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Trevor Snowden: from big air to wheelchair
By Taylor Flynn

March 29 is a day Trevor Snowden will never forget. It is the day the 27-year-old South Lake Tahoe snowboarding superstar broke his back so severely that his spinal nerves were completely severed. March 29 is the day Trevor Snowden became a paraplegic.

The accident occurred during a "big air" snowboard competition at Snow Qualomy Pass, a ski resort an hour due east of Seattle, Washington. "Big air" contests live up to their name by encouraging snowboarders to go high and far off mammoth jumps, to the point where the crowd-pleaser event has been banned from the mainstream snowboarding circuit following numerous accidents.

But Snowden excelled at big air, so much, in fact, that he is known as "Trev-air" amongst his peers and in the magazines. He found himself competing in break-off big air circuits including the Bud Light series which he intended on winning the overall.

At Snow Qualomy Pass, Snowden was the third boarder to make a practice run off the sculpted snow ramp designed to catapult contestants over a flat area and onto a steep landing slope. The first two riders barely cleared the flat section and contest officials were worried.

"The walkie-talky guys said to get more speed, so I touched it up a notch," said Snowden. He hit the jump and not only cleared the flat but sailed over the entire slope, landing in another flat area 103 feet below the ramp.

"I was doing a backside 360 (helicopter) and, when I turned around, I saw that I was too big," he said. "I thought about skidding on my side or leaning back but my
mind just decided to stick it - to land on my feet. I was so high and so far and the hill was so flat that there was no way my body could stand the compression."

"I hit and all I remember is hearing my bones rattle inside my flesh," he said. "I hit so hard that I bounced off the snow like a beach ball."

Snowden came to rest lying on his back and remembers thinking that something was definitely wrong, but the pain of the accident hadn't yet materialized. He tried to pick himself up.

"I went to get up and I couldn't move my legs," he said. "That's when I went into shock... I actually thought that I was dying, that it was my last few moments on Earth."

At the hospital, x-rays revealed that five vertebrae were crushed and twisted and his spine was snapped. The break is classified as a complete fracture which means the nerves are not pinched but completely torn from the spine. When Snowden woke up after eight hours in surgery, doctors made it very clear: he would never walk again.

"They told me that I lost the use of my legs from the waist down," he said. "I'm pretty much done." Done in one sense.

Amazingly enough, Snowden says he has come to see the accident as a fresh start in life and seems genuinely upbeat about opening up new chapters. He is quick to laugh, makes jokes and has already mastered one-handed wheelies in a rented wheelchair. Just four months after being a top pro snowboarder, Snowden anticipates the arrival of his specially-fitted, high-performance, fire-engine-red wheelchair.

"It's funny," he said. "Now I find myself looking (admiringly) at other people's wheelchairs."

He initially spent six weeks at Harbor View Hospital in Seattle, then came home and spent two months in rehab at the new Skilled Nursing Facility at Barton Memorial. ("That's a story in itself," he said. "Those people are something else. They were great"). Snowden just recently completed a wheelchair training program at U.C. Davis which he calls the "final touch."

The accident has made him more spiritual, he said, by forcing him to understand that there are more important things in life than snowboarding.

"I had everything," he said. "I was fully sponsored by Fila, I was finally getting a regular paycheck, MTV was filming the Bud Tour and I was finally ready to really break out into the sport. Then it was all taken away."

Snowden said that one reason he has adjusted so quickly is that he was unhappy with his life.

"I had all those great things but I was still kinda bummed, life just kinda sucked," he said. "When it was all taken away, it was refreshing to know that I had a new beginning. I was wrapped up in snowboarding, because that's all I had."

Considered a veteran boarder at 27, Snowden grew with the sport which grew up in South Lake Tahoe. He is considered part of the "South Shore Posse" - a group of "old school" Tahoe locals including Shaun Palmer, Damien Sanders and Jimmy Halopoff among others who gave snowboarding its "bad boy" image which inadvertently promoted it into its current world-wide popularity, and which established Tahoe as its Mecca.

Ironically, Snowden said he had become disgruntled with the sport in recent years with the arrival of new punks on the scene copping "attitudes." He said the sport has become soured with mega companies commercializing their products "off the image that we created." Also, it was getting increasingly difficult to pull off "insane" stunts necessary to stay on top of the competition, he said. Though the accident happened just at his athletic peak, Snowden says he had planned to "bail out" of snowboarding in about three years.

"It's not a sad story," he insists. "I fulfilled my childhood dream to become a top snowboarder. But, here's the problem. Once you get real good, then what?"

Snowden said he now sees his fate as "destiny" to help others in the sport. He aspires to write "The Book" for competition safety standards. He also is bringing a lawsuit against the competition promoters for building what he says was a poorly-designed ramp.

"Promoters shouldn't be able to build some crazy, whacked jump and just throw pros off of it," he said. "It looks like I'm gonna be the one to make it safer for everyone."

And, though his legs have already withered into flabby images from the thick trunks they once were, Snowden still sees himself as an athlete and competitor. Seemingly unconscious of it, he habitually uses his broad shoulders and muscle-bound arms to do "push-ups" in his wheelchair. And he has already selected his next sport.

"I want to get into four-wheel mountain biking." he said confidently.

Ironically, the same person Snowden says inspired him to become a great snowboarder is also inspiring him to want to excel at mountain biking. "(Shaun) Palmer came to visit me in the hospital," said Snowden. "He rides for Specialized and they're the ones who make the four-wheel bikes. He (Palmer) promised to buy me one of those."

Still considered one of the best snowboarders in the business, in the last several years Palmer has also achieved world-wide fame in the sport of downhill mountain bike racing. "He was always my inspiration," said Snowden. "I've always respected his character, his ability and just the way he handles himself."

To begin his new life, Snowden says he plans to move to Gardnerville. He said he is scared how he might feel when the snow falls in Tahoe. It may be too much to handle. Plus, he says, the lack of snow and flat terrain in the valley will allow him to pursue his next dream.

"Down there, I can train (on the bike) all winter and 'Palm' said he plans to come train with me," said the former snowboarder. "Come next spring, I want to be really good."

Another skill Snowden aspires to master is songwriting and playing the guitar. "Ever since I crashed, I've been coming up with all these songs, all these emotional songs."

"God, I thank you for my fingers," he said, and began strumming through another tune.

This article is the property of Tahoe Mountain News, 1996-1998 (All Rights Reserved) Reprinted here with permission of Taylor Flynn.

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