Vail’s Chris Anthony: From pains to peaks

Chris Anthony
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO, Colorado

Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts. Read the rest of Chris Anthony’s story in Sunday’s Vail Daily.

Radio: “Chris, are you set?”

“(Radio click.) Yes. I’m going to buckle my boots, start counting down from 10, then put the radio in my pocket when I get to five – then I’ll drop in at one. … Ten, nine, eight, seven … “

This is the ceremonial routine a Warren Miller athlete goes through before dropping in for a shot. In some cases, the cameraman might be within earshot and I can yell the countdown loud enough for them to hear. Other locations may require the cameraman to be a mile away, or maybe he is under a cliff or even up in a helicopter hovering above. In those moments, yelling out the count is not an option and a more sophisticated means of communication is needed, thus the small radio I’m now slipping into my pocket.

Wherever the cameraman is located, communication between the athlete and the cameraman is essential. If done correctly, a moment of action captured is for eternity. If not, then I might as well have stayed in bed instead of wasting everyone’s time. Believe it or not, it is an art form that is learned from numerous hours of participating. Experience is key, as is athletic prowess from years of training.

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This is only a part of the story. The path to reach this point as athlete is defined by the cliche of “It’s a journey of rewards as well as misfortunes.”

This is true of most really fun professions. It takes paying your dues, which include years of training, lack of financial gains, missed relationship, sleeping in some unusual places and countless injuries.

Every athlete in every sport has dealt with injuries. The longer the career, the greater the number of injuries and a more part of your life they become. For the veterans, pain has a common daily ritual. Getting up sore is part of the uniform. Working through the pain is part of the daily routine. Physical therapy becomes part of the training, and trying to figure what’s next is always on the mind. NFL players spend the greater part of the rest of their lives just trying to move and escape from pain for only moments.

Pain and athletics are one. So it goes. Having a good doctor who “gets it” and a physical therapist on the same wavelength is important. This relationship can be as important as the equipment used to perform on the field of play.

When I say “gets it,” I mean that the doctor sees you as a high-performance vehicle that is going to finish the race despite malfunctions. They know the mindset. They understand the athlete’s ability to perform while malfunctioning and above-average level of dealing with pain through an injury. A great doctor becomes a teammate with a strong support system behind him.

“Six, five, four, three, two, one, dropping!”

The sweat beading down from my forehead had fogged my goggles at this point. All I could see was the blurred outline of the trees and opens spaces between them. That was trivial to the other issues I was dealing with at the time. Taking time to resolve a small detail like sight had to be put on the back burner for the moment.

I just needed to get through the next five turns, three on the good knee and two on the bad, and make them in the right spot for the shot. It’s a numbers game. Perform excellent at a higher rotation and the percentage of usable shots goes up. Besides, at this point I knew the terrain. I had already hiked up this slope through the waist-deep powder seven times.

At the top of the hike, before the countdown, I would put the knife-like stabbing pain in my left knee in the back of my mind and focus on the task at hand. With every effort forward, the pain would increase. When the last bit of film ran through the camera and the words “wrapped” filled the air, the adrenaline running through my arteries and helping me mask the sharp stabbing pain stopped and I felt nausea take over as the tears filled my eyes. I limped home, laid down on the couch and gave into it.

I stayed in denial of doing anything to resolve the cause of this pain, thinking it would just go away after a while, kind of like the clunking sound in my car. Several months later, my vehicle was being towed into the shop for a malfunction that was going to cost me thousands instead of $50 if I would of brought it in earlier.

Not listening to the mechanic or, for that matter, myself, I found myself in Portillo, Chile, in late August 2010, slipping my ski boots on for the first time since filming wrapped months earlier. Up till that point, I was fighting my way through some high-impact training while the clunking in my left knee was getting louder. Of course, when I felt it, I would just push harder and try to move beyond it. My brilliant mind thought I could crush the problem into submission.

The week in Portillo was difficult. I would come in from skiing every day dizzy and in a horrible mood from the pain I was in. I would lie down exhausted but knew I had to get up and act like it was not as bad as it felt. Inside, I knew I was in trouble. Things were not getting better; they were getting worse.

Being self-employed means insurance can be a nightmare. Though I was insured, my insurance company scared me from using it. I did everything possible to find the magical cure to avoid a doctor’s visit, spending money instead on herbs, Eastern medicine, acupuncture and massages. What worked best was the cheapest – filling a bathtub with ice water and soaking in it till I was numb. A friend even gave me a magnet to wear on my wrist while I went on a road trip to cure myself spiritually. I think that magnet fell off in the Pacific Ocean while I was swimming, hoping the salt water would have the same effect.

The entire time I was diagnosing myself and growing angrier, a side effect of pain and not a real positive for the world around you.

Eventually I tried to bottom-hunt for a bargain orthopedic surgeon but lost confidence when I felt my self-diagnose was more accurate than his.

My diagnosis was that a piece of hardware had broken loose from a previous surgery and was pressing in the cavity of my left knee joint. To make matters worse, it felt like it was pressing against a tendon running down the shin of my left leg and causing numbness.

Meanwhile I was destroying my right leg by favoring it so much. As a result, I was developing an unbalanced foundation during my 200-plus days of skiing every year. Combine this with all the off-snow training and I was creating a monster.

Finally I just could not take it any more, and I was becoming an jerk. I decided to try to make an appointment with one of the best groups in the business and located right in my backyard, the Steadman Clinic.

What pushed me over the edge was when a friend discovered me descending from a hike backwards. He saw the pain I was in and made a call. A short time later, I received a text message from Dr. Millett: “Sounds like I need to see you.”

Longtime Vail resident Chris Anthony is a former Alaskan Extreme Skiing Champion and veteran of nine World Extreme Skiing Championships and 22 Warren Miller films. The latest Warren Miller movie, “Like There’s No Tomorrow,” comes to Beaver Creek’s Vilar Center on Thursday and Friday.

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