(Note: This article has been updated to clarify the type of coverage U.S. Ski Team athletes have for medical emergencies, and in Hoffman’s case, a flight back to the U.S.)
Noah Hoffman didn’t have a chance to update his blog by late Sunday night after the first World Cup distance race of the season: the men’s 15-kilometer classic individual start in Kuusamo, Finland. Not that he writes and posts original photos every day, but devoted followers know the 25-year-old U.S. Ski Team member is pretty religious about it.
On Sunday afternoon, Hoffman crashed hard on one of the last big descents of Kuusamo’s three-lap course. He was on his last lap, skiing around 52nd with about a kilometer to go until the finish.
According to Canadian Alex Harvey, who came up quickly on Hoffman while he was being transported off the course in stretcher, the corner was “super icy” and one where a lot of racers fell. U.S. Ski Team Women’s Coach Matt Whitcomb, one of the responders, estimated there were a few crashes there each lap of the men’s race.
“It’s a corner that ices up and the guys always start second, so it’s had the most traffic with people warming up,” Whitcomb said on the phone late Sunday. “So by the time the men are on their third lap, it’s pretty washed out, icy at times. There’s a big powdery berm that builds up, and I understand what happened is, Noah got really close to the fence and lost his line, hit the fence and his foot punched through the fence.”
Whether or not that caused the injury to the lower part of Hoffman’s left leg, Whitcomb couldn’t say. U.S. Ski Team Development Coach Bryan Fish, who was giving splits about 100 meters farther up the trail, responded first and notified others of the accident via radio. They called for a jury member and snowmobile, and the Americans’ physical therapist, Peter Dickinson, of Winthrop, Wash., was one of the first on the scene.
“He was great; he was able to kind of orchestrate the Finnish medical crew from the Ruka venue … and we were able to let them know that we wanted to go with them to ensure that the treatment was up to snuff,” Whitcomb said. “Finland has great medical care so it’s not something you generally need to worry about, but it was really nice to have Pete there today.”
The responders kept Hoffman warm until the snowmobile arrived then stabilized his leg with an inflatable splint, which covered the length of half his femur to his foot.
“He was in a lot of pain, a lot of pain in his ankle, lower-leg region; it seemed pretty serious,” Whitcomb said.
He was placed in a back brace and loaded onto a stretcher in a snowmobile cart, then brought to a local clinic for X-rays.
“There’s been no real official diagnosis from a specialist yet, so at this point it’s just a lower-leg injury on his left leg,” Whitcomb said. “He was treated as if it’s a serious injury and he’s been cleared to travel tomorrow.”
Late Sunday, Hoffman was in a cargo van with two of U.S. wax techs, Jean-Pascal Laurin and Oleg Ragilo, who were driving him about 400 kilometers to Luleå, Sweden. According to Whitcomb, Hoffman plans to board a plane at 7 a.m. Monday morning and arrive in Denver at 3 p.m.
“He was able to buy that ticket on miles, I understand, and I think he was even able to get a business-class ticket, so that’ll be nice to elevate his leg,” Whitcomb said.
“As a B Team member Noah is responsible for his flights. This includes ticket changes,” he later explained an email. “We are supported by Global Rescue, an entity that assists our team in case of a medical emergency in a foreign country. For GR to cover his flight, he needed to spend a night in a hospital. Noah was fortunate in that he found a business class ticket for 50 bucks and 70,000 miles. We spent a couple hours on several phones and computers with flickering internet last night making these arrangements.”
While Whitcomb said he wasn’t sure which specialist Hoffman would see upon arriving back in the U.S., he explained the U.S. Ski team has some connections with The Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colo. Hoffman is from nearby Aspen.
On Sunday afternoon, Mike Trecker of Aspen tweeted about Hoffman’s broken fibula. Whitcomb said he couldn’t confirm that was the injury since Hoffman hadn’t received a specialist’s diagnosis.
What he did know is that Hoffman, the team’s top distance skier, can be extremely positive when facing adversity.
“I’ve seen Noah disappointed before and have big setbacks — not necessarily less severe than this with his shoulder — and he clicks into a really positive gear and just gets incredibly efficient and figures out what the plan is,” Whitcomb said. “In many ways, he’s the most positive guy to be around when he’s under this sort of circumstance.”
On Monday, the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association (USSA) medical staff and Hoffman’s coaches and parents will work together while he’s en route to the U.S. to figure out what’s best for him, Whitcomb added.
During the race, Harvey had a close call with the snowmobile assisting Hoffman on the course.
“I came down there just flying and there was a snowmobile with a stretcher,” he recalled. “I almost crashed there, too, in the last lap.”
Harvey didn’t fall and ended up an impressive seventh overall. After the race while walking back to Canada’s wax cabin, Harvey saw Hoffman in the snowmobile stretcher pass by him. He hadn’t realized it was Hoffman being evacuated at the time.
“I was like, ‘Oh, sh*t!’ like, I didn’t know,” Harvey said. “But he kind of gave me a thumbs up … like, it’s OK.”
Whitcomb said it’s an unfortunate accident that just happened to occur on a dicey corner and thought the course was fair.
“If this were an injury that regularly happened, I would probably have a strong opinion about the corner, but while it may be a little bit dangerous, I don’t think it’s uncalled for,” he said. “I think it’s very fitting with where the sport has been for many years. It banks well, it just gets icy and it’s fast.
“You’re on classic skis with low boots that aren’t necessarily that supportive, and crashes happen,” he added. “It’s a part of ski racing and I think it keeps it exciting. I’m not necessarily opposed to corners like that. It is unfortunate that occasionally injuries do happen, and we ended up on the wrong side of that today.”
Sadie Bjornsen, who led the U.S. on Sunday in 17th in the women’s 10 k classic, said she and some teammates recently questioned whether the sport is becoming more dangerous.
“Do you think that’s because of our courses, or because of the weather, or because of our inability to fall well?” she asked rhetorically. “I wonder where that’s coming from? Or if it’s all just a big chunk of bad luck.”
On Oct. 31, her brother Erik Bjornsen, also on the U.S. Ski Team, got into a serious-skiing collision with Alaska Pacific University (APU) teammate Scott Patterson. While Bjornsen suffered a concussion, two twisted ankles and an inflamed tendon in his hand, Patterson made out even worse. He was impaled by a broken ski in his upper leg, and about five days later, developed a pulmonary embolism – blood clots in his lungs – as a result of the trauma to his leg, his sister Caitlin Patterson explained in an email. He is now restricted to walking for exercise and will be on blood thinners for several months while slowly returning to training and racing.
“It was kind of a wake up call to see really how easily something bad can happen,” Erik Bjornsen wrote in an email on Sunday, after placing 52nd in the 15 k. “I feel very sorry for Scott. I hope he can have a quick recovery. He was in GREAT shape before the crash happened.”
On Sunday, American Reese Hanneman fell on the same “famous sketchy downhill S-turn,” he explained in an email after placing 82nd in the 15 k.
“It was a high speed crash right before one of the only gliding sections, so that was kind of a bummer,” Hanneman wrote. “I was being caught on the monster climb as we approached this downhill by a couple A-seed guys including a Finn; the crowd was going nuts for him, and then when we started sending it down the downhill, he started yelling at me from behind and I wasn’t sure what side he wanted me to go on.”
Hanneman wasn’t able to get across the trail for the best line along the powder berm, so he slipped and went down on the icy inside corner. But he was glad he could get back up.
“Poor Hoff! My thoughts and prayers go out to him, I hope he has a speedy recovery,” Hanneman added.
— Lander Karath contributed reporting