Before Sam DuPratt started his skiing career at the University of Utah, he promised himself he would try to make it back to the World Cup.
A previous NorAm super G champion and U.S. Ski Team member, DuPratt spent the 2019-20 season as an invitee with the ski team, producing results that would ultimately name him to the B Team for the current season. His main focus for the year was to move up in World Cup super G while getting his foot in the door for a future career in downhill. Unfortunately, a beautiful day in Val Gardena, Italy, turned into a season-ending injury for DuPratt, who suffered a double leg break from the crash.
DuPratt was excited going into the day, ready to throw one down, even amid a back issue from a few micro fractures and herniated disc. He kept his expectations low but felt he was skiing fine. DuPratt was taking a tight line coming into the bottom section of the course, which would have worked out, except he hit a hole in the snow, kicking his skis into the gate, which he straddled. He maneuvered for an almost-epic save landing on one leg. He thought he was able to recover in that moment but now can’t recall exactly how he ended up going down.
DuPratt has not watched the video of the crash, yet he has a near-perfect recollection of the experience. The video is currently available to the public on YouTube and has been seen by friends and family — but not the racer himself.
WARNING: The crash video below contains graphic imagery. Strong stomach required.
“I definitely felt my left leg break first and my left ski came off right after that,” said DuPratt. “I rolled onto my back, and I still had my right ski on. My right leg isn’t broken yet, but I could see my left leg looked like cooked spaghetti. And then my right leg snagged on something and twisted, and then I felt the right leg break. It was more like a spiral break. And then I hit the fence.”
Shock set in when he came to a stop, immediately stripping his helmet and gloves as he felt the heat. It wasn’t long before his coaches and medical team were by DuPratt’s side. He feels lucky that he remained calm throughout the experience, chatting with his coaches while being prepared for the helicopter to arrive. DuPratt was given pain killers immediately after being airlifted and before the physician reset his legs. He was then taken to Bolzano hospital where he underwent an eight-and-a-half hour surgery.
DuPratt woke up from surgery in a room with U.S. Ski Team doctor Cody Timpton. Timpton was the only other english-speaking person besides one nurse and DuPratt’s surgeon, who he only saw once. DuPratt was using Google Translate and X-rays translated by Timpton to understand his injury and the repairs that were made. In a time when half the hospital was shut down due to COVID, and with minimal translation services available, DuPratt found himself in a dark place.
“My left leg was the bad leg. My tib(ia) was broken in three places, so it was in four pieces,” said DuPratt. “There was a break right below my knee, and then two in the middle, and then one down in the bottom. They put a rod through the middle of that. And then my fibula was broken in two places on that leg. They fixed the bottom part, but they didn’t fix the top part because the peroneal nerve is right there, and it was displaced, so I’m having surgery in the U.S. to fix that.”
The perineal nerve would have normally been left displaced for a non-athlete, but after further discussion with the doctors back home, they decided it would give DuPratt some serious problems in a boot if left unfixed. His right leg sustained a more traditional break, whereas his tibia and fibula fractured in a twisting rotation, close to his ankle. He received a stiff metal plate and screws to repair the right leg, which he hopes will be taken out in a year.
It was six grim days of Facetiming teammates and sleeping in the hospital before DuPratt was approved for a medivac back to the United States. A ride in an Italian ambulance to Innsbruck began his 21-hour travel in a stretcher bed through Iceland, Canada, and eventually to Salt Lake City, where a Utah ambulance delivered him to his parents’ front door.
“It wasn’t as comfortable, as I was hoping for a private flight, but it was good enough to get me home before Christmas,” he said.
DuPratt has seen a lot of friends and fellow skiers struggle with leg breaks. His intention is to take the recovery slow and to do the right thing. DuPratt watched his teammate, Ryan Cochran-Siegle, rise to the top of the podium this season after taking his time with injuries and not rushing the return to competition. DuPratt looks forward to walking — hopefully in the next eight weeks — and would like to be back on snow in six months. As far as returning to competition, the doctor advises it could take more than a year. To eliminate extra pain in his boots, DuPratt hopes to take out all the metal in his legs, except for the major rod in the left leg over the next year.
“If I’m going to come back from this, I think it’s going to take some time and some serious patience, and hopefully I can get back to where I was, if not better,” said DuPratt. “I was struggling in the Italian hospital, that was hard on me. I know people who have been through much, much, much worse, but honestly, I haven’t. So those were pretty trying times. Just being home, the spirits have lifted pretty drastically. And to see progress, the swelling goes down and wiggling my toes, it kinda starts to light a fire.”
DuPratt is no rookie when it comes to competing at the highest level of ski racing. A Park City Ski Team alumnus, DuPratt produced decent results throughout his junior career that would quickly progress him to the Europa Cup circuit as a member of the C Team. Unable to produce results that would meet criteria to keep him on the national team, DuPratt was dropped, and he shifted his focus to college racing at the University of Utah in 2017.
“I always wanted to race college, but I thought it was a place to go to finish your career,” said DuPratt. “If you look at the amount of people who go to college and the amount of people who move through, there are a few people who made it through (to the World Cup level). I decided I was really going to try to use it as a stepping ladder to get bigger and stronger, and I’ll say that’s what it gave me: time to grow up, time to get mentally stronger and physically stronger, and time to learn how to win some races.”
However, DuPratt does admit he went into college with the mentality that he had failed after being dropped from the U.S. Ski Team. He decided to learn from that failure and realized he needed to work harder mentally and physically. Having access to the training facilities at Utah, DuPratt found himself doing extra lifting sessions, putting on 15 pounds of muscle, and utilizing the physical therapy staff to help overcome his back injury from when he was 13. Mentally, DuPratt reflects on juggling school, skiing, and his social life that helped him learn time management. He recalls growing up fast by recognizing that he was obsessed at the time with being the best at ski racing — that he almost became his own worst enemy. In college, DuPratt realized what was most important.
“You realize ski racing is just a game,” said DuPratt. “It takes a lot of weight off your shoulders when you realize that there are other big things in the world to do and that ski racing is not the only thing. You get to see all the doors that college can give you in terms of your future. You realize everything that you could do, and ski racing is not everything all of a sudden.”
Going into the 2020-21 season, DuPratt was in a better spot than he had ever been, especially in speed. He started to develop a speed-skier style after gaining weight and an eccentric loading strength in preseason training. His new strength allowed him to keep grounded to the snow, creating a more fluid style of skiing required to excel in speed. In early training, DuPratt was focusing on utilizing the hill to generate speed, a new skill that he hadn’t had in his college skiing days.
Now wheelchair bound for the next eight weeks, DuPratt is working on his independence when it comes to showering, changing, and moving through the house. He doesn’t look too far into the future, as skiing in six months seems like an entirety away. DuPratt will return to online school at the University of Utah to finish a degree in accounting this summer, and hopes to someday return to ski racing better than ever.
“If there is one pro in breaking both your legs, it’s that you get to finish school when you’re 27,” he said.
Clearly, his sense of humor is still intact.