Published January 30, 2010
ASPEN, Colo. (AP) — Shaun White received what a Winter X Games doctor called a thorough medical evaluation before he was cleared to head back down the superpipe after a skull-rattling accident that left him seeing stars.
White told friends he was feeling better than he thought he would Saturday, the day after he slammed his face on the pipe during Winter X Games practice while trying his most difficult and dangerous trick, the Double McTwist 1260.
ESPN medical staff said they checked him out at the bottom of the hill, then back again on top, in the 15 minutes that passed before the defending Olympic champion made his next practice run.
Showing no signs of concussion, White was cleared to compete, and he went out and did the Double McTwist 1260 to win his third straight championship in the biggest halfpipe event this side of the Olympics.
Still, it was quite a scare — and only two weeks before the torch is lit in Vancouver, where White will be one of the biggest stars.
Susan McGowan, medical director for ESPN Sports Medicine, said White was treated no differently than any other athlete competing in the made-for-TV event, where crashes and accidents are replayed constantly.
"Everything we do is about appropriate and optimal health care for the athletes," McGowan said. "I'll call out the Army if I think that athlete should not compete again."
On Thursday, the X Games medical staff did shut things down for Aussie snowboarder Torah Bright, expected to be a medal contender in Vancouver, after she suffered her second concussion in three days.
Bright said she was feeling well enough to compete in Thursday's qualifying, but doctors told her 'no,' and that decision stuck.
According to medical staff, White was not showing symptoms of a concussion after his accident and was allowed to continue. Some in the medical field don't think a 15-minute examination, however, is enough to determine the extent of the damage.
"If it was true he was seen by medical staff, and after a few minutes was allowed to go back, I'd have to roll my eyes a little bit and wonder what kind of assessment they did," said Dr. Robert Cantu, co-director of the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
Cantu said he did not see the accident, and was relying only on a description of it.
McGowan and ESPN doctor Bob Waskowitz stand by the assessment White received, as did U.S. Olympic halfpipe coach Mike Jankowski, who said the proof of White's health was in the result.
"He was shaken a bit but wanted to get back up there and do it again," Jankowski said. "He got cleared by the ESPN medical staff. He was in pretty good shape medically, and he went up there and did it."
There has been increased scrutiny on snowboarding, especially since the Dec. 31 accident involving Kevin Pearce, who hit his head on the halfpipe while practicing a trick similar to White's. Pearce remains in a Salt Lake City hospital with a severe brain injury.
Many in the sport insist the show must go on, and that injuries are part of the game.
Head injuries are widely considered the most serious and toughest to diagnose, however. This season, the NFL has instituted stricter return-to-play guidelines for players with concussion symptoms.
Waskowitz said his staff looks at policies adopted by the NFL, the National Athletic Trainers Association and elsewhere and makes decisions on athlete injuries on a case-by-case basis.
Jankowski said White was well enough to attend a post-contest party where he played the guitar and hung out with friends. On Saturday, one of White's representatives said the rider was taking it easy with friends, and told them he was surprised when he woke up that his face and jaw weren't hurting worse.
White did end up with a nasty abrasion that covered the lower part of his left cheek.
A few feet over from the superpipe Saturday, Austrian snowboardcross rider Max Schairer was involved in a nasty wreck during a semifinal, one that eventual champion Nate Holland picked his way through. Schairer was treated and released from the hospital with a mild concussion and broken ribs.
Holland said he's glad snowboarding — both on the snowboardcross course and the halfpipe — continues to monitor itself with input from the athletes, and not "some federation hanging rules over our head."
He said medical staff has pulled him out of competitions before because of injuries, but conceded it's not always an easy call.
"I fully respect their professional opinion, but it is hard to turn the competition switch off, when you're raring to go and you get pumped up," Holland said. "But that's part of our sport."
A part some people think needs to be better regulated.
"If you're an owner making money, you might not want to rock the boat," said Chris Nowinski, a former pro wrestler who has studied the effect of head trauma in athletes. "If you're an athlete with a short time to make money, you don't want to reduce your earning potential. But there's got to be a way to advance these sports so they can be just as entertaining and reduce the risk to the body."