Brian Stemmle doesn’t want his 11-year-old twin girls to follow in his footsteps.
He doesn’t want them to experience the pain he did as a World Cup skier. Nor does he want to go through the pain his parents did more than 30 years ago.
The 53-year-old former downhill ski racer is famous for a terrifying 1989 crash in a World Cup downhill in Kitzbühel, Austria.
It happened on Jan. 14, 1989, when the then 22-year-old, a rising star on the Canadian team, hit the netting on the dangerous Hahnenkamm course, suffering near-fatal injuries.
Stemmle underwent 25 blood transfusions and suffered a pelvis broken so badly he describes it looking like an open book. After five days in a medically induced coma, he was awakened to the sight of his parents. It happened to be his father’s birthday.
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He remembers when his parents first arrived at the Innsbruck hospital to which he’d been transferred, they couldn’t recognize him among the four patients in his room because of the swelling in his face and the tubes inserted into his body.
“I remember my mom saying, ‘if I could take your place right now I would.’ So that’s how much pain I was in,” Stemmle told CBC Sports recently. The 80th running of the famous race is scheduled for Saturday.
Skiing down steep slopes at speeds of more than 120 km/h clearly comes with its risks, and one wrong turn can force some serious perspective.
“We realized how dangerous it is and how hard it is,” Stemmle said. “And I don’t want to see my kids go through what I went through because it was really hard and when you get hurt it’s really hard on the parents.”
One wrong turn
Stemmle’s fateful turn came in the Steilhang portion of course, considered one of the toughest on the World Cup circuit. It was nine years previous that Canada’s Ken Read became the first North American to win the race — the first of four straight years a Canadian won — cementing the legend of the Crazy Canucks.
The Steilhang curve forces skiers to the outside of the hill and close to the fence immediately after the steepest section of the hill. Skiers require extreme control at the highest speeds to negotiate the potentially devastating angle.
“I remember coming into the turn, it’s a right-hand turn, left foot [out], and I just start getting a little wide in the turn and just like you do in your car in the snow, you just turn your wheels a little bit more and make it around the corner,” Stemmle said.
What Stemmle did not account for was a small ditch in the area between the hill and the fencing. For most of the hill, the mesh fence is covered in plastic to prevent skiers from getting caught in the netting.
Prior to Stemmle’s race, Canada’s coaches had identified the lack of plastic around the Steilhang and requested the race organizers add more. But the organizers said they didn’t have any more material and the fencing was left exposed. (Stemmle later successfully sued Kitzbühel resort and today the fencing is completely covered in plastic for races.)
“So sure enough I got caught in the fence part that didn’t have any plastic on it and after I caught my hand I just remember my ski tip going up into the net and that’s why I got spun around,” Stemmle said.
He was sent spinning like a top down the mountain, his body shattered by the force.
‘Like getting kicked in the nuts for two weeks’
Stemmle’s pelvis was broken at a 45-degree angle, to the point where he thought he was laying on the steep part of the hill, but really he was on the flat. His pelvis was so crooked that he felt sideways.
Stemmle doesn’t remember much from after that point, besides the paramedics asking him if there was any “schmerzen” (German word for pain; the answer was yes). He also recalls telling the doctors not to cut him out of his downhill suit because he could get $ 250 for it at the end of the year.
“And then they took me to Innsbruck and then I don’t remember much until I woke up on my dad’s birthday,” he said. “Felt like getting kicked in the nuts for two weeks.”
Stemmle’s recovery was remarkable for both its speed and its length. Despite the extensive injuries, the Aurora, Ont., native returned to competition in September 1990, winning gold at the the Winter Pan Am Games.
Stemmle would go on to compete in three more Winter Olympics, with his best medal shot coming in Nagano 1998, where he was on a winning pace before catching a rut and failing to finish.
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“It was never really out of my head to give up or quit. It never crossed my mind. I never thought about that. I always thought that I’d get better and I’d come back and just because I didn’t want to be defeated, I didn’t want to go out like that and I thought I still had a lot left in me,” Stemmle said.
Years later, Stemmle said he is still learning more about the crash after his family chose to withhold some of the details they learned in Austria.
“What we realize is that we’re pretty resilient and when you get in a tough situation, no matter what, you understand how resilient you are and how you’re able to fight and come back and get through whatever the challenges you had.”
On Saturday, the World Cup circuit returns to Kitzbühel, where six Canadians will compete: Ben Thomsen, Brodie Seger, Jack Crawford, Jeff Read, Sam Mulligan and Cam Alexander. Thomsen, 33, from from Invermere, B.C., placed a career-best sixth at the unforgiving track last year.
Race organizers also instituted a 25 per cent prize money increase to more than $ 1 million.