Instant Shatter

March 14 — 2019 | Chamonix, France

An epic accident, a graduate degree, and a tenacious mental state


Words & Photos by: Minna Riihimaki

On the 24th of May, 2016, I woke up to a beautiful sunrise and a thick layer of fresh powder. Little did I know that three hours later I would be praying the perfectly blue sky to send the rescue helicopter that would pull me out of the mountain and out of the danger.

Long story made short. That morning, I was early at the iconic Aiguille de Midi lift in Chamonix, France, and going for one of my home runs on the north face. With three other friends, we opened the trail in knee-deep snow and checked the face, and then skied one by one, as the elementary mountain rule implies, until the person preceding, is in a safe place. This rule is evident when skiing on a steep and exposed face that leads to a vertical and deadly icefall. Unfortunately, a reckless skier rushed into the face and skied dangerously above me, disturbing my trajectory and leading me to a zone with big hidden ice blocs.

I stopped, miraculously, after a 300 meter, high-speed tumble.

My skis hit hard one of those blocs and I was sent to tumble down the face. I knew that I was in a bad situation and every time I hit the snow, I repeated in my head that I had to find a way to stop. I knew that if I didn’t, I would die, and that just wasn’t an option. I stopped, miraculously, after a 300 meter, high-speed tumble. I stopped 75 meters away from the deadly icefall, but my left leg was shattered below the knee. It was holding on by the skin and the muscles, the bone and the ligaments were blown in pieces.

I was not an easy emergency case. An intravenous drip relieved me from pain while several surgeons studied the MRI images, consulting colleagues in different hospitals. By the end of the afternoon, I was finally wheeled to the operating room, with the surgeon trying to reassure me that he would do all his best to save my leg. I surrendered to the general anesthesia, uncertain if I would wake up with my left leg or not.

That was the beginning of a long rehab. Yet again, little did I know that three years late in 2019, I would still be on rehab, after 13 surgeries with multiple bone and soft tissue grafts, due to necrosis, septicaemias, V.A.C. therapy, osteotomy, arthroscopy, three “close-to- amputation” calls, arthrolysis and long months of multiple antibiotics. And in between, I obtained a Master’s diploma for Business Administration from Sorbonne Business School by doing in distance studies. I figured that instead of reading hundreds of novels, I might study and learn something new and different from dental surgeon knowledge. It is better to have options for the future, to think ahead, instead of closing doors of opportunities, I prefer opening new ones.

I have had a few break-downs but never lost hope.

I have spent thousands of hours training with the physios and on my own at the gym, with the only objective of getting back to normal life and having fun on the mountains with my friends and my children. By repeatedly setting achievable, yet challenging goals, eating healthy, sleeping enough, scaling the ratio of exercise and rest, not giving up, which often means being very stubborn, has worked out as the winning recipe. I have had a few break-downs but never lost hope. It seems obvious now, that without self-discipline, passion for sports, knowing my body, physical and mental capacities perfectly, I would not be telling my story as it is today. The support that I have received from my sponsors has had an enormous effect on my motivation. The biggest fear of an injured athlete is to be let down, gratefully I can count on all of them.

On the physical aspect, a solid sport background contributes to the necessary confidence that enables to return to activities when still feeling crippled in everyday life. On my bike, I immediately feel and look like everyone else and this is something very rewarding and encouraging, no other cure can provide a better alternative. For me, achieving an outdoor objective instantly pushes to train more at the gym and reach for the next goal. The two last summers, I have been back to enduro and downhill biking, between surgeries, and that has been the best source of positive energy.

Anyone can be resilient, if it is not innate, it can be taught and learned.

Yet the dominating factors in a long process of recovery, are determination and motivation, which are purely mental. They together activate resilience, the capacity to bounce back from traumatism. Anyone can be resilient, if it is not innate, it can be taught and learned. I recall during the very first week of hospitalization doctors suggesting that I might never walk normally again. In hindsight, that was probably the best thing to hear, as it triggered in me the rage to prove that I will recover. While waiting for the next check-up and date for the 14th surgery that consists in grafting the four ligaments of the knee, I will keep on training and take my Strega out almost daily, rain, shine or snow. Because it makes me smile!

*Minna Riihimaki is Finnish native living in France, riding for Juliana, and working every day to recover from her life-altering injury.*

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