Returning to Risk: The How and Why

When Josh Dueck landed the first-ever sit ski back flip it raised some questions for another skier with a spinal injury.

Josh Dueck not looking particularly risk averse. PHOTO: ALAIN SLEAGER

Words: Ryan Dunfee

An episode of Salomon Freeski TV aired last winter in which Josh Dueck, the Canadian Paralympic and Winter X Games medalist, landed the first ever back flip on a sit ski. Josh’s act was seen with admiration around the world. But for me, Dueck’s story raised some questions.

On January 27, 2005, on a gorgeous sunny day at Aspen’s Snowmass Mountain, I decided on my first run of my first day in town that the first jump at the top of the terrain park, which I had only seen from the top, looked good. I sat on my tails to get what I thought was the necessary speed, stood up, and popped hard.

Before I knew it I was 30 feet in the air with the landing well behind me. I overshot it so badly that I never even saw it. I watched trees pass by, then the groomer tracks nearing below me. Finally, in one horrible smack, my tailbone hit the ground at full force. When I pulled myself together, I had no feeling or movement in my legs. The only thing I remember thinking is, “I hope I can get laid in a wheelchair.”

The author standing up after breaking his back. PHOTO: COURTESY OF RYAN DUNFEE

Fortunately, despite a burst T11 and cracked T10 vertebrae, and after some reconstructive spinal cord injury and months of rehab, I was able to walk again. I still limp, but I can also still ski, and that’s about as even a shake as I could have hoped for. My perception of risk has changed forever; the days of guinea pigging, of pushing it in icy parks, or skiing something entirely on faith are all over.

But watching Josh attempt that back flip brought up something deeply intriguing and deeply troubling for me: the fact that, despite both our traumatic experiences, our appetite for risk is still strong. We’re both back out on skis, pushing our limits. But I knew neither of us perceives risk in the same way after our injury. So I sat down with Josh to try to understand how we have changed our approach to risk. I also spoke with three doctors—Dr. Robb Gaffney, the infamous Squaw Valley fixture and psychiatrist; Dr. Allyson Gilles, another Tahoe local with dual Ph.D.’s in both Clinical and Developmental Psychology; and Dr. William Scelza, himself a paraplegic and a spinal cord injury physician at Denver’s Craig Hospital—to understand why we still want that physical risk in our lives.

It turns out that labeling these experiences as “life changing” is misleading. Your pre-injury experience and perception combine with your life-changing event to form the post-experience self, and many don’t appreciate how much weight the pre-injury self carries. According to Dr. Gilles, a number of factors cement the identity of a person before they reach prime risk-taking age. Your DNA, genetic vulnerabilities and strengths, and physiology all prepare you to be a certain kind of person before you even learn to speak.

Despite what Dr. Gaffney calls the “increased appreciation of the richness of life” in the face of devastating circumstances, it’s still the pre-injury self that is making sense of the experience. One of my first nights in the hospital, when I couldn’t even move or feel my legs or sit up, I was watching the Winter X Games SuperPipe Final and thinking that I’d never wanted to do that so badly in my entire life, despite the fact that that was the reason I was in that hospital bed.

The brain, which prefers familiarity, wants to return to an accustomed sense of self, a phenomenon Gaffney calls “anchoring.” While recreational skiers who severely injure themselves skiing might give up the sport post-injury, the people for whom risk taking is core to who they are—the Shane McConkeys and the Josh Duecks—find it impossible to do so.

“Slow down and listen to what your body is telling you.”

This was the first thing Josh said that hit home for me. It took me years to get used to my “new” body: the spots with little or no sensation, the weak muscles, the new balance point. But I got used to new strengths, too. My quads could keep standing during big run-outs and I could ski stably enough on my heels to drive powder skis, slide boxes, and slash wind drifts. I learned that with what I had, there were days when the risk factor was down—when the snow was good, when I was feeling alert and strong—and I could step outside my comfort zone for a couple runs.


Dr. Scelza says that athletics and sport are a big part of the recovery process, because we measure progress and regain confidence through physical improvement. For people like Josh and me, that means that we are open to prioritizing our skiing goals and exposing ourselves to the risks associated with them above the bigger picture of living a healthy life in the long-term.

The process of rehabilitating the mind is much more difficult. According to Dr. Gaffney, risk-takers will usually recover faster from injury and have better physical outcomes, and we’ve witnessed a string of incredible stories in snowsports, from snowboarder Danny Toumarkine to Tanner Hall to prove it. But according to Dr. Gilles’ research, those who haven’t suffered any brain damage as a result of their life-changing injuries are also being asked to complete a change in mental perception when they are least pre-disposed to do so. They are at the peak of their lifetime appetite for risk, and likely surrounded by a community of similar young risk-takers. When these factors are combined with their pre-injury conditioning and the fact that mental milestones are so much harder to see than physical ones, the odds of gaining a smarter, healthier perspective on one’s life seems remarkably low.

“I protected the back flip. I didn’t want to create an expectation. I protected that idea fiercely as it was a deeply personal endeavor for me.”

We are all used to the one-upmanship that occurs when a pack of skiers rallies around the mountain, egging each other on to do something bigger or faster. But after an injury a newfound sense of self-control has become one of our most prized accomplishments. The big goals we want to achieve are driven inward. You don’t talk about them until the moment you’re ready to do them. You work towards them by playing on the edge of risk, dipping your foot in the pool when your buddies would have you dive into the deep end. According to Dr. Gilles, the intelligent ones will also start to surround themselves more and more with independent thinkers who can be supportive without feeling the need to be pushy. We need a support system that sends a healthy balance of messages, split between egging us on to achieve the best results and encouraging us to protect ourselves.

Josh's Winter X Gold Medal PHOTO: LACEY DUECK

“You’re doing it for yourself. You’re not doing it for ego or to gain recognition. You’re just doing it due to a genuine sense of curiosity.”

After suffering a traumatic injury, no one will look to you to jump the biggest cliff or wow the lift line. No one will watch your GoPro edit, and in that way, you’re shielded from the expectations of heroism. You’re given more space to define skiing for yourself. Your goals and aspirations start to separate themselves out from everyone else’s in what I can only describe as a beautifully liberating experience. Ego starts to drift away naturally, and like Josh said, you are left with a simple and genuine sense of curiosity about what your body can do.

Gaffney says life is a careful balance of discovering when “things will give you something or take something away from you.” You have to make the best decision for your whole self, not just the part that enjoys the dopamine draw of risk. For a person who comes out of a serious injury that balance is by no means easier to find.

People like Josh and I are, by nearly every definition, addicts. We can’t help ourselves. Somewhere down there, it’s written in our DNA. We are addicted to something that has tremendous power to both give us something and take something away. And our life choices reflect a defiant demand for access to the first half of those possibilities. We are encouraged and cheered by fellow addicts, and we inspire them. They see that us fighting so hard for what they and we love that that thing must inherently be worth it. The non-addicts consider us, and our pursuit of that thing that caused us so much harm, reckless. Both groups are right. However, in this age of superhuman feats and growing ranks of the dead and injured, it would do us well to give more credence to the thoughts and values of that second group.