She never heard thunder and never saw lightning before it happened, but in an instant, Caitlin Gregg realized the surge running through her body was a one-in-a-million type of occurrence.
This past Tuesday morning started out like most others for Gregg, who turned 37 exactly a week earlier, during her annual visits to West Yellowstone, Montana. With her skis and poles in each hand, she headed for the Rendezvous Ski Trails on foot — a short jog from the hotel she and her husband, Brian, were staying at.
It was 33 degrees Fahrenheit around 9 a.m. that morning and snow was falling, “a strange grapple type of snow/sleet”, Gregg, a 2015 World Championships bronze medalist, recalled in an email.
She hadn’t been aware of any thunderstorms in the forecast. If she had, she would have never ventured out on her own, but rather caught a ride to the trailhead and waited for the storm to pass.
“Many of my teammates throughout the years know how terrified I am of lightning and thunderstorms,” wrote Gregg, a member of Team Gregg and Loppet Nordic Racing, based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
But it was just snowing, or so she thought.
As she jogged along the road, wearing metal spikes on her shoes for traction, Gregg reached the corner of Electric Street. Suddenly and without warning, lightning — stemming from a natural phenomenon called thundersnow — struck a nearby tower.
Simultaneously, an electric current surged through her body — up her left leg and out her left arm. She felt the surge followed by her jewelry burning on her skin.
“It felt like touching an electric fence x 1,000,000,” she wrote. “I had no idea what was happening but a split second later I heard the largest clap of thunder. I realized right away that I needed to get help.”
Gregg sought out medical attention at a hospital about an hour north in Big Sky, Montana.
“They checked out my heart’s electrical signal and for any muscle breakdown,” she wrote. “Thankfully all are normal. So, I am a bit shaken but everything seems to be okay.”
Her left hand “had some peripheral neuropathy and a pins and needles feeling for the rest of the day”, she recalled, but her jewelry didn’t leave any burn marks and she was cleared by the doctors to resume training as she felt up to it.
“I have been taking it pretty easy and just being careful if I notice any changes,” she wrote. As of Thursday, she hadn’t.
“I am grateful that I had a great group of teammates and coaches here who could help me out all day and have been skiing with me everyday since,” she added.
“I learned (through this whole ordeal) that the majority of lightning ‘strikes’ on people are from nearby objects getting hit the the current traveling through the ground,” Gregg explained. “Totally crazy experience. There have been a lot of lightning jokes now circulating the team (CXC and LNR) about how my it will give me super powers [smiley face]. We will see but I am pretty happy to have walked away okay.”
The day after, she posted a photo on Instagram of herself skiing with Midwest training partners.
While the odds of being struck by lightning in the U.S. in any one year is about 1 in 1 million (and the odds of being struck in one’s lifetime is 1 in 13,000), Gregg was feeling fortunate to be one of the survivors. According to the National Weather Service, she is one of about 300 Americans who survive lightning strikes each year. Ten percent of all lightning victims don’t make it.
“I have a new perspective on life for sure now,” Gregg wrote. “I looked up some of the lightning statistics and reports and I am feeling very lucky!”
And in a small town like West Yellowstone, with a population of about 1,200 (that sees an influx of several hundred skiers each November for the Yellowstone Ski Festival), news — as well as rumors — apparently spread fast.
“A lot of people thought I died,” Gregg wrote. “The hotel manager was trying to convince people that I am not dead and still staying at his place :)”
Feeling perhaps more alive or sparky, as she put it, than ever, Gregg is back on the path of trying to qualify for her second Olympics. (She represented the U.S. at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C. Her husband Brian, the other half of Team Gregg, raced at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.)
The Greggs arrived in West Yellowstone earlier than usual this year to get acclimated to the altitude, some 6,700 feet above sea level. She planned to race the International Ski Federation (FIS) sanctioned race there on Nov. 25 (women’s 5-kilometer freestyle individual start) before starting the season in earnest with the SuperTour opener: a freestyle sprint and 10 k classic mass start Dec. 2-3, also in West Yellowstone.
“Despite this strange start to my season Brian and I are still very focused and driven to represent Team USA at the 2018 Olympics in Korea this February,” Gregg concluded.
— Jason Albert provided reporting