Riding on faith, home-grown snowboard racer Steven MacCutcheon looks for a miracle comeback this season.
By John O'Neill
When: Friday, Dec. 7 at 5 p.m.
Where: Alpenrose Restaurant
Why: Steven MacCutcheon returns to competitive snowboarding after traumatic brain injury. Funds from the event will go toward race travel and equipment expenses.
If you didn’t know Steven MacCutcheon’s story, you might think that his finishes last weekend at a FIS Copper Mountain NorAm were normal finishes. Racing head-to-head in parallel slalom and giant slalom on a snowboard, MacCutcheon would finish fifth for the Americans in slalom and sixth for the American in GS. Accounting for the international competition, he would fall back to 23rd out of all competitors on the day in both disciplines.
Those at the course that knew MacCutcheon’s story, though, were probably curious to notice his name on the start list. As a teenager, MacCutcheon was slated to become a big name in snowboard racing. He was a junior world competitor and one of the fastest names on a snowboard race start list. Then he disappeared.
Yet last weekend, there he was again on the start list, curiously arranged to begin 54th out of 60 competitors. At the end of the day, he would climb 21 spots. He would also earn 36 of the 100 or more points he’ll need to compete internationally and establish himself, once again, as one of the most competitive snowboard racers in the country.
The high finish was welcomed both as a result and as a comeback for MacCutcheon, now 25, whose disappearance from the snowboard racing scene came about after suffering life-threatening injuries in a race on April 5, 2005.
MacCutcheon wasn’t supposed to make it out of the hospital alive following the crash, let alone make it back onto a snowboard, back into a race and certainly not back into the winner’s circle. Yet almost seven years later, he stands with goals of making the Olympic team for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. He has his eyes on NorAm races in Canada, and then a trip planned to Europe if his results permit it.
‘I was hooked from the start’
MacCutcheon started snowboarding at five years old. At the time, snowboard lessons were reserved for only the six year olds, so he willingly fibbed to exchange his skis for a board.
“Oh man, I was hooked from the start,” MacCutcheon says. “I took a lesson with my dad and my brother at Arrowhead mountain. I went out and got a Rossignol board that night. I absolutely loved it.”
That Rossignol board would see a lot of use, too. MacCutcheon says he would get out on the mountain every chance he could and started progressing quickly. He recalls his mom pulling him out of school early so he could get in a few late afternoon runs before the lifts closed. He loved to ride fast, and picked up the nickname that still sticks, “Speedy Steve.”
He got his first carving board when he was eight years old after joining the Ski and Snowboard Club Vail’s first snowboarding team with coach Hoyt Hottel.
“Hoyt introduced me to all events – some slope style, some racing, some half pipe,” MacCutcheon says. “But I really loved to go fast. I told Hoyt that, and he set me up to start racing.”
By age nine he registered for his first race. By 11 he won nationals for his age group in slalom. He made the Junior World team at 15.
That summer, when he was 16, he went to Chile for training and was introduced to boardercross – a now popular discipline that headlines as a premier event at the Winter Olympic Games. Boardercross has snowboarders race downhill, around gates and over jumps. At 17, he was racing boardercross full time, loving the mixture of speed, air and technical focus. But that is when he began to battle injuries – a fractured shin and constant knee problems.
Despite those set backs, he made another junior world team in boardercross and GS. The race was supposed to be in Switzerland, but snow there delayed the event, allowing MacCutcheon to race once more on American soil before heading to Europe. He registered for a national race at Copper.
“Somebody could die on that course”
The weekend was going well for MacCutcheon in GS and slalom.
“I don’t remember exactly how I did, but I was top 10 definitely,” MacCutcheon says. Even now he doesn’t remember a lot about that weekend, and some events leading up to it are still hazy.
“All I had left was boardercross. I remember there was one jump on the course that didn’t look good to anyone. It was a lippy jump that kicked you into the air and landed right into a left hand turn on a berm. It was really hard to prepare for,” he says.
What he recalls is specific – his friend had gotten hurt on it earlier. It was a blue-bird day.
“I remember looking over at one of my friends who was racing next to me. I remember turning to him and telling him that I didn’t think I was going to make it through the course, that somebody could die on that course,” MacCutcheon says.
Little did he know that he would be forecasting his own future. MacCutcheon hardly remembers starting the race.
“We all came into that jump. I had friends say that I was in the lead. I can’t remember. But I flipped upside down going way too fast and came down right on my head on the berm.”
