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Anatomy of a comeback

After a traumatic brain injury, Whistler snowboarder Kody Williams had to learn to walk, talk and eat again. Now, he just can’t wait for winter.

Nearly four years ago, Jocelyn Williams was sitting by her son’s hospital bed in Vancouver doing the only thing she could.

“I just sat in the chair beside him, put my hand on his arm, and started singing lullabies to him; ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ ‘Amazing Grace.’ The nurse said, ‘Do what comes naturally’ and that’s what came naturally,” she recalls.

Days earlier, Kody Williams, a then-23-year-old semi-pro Whistler snowboarder, had called her to say he was postponing his trip home to London, Ont. for Christmas. It had snowed in Vancouver and that meant a rare opportunity to shoot rail footage for a DOPE Industries film in Stanley Park.

“I didn’t hear from him for a couple days, but that’s not uncommon if he has a couple busy days,” Jocelyn says.

The next call, though, came as a complete and utter shock.  

Normally, she wouldn’t take a personal call at work during office hours, but “something told me I had to answer the phone.”

On the other end was Kody’s friend Evan. “He said, ‘Kody has had an accident and we’re in the emergency room.’ I was like, ‘OK, he’s had injuries before.’”

But Evan handed the phone to a social worker who laid out the extent of his accident.

“The social worker came on and said he had a bad fall and that he had traumatic brain injury and bleeding into the brain with extreme swelling,” she said. “At that point, I lost it.”

A major blow

The details of what, exactly, happened on Dec. 19, 2016* aren’t entirely clear to Jocelyn. For his part, Kody, now 26 and back living in Whistler after some time recovering in Ontario, remembers nothing from that day.

“Everything I know is what I’ve been told,” he says. “I don’t remember anything from the hospital, really.”

What Jocelyn knows is Kody was riding a rail on a wooden staircase in the park when fell and hit his head. He blacked out, came back to, but passed out again when the paramedics arrived. He wasn’t wearing a helmet and it’s possible a fall a few days earlier might have compounded the injury.

By the time Jocelyn, her husband, and several family members had made plans to rush to Vancouver at the busiest travel time of the year, they had almost no information.

In total, 10 of them arrived at the hospital. On top of that, as news broke of the snowboarder’s injury, fans and industry friends also began to call the hospital to find out how he was doing.

On top of that, a friend had quickly and quietly launched a GoFundMe to help support Kody in his inevitably lengthy recovery. It raised more than $30,000 in just three days.

“At that point, I don’t think we understood Kody’s status in the snowboard community,” Jocelyn says. “We didn’t get the big picture of the global snowboard community. I was getting calls from Italy and I was like, ‘Who are these people?’”

When the family first arrived at the hospital, things weren’t looking great. Jocelyn remembers a doctor ushering them into a small conference room where he drew a diagram of the head injury and explained the surgery that would temporarily remove part of his skull.

When the surgeon emerged three-and-a-half hours later, he told Jocelyn it was the most challenging operation “in all my years of surgery,” she recalls. “It was a lot of wait-and-see, a lot of pacing the walls, going to the chapel. A lot of tears, a lot of silent moments.”

Eventually, Jocelyn was allowed back at his bedside where she first sang to him. Today, that image of his mom sticks in Kody’s mind.

“I kind of remember—I don’t know—but like waking up. I didn’t know who my mom was at first until she sang me a lullaby from childhood. Then I remembered who she was,” he recalls.  

Over the coming months, Kody would have to learn to walk, talk and even chew again. “The first time I saw myself in the mirror, I guess that’s probably one of the most vivid memories,” he says. “I don’t know when it was—at the hospital or later at GF Strong [Rehabilitation Centre]—but just the first time I saw myself in the mirror and I had a huge dent on the right side of my skull. That’s the most vivid memory I have.”

It might be hard to imagine Kody’s passion for snowboarding surviving such a painful and life-altering ordeal. But even in those early, groggy days, it was always bubbling under the surface.

“In the hospital, my mom gave me a pair of socks and they had snowboarders on them,” he remembers. “I got really happy because I thought it meant I was going snowboarding—[even though] I was bedridden.”

Back in action

Relatively recent research speaks to the value of returning to sport after a brain injury. While it should be noted there is a big difference between a traumatic brain injury (TBI) like Kody’s and a more common sports concussion, studies are starting to indicate that, for the latter at least, an early return to activity might be helpful.

That’s at odds with the commonly held—and now considered outdated—advice that if you sustain a concussion, you should hole up in a dark room with no stimulation to let your brain recover.

“Sports-related, the recommendation is to rest for 24 to 48 hours and gradually start back on the activity,” says Dr. Naznin Virji-Babul, an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia’s department of physical therapy and director of the perception-action laboratory. “Just walking to start with, then start gradually building it up. A lot of these athletes are so well conditioned, [they] get deconditioned so fast sitting there in a dark room. It’s hard to get back in the routine of conditioning. Unless somebody really starts to experience a lot of symptoms and feel very ill from exercise, they should start within that 48 hours.”

