It’s a decision that every ski racer must come to terms with sooner or later in his or her career. Making the choice to step away from the sport you’ve dedicated much of your life to since the days of ripping around the mountain as a kid without a care in the world is never an easy one, especially when that decision comes due to factors largely beyond your control.
After over a year of struggles with concussion symptoms, Alaska native and 2016 U.S. national giant slalom champion Kieffer Christianson announced his retirement from ski racing last month on social media.
Goodbye Ski Racing. . . A week ago I was wanted to say those words in 7 months, after the most glorious surge onto the World Cup the world had ever seen. A year ago I wanted to say those words in 15 years, after finally being a full time World Cup skier. Over a decade ago I thought I’d only say those words after a long career and many crystal globes. . . Today, I’m saying those words after sustaining minor concussions in every month from Jan-April last season, and then again most recently this weekend. I’ve reached the point where I can have minor symptoms from almost absolutely tiny impacts. My goal this year was to limit my risk for impacts this summer, get as fit as I could, and get up to speed quickly on snow this fall. . I got symptoms from a few gentle falls on my butt this weekend at a completely safe and awesome @cirqueseries event. The cut on my hand was from using a sharp rock for balance while running- and had nothing to do with my falls. The event was totally safe, and i posted that picture to show the feeling I want to be able to have for the rest of my life. Ski racing gave it to me for 18 years, and I would do anything to be able to keep that going. I’ve heard people say “you just have to be sure you feel good about retiring.” I have not reached that point, and I’m not sure I ever will. Instead of forcing the fact that I’m “ok with retiring”, I’m working on accepting that I’m not okay with it.. and that’s ok. My brain simply can’t handle the forces of real sports, so I guess I’m just going to have to get my thrills from being the best at exercising. . . If I started tagging and posting pictures of everyone I owe a thank you to, your Instagram feed would explode. To those individuals who’ve helped me in anyway, you know who you are, and for that I’m grateful. I still have to give a very special shoutout to the Alyeska Mighty Mites, Alyeska Ski Club, Iced Out Racing, Burke and Woodshouse08, the US Team, the BODS, the Buff-squad, Rage Academy, and ALL of my supporters for being with me along the way. Because it’s going to be hard not ski racing, but even harder to have a lifetime of inside jokes to try and retell to @josefulful ??. . Thank You
“I pretty much had problems for four consecutive months,” explains Christianson. “The good news was I was bouncing back, but the bad news was that the impacts that I was receiving to get these problems were almost nothing; nobody was even batting an eye. I was getting problems from just hitting my head on gates, and I’ve done that tens of thousands of times in my life. (The decision) was totally on my own. For all of the doctors I’ve gone to and argued with about when I can start doing stuff again, this one was on my own.”
After his first documented concussion at age 14, the fiery and eccentric redhead enjoyed a meteoric rise through the national ranks until getting picked up by the U.S. Ski Team following his senior year at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont. Following a concussion that sidelined him for six weeks during his second year on the national team, Christianson was able to avoid any significant head impacts from high-speed crashes or other incidents in the years since. However, repeated smaller, seemingly insignificant impacts to the head might have contributed to the 25-year-old’s symptoms that ultimately became too much to manage.
“It was more just my own feeling,” he explains. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so concussed I can’t see straight.’ It was like, ‘Man, I feel a little bit off, I can’t quite focus.’ I could ski, I just couldn’t ski very well.”
The breaking point came last month after Christianson competed in a trail-running race at his home mountain of Alyeska, where he developed symptoms after a few minor slips and falls on his backside while out on the trails. When he realized that he could develop symptoms from impacts that weren’t even directly to his head, Christianson accepted the reality that his competitive ski career was over.
“After (the race) I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t really train gates. I have to freeski most of the time, and then every time I get in the course I might be getting concussed from basic stuff,’” he recalls. “It wasn’t really even a decision anymore; it was just accepting the reality that my brain can’t handle the forces of alpine skiing.”
