An Ode to Snowboarding – Why it made life worth living after being diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis

Roundtop Peak Red Lak Carson Pass Backcountry on New Years Eve Overlooking Roundtop Peak in Carson Pass Backcountry over New Years Eve - Image taken by: Local Freshies

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During one of the WORST seasons on record for Lake Tahoe, you begin to second guess your decision in moving to the mountains. “Is it worth it? What is important? Why am I here? What should I do with my life?” Personally, it’s forcing me to realize how lucky I am to even snowboard. I had lost the ability to enjoy the sport I so cherished in an instant for nearly FIVE YEARS almost a decade ago. The story I’m about to tell you is one that I’ve told very few. It’s about how a snowboarding injury triggered an illness that most have never heard of yet changed my life forever.

Snowboard Accident Leads To Lifelong Illness

Floating in the air watching the transition fly right past me, I knew I was in trouble. Instead of jumping up to get the right landing trajectory, I ended up shooting far past it, right to the flat bottom. ***CRUNCH*** I collapsed and slammed forward feeling a twinge in my left shoulder. I felt like Icarus… flying too close to the sun, my wings melted and I hurdling down to Earth. Looking down at my board, it had snapped under my back binding and my body just didn’t feel right. This is when my life changed for better or worse.

Doctors are never wrong, right?

Madison Wisconsin Science Hall
Science Hall at UW-Madison during mid-winter

It was after my accident at my local ski hill that things slowly started going in the wrong direction. A few weeks later, I still didn’t feel right. The pain in my shoulder was unbearable. I could barely lift my left arm above a 45° angle without cursing to the heavens. I started noticing every time I worked out, I’d be sore for not just a day but for over a week or more. It felt like I was falling apart. So, I finally made the decision to head to the doctor. Walking into the office and speaking to a University physician, they told me it was because I was “getting old” and that I should just get used to it. “At 22? Really?” It just didn’t sound right, but I took it with a grain of salt and tried to keep doing what I loved even if it hurt.

Lost Snowboarding…

Roundtop Peak Red Lak Carson Pass Backcountry on New Years Eve
Lost Snowboarding for nearly 5 years and now try to enjoy what the weather gives me

About a year later in my junior year of college, my body just couldn’t take snowboarding anymore. Every turn or chatter of the board caused pain to radiate through my spine. It felt like I was an old truck without any suspension. I had lost most of my flexibility and had to get in and out of the car like I had a neck brace on. The constant joke from my friends was that I was Grandpa. I smiled on the outside but I was crushed on the inside. At such a young age, I felt like my life was over. I couldn’t snowboard, skateboard or even run.

Rock Bottom

Going into a severe depression, most of my friends didn’t even know I had turned to food and alcohol for some sort of relief. Of course, I enjoyed the college life but in my heart, I felt broken. “Why did this happen to me? Would I be able to enjoy things like snowboarding ever again?” At that time, the answer was no. Graduating school, I moved back home to Chicago, surrounding myself with good friends. They helped me cope with my situation but I still felt like it wasn’t enough. Fifty pounds overweight and emotionally defeated, I didn’t know what else to do.

Chicago Skyline Night
Back in Chicago my friends help me cope with my pain

My Prayers Are Answered

So, there I was lying in bed with pain shooting through my spine. It made it impossible to catch some ZZZzzz’s. Tossing and turning, I finally rolled out of bed and got onto my hands and knees. Tears streaming down my face and nowhere else to turn, I prayed and asked for an answer. “What is wrong with me? How do I fix this?” A rush of calm suddenly washed over me. Little did I know, the next day my prayers would be answered. Hanging out with my buddy John and his Mom, he brought up my back issue to her. She was a nurse so maybe she’d have a clue on what I should do. While listening to my symptoms, she said it sounded like an auto-immune disease and suggested I visit her friend a Rheumatologist. “Was this a coincidence or an answer to my prayers?”

A Real Doctor Finds Out What Happened

A week later, I met up with the Rheumatologist and described all my aches and pains. Sitting quietly, he listened intently as I unloaded all my issues, expressing my frustrations to him. You could tell he cared. Based on what I explained, he suggested a simple blood test to confirm his suspicions. It was confirmed… I had Ankylosing Spondylitis.

Ankylosing Spondylitis?!?!

Ankylosing Spondylitis
This could be me?!?

“Anky-what?” It’s an auto-immune disease that if left untreated can cause the bones in the spine to fuse together along with the neck and shoulders. I stood there in total shock. “Is my life over?” No. In fact, there was a possibility that I could have it back if I changed my entire lifestyle. From eating right to exercising and even stretching EVERYDAY, there was a small chance I could lead a normal life. To help jump-start it, he suggested taking a new drug called Enbrel.

A Magical Drug That Could Help or Kill Me

At this time in the early 2000′s. all the articles about this drug were downright scary. The medicine outright states that it lowers your immune system to the point that a flu could kill you. Also, it meant that I would have to stab myself in the belly EVERY week with a needle. Needles terrified me! “Was it even worth it?” The dull achy pain I lived with each and every day was exhausting. I needed to do something but was this it? I finally made the tough decision and decided to take a leap of faith. After the first injection, I immediately felt a HUGE difference. I could have a good night’s sleep! I could finally exercise! It was like a fog being lifted and suddenly I saw the sun after so many years.

