Australian cross country skier Callum Watson was looking towards a bright future: after competing in his first Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, this winter, he and teammate Phil Bellingham decided to take the plunge and join a team in Falun, Sweden, to try to take their skiing to the next level.
“We accepted the offer to join Dala Sports Academy where we began working with our new Coach Mattias Nilsson,” Watson wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “During the European Spring I made some amazingly rewarding progress in many areas resulting in some results that showed a lot of promise. Finally I had the confidence that I was on the path to achieving my goal of a top 30 on World Cup which I am regularly told I have the potential to reach.”
He returned to Australia to compete in his country’s national championships, as well as make some money teaching skiing to fund his own career. But there, disaster struck: in the semifinals of the championship sprint, Watson collided with Swiss racer Simon Hammer and what happened next is practically unheard of in the cross country world. Hammer’s ski slipped in between Watson’s ribs and punctured his lung, which immediately collapsed.
“It was almost like slow-motion as I saw the ski go straight into the top of my chest,” Watson wrote. “I knew that I had been hit hard, however as I tried to get up, I felt burst of air gurgling from where the ski had hit. I immediately knew what that meant but couldn’t quite believe it. As I began to cough, more air could be heard passing through my chest and suddenly I went into panic with an overwhelming inability to breathe.”
Watson explained that he had clipped skis with another competitor and fell in front of Hammer, who had no choice but to ski into him. Still, the outcome was pretty shocking: as skiers we take it for granted that while we might get cut or bruised, cross country skis — lighter and duller than their alpine counterparts – don’t have the capacity to cause major internal damage.
“Snow conditions were good and no-one was at fault, it was just a race incident that resulted a collision and freak accident,” Australian national team coach Finn Marsland said.
While Watson said that at the time it felt like the ski patrol took an “agonizingly long time” to arrive, they actually responded very quickly considering his location. There also happened to be a trauma doctor among the spectators, and Watson’s brother Ewan and another helper tried to keep him calm, which he said probably “prevented me from passing out.” But Watson was still in critical condition. He was sledded down to Falls Creek Medical Center before being stabilized and sent on a helicopter to Melbourne, where trauma specialists could get to work.
“I’m not sure what the chances are, but unluckily the ski had managed to penetrate between my ribs, punctured through the chest cavity and into my right lung causing it to quickly collapse,” Watson wrote. “With a strong dose of various drugs an emergency chest tube was put in place to stabilise me. The drugs put me in a different world but I was still conscious for the whole procedure and was one of the toughest things I have ever been through.”
Unfortunately, that was nothing compared to what still lay ahead.
The original chest tube worked by using suction to create negative pressure in the lung and hold it in place during healing. But after four days, the seal began to leak. As the lung collapsed again, Watson was in excruciating pain. He described the prep work for replacing the tube as the most excruciating thing he had ever experienced: “by far the most traumatic experience of my life and was far worse than the original accident.”
After several days, it became clear that despite the second tube being bigger, it also had not allowed the lung to seal and begin to heal itself. So Watson headed in for surgery. He now feels like he’s back on track.
“I didn’t know how much pain I would be dealing with when I woke up, however I was very happy to find it was minimal compared with the previous ordeal!” he wrote. “The ski created a hole which was around 1cm long and 2cm deep into the lung. I sit here now in the same hospital bed 12 days after the accident and now I am waiting for the 3rd chest tube to complete its work by draining the remaining fluid and air from my chest. The prediction is that I will have the tube out either on Thursday afternoon or Friday and should be out of the hospital by Saturday or Sunday if all goes well.”
While Watson was reportedly in low spirits in the week following the crash, he’s feeling better now. A well-liked World Cup athlete, his sunny approach to life was apparent in his explanations of how he’s dealing with his situation.
“The small length of this suction tube [confines] me to the inside of this small area in my ward,” he wrote. “I have a tube stuck in my chest, it hurts to breath whilst moving and standing up is a painful challenge. I can feel myself wasting away and therefore should feeling like the most depressed and lost soul around, but somehow I find myself always smiling thinking positively about the future and even laughing! …There I have to say that my family, [girlfriend] Teresa and coach Mattias have been amazing through this period and that along with so many visits and kind messages from fellow athletes and friends have been what has gotten me through this horrible experience.”
Encouragement from his coach has played a big role, too.
“My coach believes even with the recovery time required from such an injury, I will be able to ski much faster than I ever have and should keep my eyes positively focused towards my original goals set for this World Cup Season and World Championships in Falun,” Watson wrote. “I have the determination to get myself back to racing at the level I was before the accident and am confident in my coach’s positive approach in what I am capable of.”
But besides the months of recovery time he’ll be forced to take, Watson faces an additional huge challenge: money. He has to pay for the helicopter flight, which he says puts himself in an “impossible financial situation.” In addition, his income was coming from coaching, which he won’t be able to do while he’s in recovery. That cuts off any incoming funds he might have generated.
Watson, his family, and Marsland have worked to set up a fundraising page to help pay the costs of the medical rescue and allow the racer to get back to his career: racing. The goal is to raise $20,000. The GoFundMe page, called “Help Rebuild Callum Watson”, can be found here.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.