Vail boy vows to ski again |

Vail boy vows to ski again

Melanie Wong
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the DailyVail's James Leonard has skied in the Junior Olympics and the national championships.

DENVER ” James Leonard floated to the surface, unable to move, feeling nothing, but conscious.

The 14-year-old Vail resident had hit his head on a rock when diving into a lake July 25 at a Texas summer camp. He had broken his neck and was immediately airlifted to an Austin, Tex. hospital, where he underwent surgery to fuse two of his upper vertebrae.

The doctor was stoic as he told James’ anxious parents, Toby and Rochelle, that their son, a champion skier who competed in the Junior Olympics and the national championships, would be a quadriplegic and dependent on a ventilator for the rest of his life.

“Your life just stops,” said Rochelle Leonard. “It was horrible. We thought, he’ll never get to go to prom, get married, or have a normal life.”

But James had his own plans. “I just didn’t really believe what people were saying. I knew I wasn’t going to be a quadriplegic. I could move my toe,” he said simply. His greatest worry, he said, was that he would not be able to ski this season.

Doctors and nurses thought the toe movement was a spasm, but within a day of the surgery, he began to recover sensation in his arms and legs. About 2 percent of patients with similar spinal cord injuries ever walk again, said Dr. Timothy George, James’ surgeon at Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin.

But James continued to get stronger at what his mother called a “miraculous” rate, amazing both doctors and his family. He insisted his ventilator be removed, and promptly requested Mountain Dew. A couple days later, he began walking with the help of a walker.

“He’s made the fastest ” and most dramatic ” recovery I’ve ever seen,” George said. “According to the statistics… well, he clearly beat those statistics.”

Toby Leonard said the doctors and nurses were yelling a James as he made his way down the hall a few days after the accident because they thought he was doing too much. “He just won’t take no for an answer. His attitude is, ‘Come on, Dad, I’ll show you!'”

Two weeks after the accident, James walked out of the hospital on his own to the cheering of the hospital staff. He is now undergoing intensive rehabilitation at Denver Children’s Hospital, where he may stay for a total of three to four weeks.

He continues to improve, even climbing five flights of stairs on his own and nearly beating the elevator, his father said, although they cannot be sure to what extent he will fully recover.

Meanwhile, the Leonards said they have been amazed by the amount of support they have received, even from complete strangers.

An Austin family they met in the hospital arranged home-cooked meals for them while they were at the hospital, Rochelle Leonard said.

James also received surprise visits from Texas governor Rick Perry, University of Texas football coach Mack Brown and former Detroit Lions player Doug English.

However, one of the greatest sources of support has come through James’ recovery web site, which was set up by his cousin Kara King, 19, of Houston, to field calls and explain the situation to friends and family.

The site was set up two days after the accident and has received more than 90,000 hits already. It includes a timeline of his recovery, updated postings about the family, a message board and even a song-request section where supporters can request songs to be played for James on the iPod in his hospital room.

“I thought it was pretty cool,” James said of the support. “It set a record for the most e-mails I’ve gotten.”

The messages have been very therapeutic for the entire family, said King. “We’d read the messages to James, and he’d feel better knowing how many people were pulling for him and praying.”

Back home, some friends from the valley are supporting James financially through the James Leonard Rehabilitation Fund. The account was set up by Toby Leonard’s co-workers at Millennium Bank in Vail, and contributions can be made at any of the bank’s locations.

James was always a daring kid, his mother said, doing what he called ‘sick jumps’ on the slopes and sneaking onto roller coaster rides.

Now he seems to have brought his fearlessness from the slopes to the hospital, his family said.

Camp counselors said when they pulled him out of the water after the accident, James remained calm all the way to the hospital, his father said.

“We were all crying, and he was so brave the whole time,” Toby Leonard said.

As if preparing for a run at a ski competition, James kept visualizing himself getting better and getting off the ventilator.

His doctor said he was immediately impressed by James’ calmness in the emergency room and his attitude after the surgery.

“His response was tremendous. You could see he was a fighter. I guess you can’t keep a good man down,” George said.

Patients like James make his work worthwhile, said George, director of pediatric neurosurgery.

“It’s encouraging because you see kids with these injuries so often. You try to keep upbeat. You’re always waiting for that one kid that just gets up and walks,” he said.

Doctors estimate a couple more weeks of intense rehabilitation before James can return to Vail. His legs are strong, but he has been working on his arm, which is particularly weak. Regardless, he said he is determined to be back on the slopes.

“It’s going to be a hard road,” Rochelle Leonard said of the recovery. “But he just looks at me and says, ‘I don’t care what you say. I’m skiing again.'”

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 748-2928 or

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