A Whole New Lease on Life – Snowboarding With Ankylosing Spondylitis

McCall Brundage Ski Resort Snowboarding Toeside Carve Powder
A whole new lease on life helps me enjoy snowboarding in any condition

I knew what I wanted back in my life: Snowboarding. But, I couldn’t just strap on a board. I needed to get healthy first. So, I began to start running, biking and eating healthy. I lost 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 pounds over the course of one year! Almost five years after my injury, I stood on top of the same hill that I got hurt on with my feet attached. “Was it as fun as I remembered? Could I still do it?” With a little bit of trepidation in my heart, I dropped in. As the fear dissipated, a big grin emerged on my face. I knew then that I couldn’t live without snowboarding ever again.

And while we wait for our next powder day, just remember that the sports we love so dearly can be taken from us in an instant. Don’t just sit back in the driver’s seat and wait… enjoy what you have today!

18 thoughts on “An Ode to Snowboarding – Why it made life worth living after being diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis

  1. What an inspiring story. I never knew the extent of your pain and suffering. To see you today, no one would ever believe it. Knowing what a “fighter’ and “survivor” you are doesn’t surprise me. You are a shining example of human strength when life looks grim. I am SOOOOO BLESSED and PROUD to know you and love you like a son.

  2. Really puts things into perspective and makes you appreciate how lucky we are to shred. Glad you’re back on the board and thanks for sharing!

  3. I was diagnosed with AS in 2009. In 2016, a different rheumatologist contradicted that diagnosis, after I was diagnosed with cancer caused by a hereditary syndrome (as my husband reminds me, the language of doctors is “practice”). Through it all, skiing has kept me sane.

    I am so happy that Enbrel works for you and that you are riding and seeing the sun again!

    Many congratulations and thanks for sharing your story.


  4. Alex, you are a hero for living this journey and sharing it for others to learn from. Sorry I couldn’t have helped you through it but I’m here for you if you ever need doctor advice from a friend.

    1. Thanks Kumar. It wasn’t something I was proud of and VERY few people knew about my illness. Heck, it was difficult for me to even write this… fortunately I had a bunch of friends that FORCED me to write it and so glad I did.

  5. Love this article. I’ve only been snowboarding for 2-3ish years and I fell in love with it and it’s been one of the things that’s helped me the most with my recovery from drug addiction . I needed a hobby that exceeded my struggle and it was it.

    Love to hear about passion behind the sport, internal strength, and overcoming difficulties. Thanks for the write.

    1. So humbled to hear that. 🙂 It took me years to get confident enough to write this article. I was embarrassed about it for so long. Stay sane, keep snowboarding, and you might want to try out mountain biking as well. It’s now my release in the summer… not as good as snowboarding… but still dam fun.

  6. Wonderful story Alex. I’m so glad you kept talking about it and didn’t just crawl into a hole!
    congratulations on taking your life back!!

  7. Awesome story! Huge props Alex for the work you put in every day to get yourself back to the hill! Stoked for you!

    1. Thanks Pinks 🙂 While I can’t snowboard to the level I used to… and have to be more cautious I do appreciate every day that much more. Hope it inspires to keep moving forward.

    1. Hey K,

      I’d have to say a duck stance has always allowed my legs to take the majority of the bumpy terrain – (+24, -12).

      With that being said, what’s helped by far are the lifestyle changes. I try not to eat any preservative rich foods (makes my body feel inflamed) the day before. For some reason high quality salmon on those days where I’m feeling achy is the equivalent of taking Aleve the next morning for me. In addition, I spend a ton of time doing exercise routines that mimic the actions on the slopes (lunges with iso-metric holds, wall squats) in the fall getting my body ready. This helps take away as much of the jarring on the spine and puts the work into my legs instead.

  8. Thanks for sharing your struggles. I know how you feel. I live to snowboard and am starting to get a few niggles from ankolising spnditus.

    I am going to start looking after things a little better . .stretches diet etc.

    If there is comes a day I can’t board any more I will be happy with what I have done.. but there is so much more I want out of it.

    I hope things have continued to improve for you.
    Ray W

    1. Hey Ray,

      Aw man that means a lot! 🙂 That’s one of the reasons I started Local Freshies and told my personal story.

      While I would’ve LOVED to live without the illness it really put a shining light on my lifestyle choices (diet, exercise, and overall health) and because of it I’m now in the best shape of my life. Talk about making lemonade out of lemons. 🙂 Anyways, if you ever have any questions or just feeling a bit frustrated feel feel to reach out to me. Good luck!

  9. Great to hear. I have Google snowboarding and ankylosing spondylitis as I am currently investigated to see if this is the form of Arthritis I have as I do have the hla-b27 gene. Currently my feet are in bits and my collarbone is killing so I’m just about able to walk let alone snowboard. I am starting methotrexate, but that could move to your one if they find my back or pelvis to have inflammation even though my back does feel pretty normal.

    Great to hear you are snowboarding

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