Mark McMorris marvels at his recovery from near-fatal crash

Canadian snowboarder a podium favourite in Olympic big air, slopestyle

Mark McMorris marvels at his recovery from near-fatal crash
Canada's Mark McMorris has recovered from a laundry list of injuries incurred during a catastrophic snowboard crash in the B.C. backcountry last March. He will be a podium favourite in big air and slopestyle at the Olympics in February. © Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press
By Gregory Strong

Editor's note: CBC Sports brings you the full story of Mark McMorris's horrific crash, and his inspiring comeback, during a one-hour special airing Feb. 7 at 9 p.m. ET during Olympic Primetime on and CBC Television.

Broken jaw, broken ribs, broken arm, ruptured spleen, stable pelvic fracture, a collapsed lung.

The list of Mark McMorris's injuries from a catastrophic snowboard crash in the B.C. backcountry last March was long.

"The nature of what he had it wasn't comfortable to sit, it wasn't comfortable to walk, it wasn't comfortable to stand, it wasn't comfortable to sleep," said physiotherapist and family friend Damien Moroney. "[He] couldn't rest [his] hands on [his] chin, it was tough to eat because everything was damaged."

At the start, the priority was just to heal.

But it wasn't long before McMorris was thinking about a return to the slopes and the Olympic Winter Games, which were less than a year away in Pyeongchang, South Korea. He knew it would be an arduous journey.

Back to 'same old Mark'

"No dates," said Craig McMorris, who helped with first aid when his brother crashed. "You had to get all the dates out of your mind. It's just one thing at a time."

Mark had several things going for him in his recovery.

At 24, he's still young. McMorris had great medical and physiotherapy care available and he's mentally and physically strong.

"There was no hesitation in him [one day] snowboarding again," said Canadian slopestyle/big air coach Chris Witwicki. "He was back on board and he was ready to do it. He was sitting cross-legged in his bed and he was the same old Mark. He'd had surgery that day on his jaw and he was able to talk with us.

"Just seeing that and seeing that perseverance, just not even being fazed by what happened, it was pretty amazing. He's a pretty amazing individual for sure."

Past injuries 

It's not the first time McMorris has come back from injuries.

He broke a rib less than two weeks before the 2014 Sochi Games in Russia and still won bronze in slopestyle. McMorris broke his femur two years later and also returned earlier than expected.

This latest recovery was no different. Just eight months after the crash, McMorris won gold at a World Cup big air event in China.

"It's been crazy what my body has been able to do, for sure," he said in a recent interview. "I think it's even more crazy what hard work and focusing a lot on physio can do after tragic injuries.

"You can make a comeback to be where you were, which is pretty special."

Backcountry mishap 

The McMorris brothers were joined by a few other friends last March in the Rainbow Zone outside of Whistler. Mark's snowboard unexpectedly dug in on the soft snow before a jump, he drifted too far left, and hit a tree.

He was out cold for almost a minute. When he came to, his brother and the others did their best to help and keep him as comfortable as possible until paramedics arrived.

McMorris was able to point out which bones he thought were broken. He was vomiting blood but Craig said he knew his brother was "still with it."

As experienced back-country snowboarders, the group members were prepared for an emergency. The call went out to search-and-rescue and they built Mark a nest by the tree well.

Help eventually arrived and Mark was soon en route to Whistler.

"Once he's in the helicopter you definitely breathe a sigh of relief," said Craig, who raced to the Whistler medical facility once his brother was in the air.

Upon arrival, Craig fully realized the severity of the situation.

"By the time [Mark] got to Whistler, [his lung] had collapsed fully and his spleen had already been gone for almost two hours at that point and all those internal injuries were starting to add up," he said.

Craig recalled things were "very, very touch and go" at that point. Mark was rushed to Vancouver General Hospital due to the severity of his injuries.

"I've been in the hospital quite a bit and it was definitely the most serious, the most panicked I'd ever seen doctors and paramedics, trying to get him in that MedEvac down to Vancouver as soon as possible," Craig said.

After spending 10 days in hospital, Mark was quite limited physically for about a month and was on a liquid diet for six weeks.

"He was engaged, he was focused, he was committed," Moroney said. "He'd been there before and risen out of it."

The 2017-18 season was soon on his mind. He could take his time with a proper recovery since he already had a provisional spot on the Olympic team.

"The extent of recovery when you see that huge list of things is essentially unknown," Moroney said. "The first thing is to get him back to being healthy and from there try to enable him to actually physically expand, and then you start to look at what it takes for the demands as a snowboarder."

McMorris hit the gym and slowly rebuilt his strength and mobility. Physio work was done in four-week intervals.

Underwater treadmill work, cycling conditioning, soft tissue joint work, mobility drills, loading and building through the legs, were all on the to-do list.

"It's impressive to see the level that he's risen to in the time frame that he has," said Moroney, the director of rehabilitation and performance integration at Fortius Sport & Health in Burnaby, B.C. "That's really on him and his ability to heal, his ability to commit and his ability to engage in the process."

Olympic podium favourite

McMorris didn't ease into competition when he finally returned. He nailed a backside triple cork 1440 indy with his final jump, delivering a statement that he was back in a big way.

The Regina native also has reason for confidence after winning the big air test event at a World Cup in Pyeongchang over a year ago. Big air is making its Olympic debut at the Games, and McMorris will be a podium favourite in that competition and in slopestyle.

"You just need to land the best run you can do and just have fun with it," McMorris said. "It's just snowboarding at the end of the day. For sure, it's serious and all, but have fun.

"Stay focused and visualize what you want to happen."