"It's that wonderful old-fashioned idea that others come first and you come second. This was the whole ethic by which I was brought up. Others matter more than you do, 'so don't fuss dear; get on with it.'"
- Actress Audrey Hepburn
It almost brought me to tears. One of the talented young freeriders I was working with that year had come up short on one of his flamboyant cliff jumps in a contest down in Southern Colorado and had torn his knee to shreds.
He didn't have any money of course. Hell, the guy was living in a snow cave when I first met him. But skiing was all that he lived for in those days. The only thing he could think about, he told me over the phone, was getting back on his boards.
Still, like so many risk-takers his age, the 21-year old had no backup plan. No sense of his own mortality. In other words, he didn't have a clue what to do next. And now he was leaning on me hoping against hope that I could fix the problem. What to do?
It was the late 1990s. And I knew from personal experience that orthopedic surgery — and particularly knee surgery — had come a long ways since my own introduction to its barbaric practices in the mid-sixties.
Still, there were knee surgeons.... and then there were knee surgeons. The biggest problem, of course, was access. Under B.C.'s "take a number and wait" medical regime, my young freerider would normally watch months flow by before he would even be able to see an orthopod. As for getting operated on, well, that could take even longer. It was a situation, I already understood, that would be disastrous for his career.
He needed access to a knee surgeon. And he needed access fast. Sigh. But not just any knee surgeon. I needed to find a guy who understood the kind of kamikaze ethos that this young athlete lived by. A doc who could fix the damn knee properly, set reasonable rehab targets, and finally, offer the kid a hard-eyed and honest assessment of his future comeback.
I didn't need a doc with a sweet disposition or a kind bedside manner. I needed a tough jock type who spoke the same language as my kid. A straight talker you know — no crap. Oh yeah, and one who was just as committed to high performance sports as my young skier was. You see, I had learned from sad experience that "normal" (as in non sport-obsessed) doctors regularly underestimate an athlete's healing power. Most don't realize just how crazy and hard-working and focused and determined young jocks can be when they really believe in what they're doing.
But there was one guy I knew who fit all the criteria. So I called him.
And he didn't disappoint. It's probably been fifteen years since that conversation. But I still remember it almost word-for-word — the long silence after I'd presented my case, the trademark sigh, and then: "Get him home as quickly as you can," he'd said in that calm, quiet, take-charge voice of his. "I'll book some surgery time."
And that was that. I didn't have to plead or beg or offer up my first born as collateral. Didn't even have to apologize for the fact that the poor kid didn't have a B.C. medical card. Those were mere details. Taking care of the patient was all that mattered now.
A few days later, the inimitable JP McConkey operated on my guy. But that wasn't the end of it. He then stayed in touch with the young skier during his rehab so that he could make sure, as he later told me, "that the kid wouldn't rush back into action too soon and undo all my hard work" (this of course, delivered in an ultra-dry tone that always, always, masked a finely-tuned sense of humour).
As for my young skier, well, he went on to fame and fortune as one of the most aggressive and acrobatic big-mountain athletes on the planet. Indeed, he was part of that new wave of Whistler-based riders who re-wrote the book at the turn-of-the-new-century and cemented the Coast Mountains' reputation as one of the great crossroads of the snowplay universe.