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5 years after skydiving crash, Canada’s Turner races to Paralympic gold medal

Campbell River snowboarder overcame some dark days on his journey to the podium
Tyler Turner of Canada competes on his way to winning the men’s snowboard cross SB-LL1 final at the 2022 Winter Paralympics, Monday, March 7, 2022, in Zhangjiakou, China. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

There were dark days when Tyler Turner wished he’d died in the skydiving accident that cost him his legs.

Because then he wouldn’t be facing the decision of whether to push forward, or simply exist.

On Monday, the 33-year-old from Campbell River, B.C., captured Canada’s first Paralympic snowboarding gold medal, racing to victory in snowboard cross at the Beijing Games.

And moments before standing atop the podium, a highlight of a six-medal day for Canada, Turner reflected on how far he’d come.

“It’s kind of crazy to look back,” he said. “You don’t realize it while you’re in it. But then you look back. Four-and-a-half years later … holy smokes, the progression is unbelievable.”

Turner built a commanding lead in Monday’s big final at Genting Snow Park to win gold. Moments earlier, Lisa DeJong of Sherwood Park, Alta., captured silver in the women’s race.

In cross-country, Brian McKeever easily defended his title in the men’s 20-kilometre race, winning a whopping 14th Paralympic gold and 18th medal. Natalie Wilkie won the women’s 15K race, while teammate Brittany Hudak raced to bronze. And Alana Ramsay earned bronze in Alpine’s super combined.

Turner is a lifelong lover of gravity sports. He was a skydiving instructor with years of experience when he landed hard in a jump from 10,000 feet in 2017. He’s not sure what went wrong. He has no memory of the crash, nor the final minute before impact.

“Which I’m OK with,” he said. “I have no PTSD. I’m quite lucky in a way,” he said.

But the months that followed were tough. He was in a coma for five days, and suffered a brain injury. His pelvis and spine were surgically fixated. He initially lost his right leg, but had his badly damaged left leg amputated about a year after the crash.

Depression, he said, was a “deep dark hole.” But the longing to snowboard, surf — and even skydive again — tugged at him. Plus, he wanted to prove people wrong.

Turner chronicled his progression in an Instagram story, beginning on Day 1 after his second amputation when, while still hooked up to an I.V., he popped a wheelie in the hospital hallway.

On Day 510, he was able to snowboard 10 feet, using poles for support. The pain, he said, was intense.

On Day 642, after being helped up onto his board by a friend, he rode a full run at K3 Cat Ski in Revelstoke, B.C., where he’d worked for years.

“I got back as early as humanly possible, because I love snowboarding, it’s my entire life,” Turner said. “And so, I pushed it pretty early. It was extremely painful, but also really rewarding to realize early on that I was still going to be capable of doing it. And then with a little bit of patience, I was able to work through getting the proper legs, proper prosthetics and have the right amount of healing time where, a couple of seasons after, I was able to really get back on the level I wanted to.”

In 2020, Turner became the first bilateral amputee to fly a wingsuit, calling the high-adrenalin pursuit the closest thing to being a bird.

His crash and his recovery, not only of his body, but of his love for life, was captured in longtime friend Lara Shea’s documentary “Sixty Seconds,” which premiered in November.

Turner cringes at the word “inspiration.”

“The ‘I word’ we call it in our house,” he said.

But he hopes his journey to the top of the Paralympic podium can help others see the possibilities.

“That is one of the coolest parts is that, as much as I don’t like the word inspiration, the ability to inspire people who are in a place that I was four years ago, which is a really dark place, I’m super aware of how that feels. And I had people that went out of their way, from athletes from the Canadian team, who helped to inspire me early on to pursue what I’m doing now.

“I think the word is overused, but if I can help to inspire people that are in that position, then that is the right way to use that word.”

McKeever, meanwhile, won his 14th Paralympic title, and 18th medal spanning an incredible six Games, with one of the most dominant races of his career.

McKeever, who has visually impairment, and guide Russell Kennedy, who competed all season on the World Cup circuit, plus in Canada’s Beijing Olympic trials, posted a time of 55 minutes 36.7 seconds. American silver medallists Jake Adicoff and guide Sam Wood were more than three minutes back.

“Every one of these races gets more stressful at the start. We are in a place we have never been. We didn’t know what the snow was like, so all of these stressful factors add up,” McKeever said. “There was some stress today, but that is why it was more fun. When you have these perfect days, you just smile and enjoy it.”

Wilkie, a 21-year-old from Salmon Arm, B.C., won the 15K race by nearly a minute, crossing in 48.04 for her fourth Paralympic medal.

“I did it. I just went hard and waited for everyone to catch me, but nobody did. I am so happy,” said Wilkie. “It is unreal. I went into this race trying not to think about the end result but to focus on the process and ski as well as I could.

“I was completely surprised that my coaches kept yelling splits at me that I was in the lead. I just kept building from there and tried not to let it get into my head. That was enough to win the gold medal. This is for sure one of the best races that I have ever done.”

Wilkie lost four fingers when her left hand was pulled into a jointer machine in her high school woodworking class. An ambulance, fire truck, search and rescue and a medevac helicopter was already on the scene by the time paramedics, who had to search the machine’s instruction manual to take it apart, freed her.

Less than two years later, at age 17, Wilkie had a spectacular Paralympic debut, winning a gold, silver and two bronze.

Hudak, from Prince Albert, Sask., captured her second Paralympic medal with bronze Monday.

Calgary’s Ramsay captured her second medal of the Paralympics, winning bronze in super combined, giving Canada 12 medals through three days of the Games.

Canada’s curling team’s three-game winning streak ended with a 6-3 loss to Sweden.

—Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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