it’s going to go.andamp;#8220;But he’ll get through it one way or another. He’s a strong kid.andamp;#8221;