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April 2010 was a time of celebration for Finnish freeskiing phenomenon Pekka Hyysalo. Having aced the last classes of his Alpine College career, Hyysalo, then 19, had nothing to do but concentrate on skiing. It was the first time in his life that had been the case.
Hyysalo had won the national slopestyle championship earlier that winter and was one of Finland's premier big-air performers, landing double cork 1260s both forward and switch. "My dream wasn't only to be in the X Games," he says, "my dream was to win the X Games."
On the last day of a five-day shoot with Flatlight Films for a movie titled "Hello," Hyysalo lapped a large jump at the Ylläs resort in northern Finland, throwing switch double 10s. He'd tried the trick four times and gotten some decent shots, but he wasn't satisfied. "I'll go one more time," he told Flatlight founder Miikka Niemi.
With former U.S. Open halfpipe champion AJ Kemppainen on follow-cam, Hyysalo soared off the jump in windy conditions, overrotating 90 degrees and missing the landing. "I saw the slam from about 100 meters away, but I didn't realize how bad it was when I first saw it," said Niemi, one of three filmers present. "I've seen similar crashes when nothing bad happened. But then I saw all the people and Pekka was unconscious."
|Finnish freeskier Pekka Hyysalo, who suffered a brain injury in 2010.|
Hyysalo was rushed to an ambulance at the base of the resort then survived a seven-hour ride to the Oulu University Hospital (it was too windy for a helicopter transport). He spent the next 17 days in a coma and was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury similar to that of snowboarder Kevin Pearce, the result of his brain violently shaking inside his skull. When he finally woke up, he couldn't move or speak.
Three weeks after the accident, doctors took MRI scans of Hyysalo's head. The damage was still so horrific that they told his family Pekka might never be able to communicate with them. "A vegetable in short," he explains.
It's been a little more than 14 months since Hyysalo's accident, and to say he has defied long odds would be a fair assessment. Not only is he walking again, Hyysalo skied 15 days this winter, including an emotional return to the site of his accident. During a recent Skype interview from his home in Turku, Finland, his speech was still markedly slower, but his cognitive abilities -- and dry sense of humor -- were surprisingly intact. He struggles with his short- and long-term memory, but whereas last summer he couldn't remember what he had for breakfast, now he recalls certain events that happened weeks before.
Niemi has chronicled much of Hyysalo's recovery for a documentary to be released sometime in 2012. He says he wants the film to transcend skiing and reach a mainstream audience, to show the miracle of Hyysalo's recovery.
As for Hyysalo, life is simple now. He eats porridge every morning for breakfast, then takes a taxi to therapy. In the afternoons, he hits golf balls at the driving range or works on his balance on a trampoline with his younger brothers, Veikko, 12, Jaakko, 14, and Mikko, 17. Like Pekka, all three are talented freeskiers.
Pekka will never be able to ski the way he once did. Wearing a helmet saved his life, but if he hit his head again, he could easily die. When he watches video of his crash, he says, "I just feel kind of nothing. I see myself skiing but I don't really care that much." Asked if he still thinks about the accident every day, he replies, "I try not to but I do."
One of the most touching moments in Niemi's filming thus far took place when Hyysalo returned to Ylläs and met the ski patrolman who transported him via snowmobile to the ambulance. The patrolman often had googled Hyysalo's name to check on his status after the crash. "They didn't cry, but you could see it on their faces," Niemi says. "It was emotional. And in Finland men do not show their emotions."
Hyysalo says he wants to be a doctor someday, but for the moment he's trying to stay involved with the sport he loves. He judged a few big-air events this winter and served in the same role at the Jon Olsson Invitational. Olsson promised to help him judge more events in the future, Hyysalo says.
When asked what he wants his documentary to show, Hyysalo chooses his words carefully. "If you really have a strong will, it will take you far."
Pekka Hyysalo would like to thank his mother, Anja, his brothers, Mikko, Jaakko and Veikko, his father, Tapani, and Völkl skis and outerwear for standing by him throughout his recovery.