Christianson made his World Cup debut at the 2013 season opener in Soelden, Austria, and was poised to make a name for himself on the world stage before a few seasons of inconsistent results led to him being cut from the national team for the 2016-2017 season. Christianson spent last season as an independent athlete with the hopes of finding his form and regaining a spot on the World Cup. His ultimate goal was to compete in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“I was going to put all my eggs in one basket,” he says of his plans for the coming season. “I wasn’t going to play it safe and go race NorAms (to get a World Cup spot), I was literally going to go to every World Cup and go to the U.S. Team and say, ‘Ok, when’s the time trial?’ And if I get any symptoms along the way, I’m going to stop.”
Christianson powers his way to a 2016 U.S. GS title in Sun Valley, Idaho.
With the NFL facing mounting evidence that contact football can cause irreversible brain damage to players, concussions have been a hot topic in sports news in recent years, and for good reason. But for all of the time, money, and energy that has gone into researching head injuries, there is still much that remains unknown.
After a suspected head injury, an athlete is subject to a battery of cognitive and physical tests to determine if a concussion occurred and whether or not the athlete is fit to return to competition. According to Christianson, he was by and large able to pass all of the standard concussion protocols, but he still felt off whenever he returned to any sort of grueling physical activity.
“The biggest thing that upset me about this whole process is how difficult concussions are to detect,” admits Christianson. “If you think that you have a bump on your head, the U.S. Team or any organization is going to have a protocol with impact tests and a series of workouts and doctor visits – which is there for good reason – but the problem for me was that I was passing all the tests but still having symptoms. At the end of the day, it’s all about the athlete saying they aren’t ready to ski.”
“I had a few (impacts) that maybe flew under the radar,” he adds. “It wasn’t even like I was lying about how I felt, it was just like, ‘I don’t know, do I feel weird?’ And then I’d play these mental games like wondering if the lights are really brighter than normal. Then I’d wake up in the morning and feel fine and just chalk it up to being a little sensitive. When you first start having that stuff, it’s easy to tell yourself that you’re just imagining it. The more it happens, the more you realize the symptoms are actually happening.”
As any athlete knows, admitting that you’re hurt is tough, but Christianson is thankful that he was surrounded by a group of close friends and coaches who were able to pick up on subtle changes to his behavior and encourage him to take time off when he needed. Self-reporting of head injuries is often the best way for an athlete to manage concussions and concussion-like symptoms.
Looking towards the future, Christianson aims to complete his final two quarters of academic study at Dartmouth College while starting his coaching career at his home club in Alyeska. Thanks to Dartmouth’s quarter system, he’ll be able to split his time between New Hampshire and Alaska this coming season.
“I’m at a point right now where I feel fine skiing, I just can’t ski that hard,” he says. “I loved growing up at Alyeska. There’s not a ton of kids there but there’s definitely an opportunity to get the club rolling a little bit and get a little competitive. It’s perfect because Dartmouth has such a big break between fall and spring terms where I can start coaching in the beginning of December and coach until the end of March when school starts.”
By his own admission, Christianson says that he might not ever be totally OK with his career ending the way it did, which, given the circumstances, is more than understandable. Although his competitive days as a ski racer might be over, Christianson is already looking for opportunities to help other athletes better manage their concussion symptoms so they can avoid pitfalls similar to his.
“I spent about a day thinking, and I was struggling with how I was going to accept it and how not OK I was about stopping skiing,” he says. “The only way I was able to rationalize it was knowing that I don’t have to be totally happy that my career is over. I don’t have to walk around being mad about it all day, but I have to accept that it’s just the way it is.”
Not having the opportunity to end his career on his own terms will sting for years to come, but Christianson’s passion for skiing and his extraordinary personality have left an indelible mark on the U.S. ski racing community that will no doubt last. Best of luck on your next big adventure, Kieffer – we’ll be watching.