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

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!

8 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!

    1. Wow thanks for the kind words Everett. SUPER hard for me to write it but the positive reception made it worth it. And keep the positivity moving forward. 🙂

  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.

    Congratulations!

  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.

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