Inspired by others and by her own near tragedy, a snowboarder steps up
You can take this to the bank: writers would rather tell the story than be the story -- and Kim Constantinesco is no exception. This athlete, writer and Purpose2Play founder is much more comfortable behind the scenes, chronicling stories of triumph for her online sports publication, and shining a spotlight on the countless unsung heroes who have climbed mountains, run marathons and achieved seeming miracles, despite their physical limitations.
But, now, she has a story of her own. Inspired by all of the articles she has written about athletes overcoming the odds, Constantinesco herself is staring down a new, personal challenge. After what could have been a catastrophic neck injury, surgery and rehab, this avid snowboarder is taking to the slopes to compete for the first time; suiting up and stepping up as an entrant in the 2015 Subaru Freeride Series -- North America’s premier big mountain challenge for skiers and snowboarders.
She’ll be doing it with a commitment fueled by the stories she’s told, a cadaver bone in her neck, and the no-fear attitude that has propelled her through life these past 31 years. With any luck, this same attitude will catapult her to the top of the medal podium. No matter the outcome, though, Constantinesco is up for the ride.
Self-taught and fearless
Born in Salt Lake City, Constantinesco discovered snowboarding when she was just eight years old. To this day, she’s completely self-taught, without a lesson or a coach to guide her along.
“I can remember buying a plastic board at Target and going out to the sledding fields behind our house, to figure out how do it,” she says.
It didn’t take long before Constantinesco mastered the backyard run, and unbeknownst to her parents, sought out a more challenging course.
“There was a huge snowstorm in Utah and all schools were closed for the day. So, I decided to snowboard off of the roof of my house. My parents, of course, had no idea -- until they looked out the window and saw the neighborhood kids in our front yard, pointing at the roof,” Constantinesco says. “My parents came outside to see what was going on, and at the same moment I came flying off the roof and landed in a big pile of snow.”
From there, her love of snowboarding grew, as did her propensity for flips, rotations and tricks. But, as naturally skilled as Constantinesco was on the board, she thought of snowboarding as a hobby. Her real sport was basketball.
“My passion was basketball. I wanted to grow up and be a pro -- and put time and effort into that goal,” she says.
She played in high school, as well as during her first year of college in Massachusetts, until juggling classes, practice, travel and studying became too much. So, she hung up the uniform, transferred to SMU in Dallas and focused on earning her degree in psychology.
Dallas’ warm, flat terrain temporarily put a kibosh on snowboarding. But, that was okay. Constantinesco had a plan: earn her undergraduate degree, get her Masters in Health Psychology at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz., and embark on a fabulous, fulfilling career.
It looked good on paper. But, in real life, not so much.
A few twists and turns
“I started seeing clients in graduate school, and I learned two very valuable things: I wasn’t very good at it, and I didn’t really like it. I also learned that my greatest strength was writing patient notes. I wasn’t a good counselor, but I was great at telling their stories,” Constantinesco says. “I really loved writing.”
She also really loved snow. So, Constantinesco packed up her belongings and moved to Denver; working as a nanny until landing a job covering the Denver Broncos for Fansided's, Predominantly Orange. When she wasn’t writing, she was back on her snowboard, rekindling her love of the sport.
“Riding through powder and deep snow feels like floating on a cloud to me,” she says. “It's a great sidekick to my writing. Both the sport and my writing take me to amazing places. Both allow me to fully experience life.”
However, on February 13, 2011, Constantinesco had an experience she didn’t expect -- and one she hopes never to repeat.
“My friends and I had built a jump in the North Bowl at Keystone so we could practice our tricks,” she says. “I did a backflip early on in the day and was feeling good about my riding. “After a quick break, in the afternoon, we came back with more people, one of whom wanted to alter the lip of the jump, which she did.”
When Constantinesco went off the new jump, the lip crumpled. She got height, but not the pop needed to complete the rotation, so instead of coming down on her feet, she landed directly on her head. Even with a helmet, it was a hard blow.
“My right arm went numb and there was intense pain around my scapula. I thought I injured my shoulder, but didn’t think it was too bad,” Constantinesco says. “I have an incredibly high tolerance for pain; an ability to find a pocket of comfort in discomfort. I just assumed it was another one of those bumps and bruises that come with any kind of sport.”
But the pain continued.
“I went to the doctor, who diagnosed a shoulder injury and gave me cortisone shots,” Constantinesco says. “I took the shots, did physical therapy, but nothing was helping. When the pain became more intense, I switched doctors and found out that it wasn’t my shoulder that was injured -- it was my neck. I had crushed my c5-c6 disc and chipped a very small part of my vertebra.”
After six months of treatment failed to bring relief, she finally agreed to have surgery. Doctors opened the front of her neck, retracted her vocal chords and removed the crushed disc. A cadaver bone, attached with metal plates and screws, took the damaged disc's place.
During her recovery, Constantinesco had some time to think.
“When I jumped off the roof when I was eight, my parents tried to teach me a valuable lesson by making me lie perfectly still in my bed for 20 minutes, unable to move my hands, arms or legs -- anything. They wanted me to understand that I could have severed my spine or done real damage. At the time, I didn’t really get the message,” she says. “With my injury, I finally did. I developed a real empathy for people whose outcomes weren’t as lucky as mine; and realized that life could change in a minute.”
But, instead of frightening her away from the mountain and the sport she loved, her soul-searching not only gave her a greater purpose, spurring her to write a children's book about a paraplegic skier and his Yeti pal, which her literary agent is still shopping to publishers, but also to get back on her board -- and back to the flips -- once again.
Moving forward by going back
Exactly one year to the date of her accident, Constantinesco hiked back to that same spot at Keystone, built a jump, and did a backflip on her snowboard, as her friends cheered her on.
“Was I scared? Yes. But, I felt like I had to do it to prove I was still capable; I didn’t want to be my own roadblock,” she says. “For me, doing the backflip wasn’t any more dangerous than living with the fear or regret that would have come from not doing it. There is a certain rush to overcoming your fears and not surrendering to life. Otherwise, you surrender to your fears.”
That backflip -- and what it represented -- propelled Constantinesco to ramp up her life in other ways. Although she loved covering the Denver Broncos, and sports in general, the focus on statistics and scores began to get a little old.
“I noticed that there were no sites that covered positive and inspiring stories in breaking news form. The human interest side of sports, the stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, were there, but got lost between the fantasy stats and scores,” she says. “I wanted to showcase stories of human conviction and courage; to shine a light on the individual narrative instead of the collective results.”
So, Constantinesco started Purpose2Play in December of 2013. The popularity of the site didn’t surprise her. But, the volume of stories worth telling did.
“I didn’t expect to find stories on such a grand scale. I didn’t expect to be so inspired, either,” she says. “Researching and writing these stories taught me that adversity can be a tremendous wind in your sails, if you tilt your head and change your perspective. I've noticed some common traits in the people that we cover at P2P. They know how to manage their own insecurities in order to fully trust their innate abilities. ”
After a year of being inspired by a community of athletes who climbed Mt. Everest with one lung, surfed with paralyzed legs, or finished a triathlon with a disabled brother, Constantinesco was motivated to do something she’s never done in her 31 years: compete in a snowboarding competition. More accurately, the snowboarding competition. The Subaru Freeride Series: a five-location event where skiers and snowboarders accumulate points for their runs and advance, based on performance. Competition No. 1 is at Snowbird in Salt Lake City. Constantinesco’s “home mountain.” Already a good sign.
But, for this 31-year-old, “just participating” is not the end goal.
“I want to be standing on a podium,” she says.
I, for one, wouldn’t bet against her.