Considering the sheer volume of time I spend skiing, plus additional months ripping through neighborhoods on brakeless rollerskis or road and mountain biking on precarious trails, it’s a miracle I’ve never broken a bone in my 30 years. Throw in my decades-long basketball career and it becomes all the more amazing. Perhaps one reason for this is that the Big Man upstairs decreed all possible ailments and injuries onto the shoulders of my older brother Tom, a man whose 6’3, sinewy frame makes mine appear short and doughy, and whose resolve, toughness, and love of the mountains makes me seem weak and apathetic by comparison.
An endurance athlete himself, my brother’s greatest tale of “injury, recovery, and redemption” is probably his post-collegiate comeback from ulcerative colitis, an ongoing 10-year journey full of valleys and peaks that saw a mini-summit when he ran a sub-15 minute 5000-meter at the 2021 Drake Relays. The 32-year-old re-familiarized himself with a singlet, spikes, and starter alongside a bunch of Division I, II, and III athletes on one of the premier track and field stages in the nation — pretty impressive.
Perhaps in an endurance-focused place like Vail, we need an entirely separate series to flesh out all our over-training odysseys, but for the sake of this mountain-minded madness, I’ll gladly present another, powder-filled tale of heroism courtesy of my Duluth, Minnesota-bound, black diamond-seeking sibling.
In 2011, a dozen Concordia Cobber track and field athletes utilized their Christmas break to depart the desolate flatlands of the Fargo-Moorhead area to the bright bowls of Big Sky, Montana. The resort had hosted my family’s annual ski trips from the time I was a boy, and having to shelf those through high school on account of my varsity basketball commitments, I was eager to join my brother — the lead organizer — and all of his teammates for the trip. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful in luring a certain Cobber — my future wife — in joining, but she became a snow bunny eventually.
My brother ended our first day ripping down a mogul run like Johnny Moseley, when he was forced to bake his dinner roll (Moseley’s signature trick for those sad souls deprived of owning the 2002 gold medalist’s video game) across a miscalculated catwalk. Unable to completely clear the flat, Tom’s skis neatly settled on the traverse as his body immediately was ejected and proceeded to tumble head over heels “like a ragdoll in a washing machine” down the other side.
He also dislocated his shoulder. Considering he had accomplished that literally hundreds of times to date — including while flinging a bottle cap across a room — that injury was a given.
Always financially conscious, my brother eschewed pleas from one of the ski patrols to be taken in an ambulance to Bozeman. At the base of the hill, a doctor deftly put his shoulder back in place — a prescient protocol foreshadowing an impending drama.
Now, a normal person would have called it quits for the week and resigned themselves to daily apres starting at first chair. Not my brother. He was waiting in line the next day for the first chair, which he took up to the top of Lone Peak with our group of ragamuffins.
The summit of the foreboding 11,000-foot face presents zero easy routes, and most are “slip-and-see-ya” type slopes. Wrapped in a shoulder sling, my brother led us misfits down Marx, a relatively mogul-free double-black diamond. Stopping at the top to admire the views, I remember being positioned behind a group member named Kristi. It escapes my memory as to why, but for some reason, she took the first step-turn down in the group. She proceeded — to everyone’s horror — to catch an edge, skid backward, and start tumbling down Marx. Suddenly, my brother burst from behind our stunned selves, pointed both tips down-mountain and went full gas to catch the teammate. Undoubtedly but unjustifiably, the overly empathetic team captain felt at least partially responsible for bringing his teammate up the challenging run in spite of her lack of experience.
Once at her side, Tom immediately comforted Kristi, who had dislocated her shoulder in the fall. Providence paid off, as he used the technique he had learned the previous day for himself to help Kristi pop it back in relatively painlessly.
There aren’t a lot of people who combine the athletic ability and compassion of my brother, and it took a fracture to marry the two qualities. A month later, he set three indoor track school records in three straight meets. Racing a mile, 3k and 5k in a 15-day span would destroy a lot of athletes, but his times stood untouched for a decade. Since then, he’s popped his shoulder back in a few more times.
More importantly, he’s never said “no” to any line, no matter how steep. That’s the mark of a full recovery.