MacCutcheon had broken his helmet and immediately fell into respiratory failure. Ski patrol had to revive him. He was then taken by Flight for Life to St. Anthony’s in Denver. He was told that he was revived twice in the helicopter.
At St. Anthony’s he would be diagnosed with two brain hemorrhages – one in the frontal lobe, one in the temporal lobe. There was shearing of the brain. He had shattered his shoulder. He had eight fractures in his humorous. He destroyed his labrum, tore his rotator cuff and broke his elbow.
“I don’t remember much of the week prior. I was even dating a girl at the time, and I couldn’t remember that for a long time. My mom got there and was greeted by a priest and taken to a bereavement room. She was intent on seeing me, and they let her in. I was on a respirator. I had a machine pumping my lungs. I was in a medically induced coma,” he says.
To put in perspective how close MacCutcheon was to dying – the doctors had a cooler in the room next to his bed. The cooler was for his organs had he passed away.
Here’s where some might say a miracle happened – MacCutcheon, an active member at Cavalry Chapel, says he believes that Jesus had a helping hand in saving his life.
“The diagnosis was close to terminal. Then my Mom started to pray. She believed Jesus would heal me. Then the doctors started seeing the quickest recovery,” he says.
His brain had begun dangerously swelling, and the doctors were ready to drill into his skull to relieve the pressure. Then, one day, the pressure began to dissipate.
“Avoiding the drill helped everything dramatically,” MacCutcheon says. “I was able to recover so much faster. Everyone kept on praying that I would get better, and I continued to improve and improve faster than what anyone expected.”
“Sounds like a miracle”
It wasn’t until he left the hospital that the reality set in – snowboard racing was over for him.
“One day I was thinking about going to Europe to snowboard, then I am coming home. The worst part was that before the accident I had packed all my bags for Europe, and when I got home from the hospital, they were still packed. That was the first time it really set in,” he says.
The MacCutcheons even moved the family to South Carolina so their son could recover away from the mountains, but he knew he wanted to be back on a board. But at the time, full recovery was a long ways away – he even had trouble speaking.
“I had to relearn emotions. I remember there being so much pain. No happy and a lot of pain. I couldn’t even communicate it,” he says. “That was kind of a drag, but I had faith that there was going to be a complete turnaround in my life. I had faith that I could get through it. Faith sees a setback as an opportunity for a comeback.”
It took a lot of work, but one year later – after careful evaluation from his doctor – MacCutcheon was back on a board, riding for fun. After a while, he was getting fast again, and had considered getting back into boardercross.
Those plans were quickly curtailed, however, at the end of the 2010 season. He was hitting a jumps in Vail, loving the feeling of getting air again. It was a windy day. He remembers hitting a jump. Then he remembers waking up in the hospital -- again.
He had a fractured eye socket, concussion and a broken wrist, and a second head trauma injury could have been completely debilitating. Yet doctors found nothing wrong.
“They were bewildered,” MacCutcheon says. “They couldn’t find anything. They couldn’t even find any signs of previous injury. It sounds like a miracle to me. I was 100 percent healed. I guess it was kind of a real opportunity to find out exactly how I was doing. And I was doing just fine.”
A calling back to the mountains
After the second injury, MacCutcheon – who is also an accomplished musician – moved out to Indiana to pursue a career in music. He had picked up music while recovering from his first injury, and thought that was where his life was headed.
“And then the mountains called me back. God called me back to the mountains. When I got back, I started thinking about snowboarding as something I really need to consider doing again,” he says.
This time, MacCutcheon set his sights on the speed disciplines of slalom and GS. Since the beginning of the summer, he’s been in the gym, working with trainers. However, the road back to competition is largely unpaved. While he rides for a Steamboat Springs-based team, national snowboard racing doesn’t receive funding. Even the board he’s riding is a used board.
His only current sponsor is the Alpenrose restaurant in Vail, where he also works. The restaurant will be hosting a fundraiser for MacCutcheon this Friday, December 7 at 5 p.m., with a portion of proceeds helping to cover his travel, race and equipment expenses.
So for now, MacCutcheon is riding on faith, with a strong crew of friends and family behind him.
“I believe in Jesus and that he has a plan for me,” he says. “Getting back onto a snowboard, racing again, it isn’t just a chance to be back on the mountains. It is a second chance at life and something that I love doing.”