Scary reality of brain injuries

ALISON KORN -- For Sun Media

, Last Updated: 12:50 PM ET

The coincidence is chilling but let's hope it's just a fluke.

As Collingwood skier Richard Long lies in a Denver hospital with serious head and internal injuries, Crazy Canuck Dave Irwin continues to recover from a brain injury from his last big crash, six years ago in Banff.

Long, 15, was on a training camp with about 40 fellow Ontario provincial team athletes when he crashed on Colorado's Arapahoe Basin on Tuesday. Word spread fast through the ski community of the accident and Alpine Ontario has been flooded with messages of support and concern.

Irwin, 53, a former World Cup champion, was known for his spectacular crashes back in the 70s and 80s and was the focus of a moving CBC television documentary on Wednesday -- just one day after Long's accident.

"I've been sitting in this saddle (as Alpine Canada president) for five years and I finally got the call I didn't want to get (about the accident to Long)," Irwin's former teammate Ken Read said. "It's a very severe accident. They're cautiously optimistic, they're hoping for a full recovery."

Details haven't been released yet, but Read said Long's accident was probably the worst one suffered by a Canadian skier since Irwin's in 2001. It's too early to say what the outcome will be for the talented teenager, who earlier this year won the Canadian K2 championship for 13 and 14-year olds as well as the international Whistler Cup.

Senior representatives from Alpine Ontario have flown to Colorado to assist the Long family, the athletes and their coaches. Back home, the organization has been in touch with each athlete's family personally, to keep them up-to-date and offer advice and counselling.

"We have also launched our own investigation into what happened, in addition to external examinations taking place as a matter of course," president of Alpine Ontario Paul Kristofic said in a statement. "We have mobilized a Safety and Training Protocol Team, and we will be systematically gathering and reviewing the details of the accident.

"While it is still too early to determine the prognosis, our thoughts and prayers are with Richard and his family."

Ski crashes are a combination of bad luck and bad timing, but they do remain very infrequent, according to Read.

"That's the one thing I do have to emphasize," said Read, who believes Irwin's ski style was not to blame for his multiple career crashes. "There is tremendous effort put in to making sure the competitive arena is secure and safe. And snow surfaces today are more consistent because of grooming. A water injection bar hardens the snow so it gets less chewed up and skiers less likely to catch a rut and fall."

Long's parents, Brammer and Lisa, are by their son's side in Denver, so it's unlikely they caught the television feature on Irwin. That's probably a good thing, as it showed Irwin up and about -- he shook off a coma -- and is skiing again, but still experiencing short and long term memory loss.

"He's my hero. I look at him and I go 'Wow,'' said Lynne Harrison, Irwin's fiancee, who met him 10 months before the accident and has stayed with him since, guiding his rehab. It's a touching love story.

"Compassion for other people is the biggest message," Harrison said. "He just improves constantly."

Harrison is a director of the Dave Irwin Foundation for brain injury that raises money to improve the quality of life of Canadians living with acquired brain injury and their families, through outreach programs and services and by funding academic research.

Meanwhile in Denver, Long's parents are playing the waiting game with their son in hospital. They thanked the ski community for its overwhelming support.

"It really helps to lift our spirits in this difficult time," they said in a statement. "We must be patient. Richard is a champion and we believe he will pull through."

SAFETY FIRST

Winter Safety Tips from the ThinkFirst Foundation of Canada:

- Always wear a safety helmet when skating or tobogganing.

- Skates should be well fitted and have adequate support around the ankles.

- Always keep skate blades well sharp and well maintained.

- Skiing equipment should be regularly maintained and in good working condition.

- When downhill skiing, always choose hills that are marked with a difficulty level that is appropriate for your skill level.

- Always make sure that your skates, skies, snowboards and snowshoes are comfortable and correctly sized.

- Before they use it, children should always have an adult check the condition of their skiing, skating or tobogganing equipment.


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