Virji-Babul mostly studies adolescent brains that haven’t fully developed yet—only that doesn’t mean exactly what you might think. “Now we know [brain development] continues into your 20s or early 30s,” she says. “If you have an injury on top of a brain that’s still developing, that changes how the brain is developed.”

In other words, the brain can find new pathways to get to the same destination. However, with a major injury—or major change in the brain—that can take longer.

“Some people report having problems with memory or emotional issues related to sleep, headaches. Often those are people who have had multiple concussions already,” she says. “It is very complicated to figure out who is going to recover quickly. What does it take? Why do some people take so much time?”

Part of the challenge is no one can say conclusively the extent to which a brain can recover.

“That potential exists until a person stops progressing with every opportunity to recover,” says Dr. Cirelle Rosenblatt, clinical director and director of neuropsychology at Vancouver’s Advance Concussion Clinic. “If they’re getting focused rehabilitation, if you’ve done appropriate assessments and you know what you want to address with rehabilitation, and they’re being offered that stimulation and engagement where that system is being challenged, and the brain is being challenged, then no one else can say how far that person is going to go. People can get 100 per cent better and recover fully and return to pre-injury life in instances which seem completely impossible. And other individuals who suffer injuries where we would predict that it’s possible they could return to pre-injury lives sometimes don’t achieve those returns.”

That said, as Kody demonstrated, there is hope for people with TBIs.

“In the life of a brain injury, a significant, relatively severe injury, three years is not a maximum, it’s probably more of an average,” adds Rosenblatt.

 The road to recovery

Still, Kody’s recovery feels remarkable to his family. Four years ago, they wondered if he was going to survive. This month, he was officially added to the Burton athlete roster.  

“It was crazy; I got called to go on this trip to Mount Hood to do some filming [with Burton],” Kody says. “That’s led to me slowly riding for them again.”

Officially added to the iconic snowboard company’s Americas team on Oct. 1, Kody is also featured in Burton’s new movie, One World, which is set to debut in Denver, Colo. on Oct. 23.

“The current team of riders really look up to Kody for his original style and positive attitude,” says Patrick Dodge, global team manager with Burton, in an email. “It was a natural fit and welcome addition to our Americas team.”

Dodge, who has known Kody dating back to his days as part of Burton’s “knowbuddy” regional sponsorship program, said it’s been “inspiring” to watch his comeback.

“It was really scary,” he writes in the email. “When an injury is that serious, you just hope for the best and for their overall health, and snowboarding becomes secondary. So to see Kody back on a snowboard is incredible and inspiring. It is cool to see him use his platform as an athlete to talk through his experience and share it with other riders.”

While he’s come a long way, Kody is still not fully recovered. His short-term memory is tricky, he gets terrible headaches that have prevented him from working manual labour jobs (instead, he’s been working retail in the village), and he’s suffered from seizures that, thankfully, he’s starting to control with medication.

“I have to take medication every day, probably for the rest of my life,” he says.

Pre-COVID-19, he was slowly chipping away at a business idea to create his own helmet company called Dome.Peace.

“I would suggest wearing a helmet,” he says. “Now, if you see me on the snowboard, I always have it on.”

Rosenblatt and other experts echo that call. While a helmet won’t prevent a concussion, “they prevent more significant brain injuries,” Rosenblatt says. “You’re worried about things that will penetrate the head and the skull. That vulnerability to a brain is something we certainly want to protect and avoid.”

In fact, she would like to see Whistler Blackcomb mandating helmets on their terrain.

“B.C. as a province has statistically been lagging in helmet use,” she adds. “To me, it’s just not acceptable. I don’t think anyone should be allowed on lifts without a helmet.”

(Whistler Blackcomb “strongly recommends” the use of a helmet on its terrain, and in certain programs, such as Snow School, helmets are mandatory.)

Jocelyn’s motivation for encouraging her son to tell his story was just that. “Would I like people to wear a helmet? Absolutely. It’s that one extra piece that could make a difference,” she says. “That’s what I said to Kody: … ‘When they look at you, they won’t see you’re a TBI survivor. They won’t see that at all, especially since you’ve come along so well.’ I said, ‘You have to talk about it and you have to tell your story.’”

Riding smart

With another winter quickly approaching, Kody, like most other snowboarders and skiers in the resort, is anxiously awaiting snow.

For the uninitiated, it might seem impossible that someone would want to return to a sport that brought them so close to an untimely end. But for Kody, life without snowboarding would take on a completely new shape.

“I can’t wait for it,” he says. “I want to say I’m at the level I was. Since I hit the right side of my head, it affects the opposite side. The left side of my body is a little weaker, but my trick selection has changed.”

He might not be more tentative, but he is more cautious, he adds.

“I definitely commit a lot more and think a lot more now before doing things.”

Jocelyn’s friends have wondered how she can let her son back on his snowboard.

“It’s not my place to take something like that away from Kody,” she says. “Do I worry about it? Do I have legitimate concerns? Absolutely … If he’s nervous all the time, he’ll never get beyond it. I have to support him, and remind him—not about the injury, he knows that well enough—just ride smart. Be smart.”

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the date of Kody's accident.