Paralysis of CrossFit competitor elicits outpouring, concern over safety
At just before 1:00 p.m. on Jan. 11, when Kevin Ogar crouched and gripped the Olympic barbell at the "OC Throwdown" in Orange County, Calif., he was one of the top CrossFit competitors in the world. Two seconds later he was a paraplegic.
Within moments of the failed snatch lift that changed Ogar's life -- and may yet change CrossFit, the popular fitness program in which explosive, technique-specific Olympic lifts are performed with minimal rest in conjunction with other exhausting movements -- a flood of online speculation and sympathy crashed through the CrossFit community like a tsunami striking dry land. Was Ogar's injury the result of too much weight and not enough rest? As surely as CrossFit has created legions of stronger, healthier people, it has also contributed to scores of injuries and ER visits related to the demands it places on participants. In the immediate aftermath of Ogar's injury, a vocal contingent of CrossFitters and critics alike felt that the increasing weight and reps and never-ending quest for PRs (personal records) had finally been stonewalled by poor safety measures and the human body's finite capacity for work.
Ogar, 28, had been performing lifts like the snatch and clean-and-jerk for at least seven years, including his rugby career at the University of Missouri. He had done thousands of the handstand pushups and wall balls and box jumps and heavy squats that CrossFit had thrown at him, too, and he'd done them under constraints of time and fatigue, without serious mishap. He was competing in the OC Throwdown to prepare for the CrossFit Games, a months-long tournament that culminates with the Super Bowl of the sport, held at the Stub Hub Center near Los Angeles.
Ogar began that Sunday with a three-mile run in which each runner held two kettlebells during the first mile, one during the second mile and none during the third. He had three or four hours' rest after that, according to his friend Matt Hatchcock, himself an elite CrossFitter and owner of the Denver-area gym where he and Ogar train and coach together. Hathcock and Ogar focused on Ogar's recovery after the weighted run, as they do during every rest period. Ogar was mildly fatigued -- everyone was -- but neither man was concerned headed into the snatch. The weight would be 240 pounds -- impossible for 99 percent of the population but old hat for Ogar. It was about 80 percent of his personal record. He performed the lift twice in the warmup area before heading to the competition platform.
The lift that injured him looked fine until the moment Ogar held the bar over his head, elbows locked, in a low squat. But then he moved slightly backward and -- instead of "bailing" (ditching the bar and getting out of the way, as he'd done countless times before) -- dropped the bar on his upper spine with grotesque force, severing his spinal cord the way a dull machete chops sugarcane. There was reportedly no medical supervision on hand. Paramedics took approximately 15 minutes to arrive. Word of the injury leaked onto the web after Ogar was rushed to the hospital in Santa Ana, online trickles decrying the dangers of CrossFit and the unrealistic demands it places on participants. Sympathy for Ogar, which was louder and larger than the criticisms, came largely because of the haunting words "severed spinal cord" and the five-second YouTube video of the injury, which left many viewers wishing they hadn't clicked on it.
Nine days and two surgeries later, Ogar's spine is held together by a subdermal scaffolding of titanium and screws. He has not moved below his trunk since the accident, which he does not remember. He is sedated, but when awake shows heavy-lidded grins and surprising optimism. His hospital room in California, his cell phone, and countless CrossFit websites filled with messages of love, support and sympathy last week for the young man whose inspirational coaching style and gentle optimism belied his gruff, Viking-like appearance and made him a favorite at his friend Matt's CrossFit Unbroken gym. Ogar's family and closest friends remained by his bedside in southern California, including Hathcock, whose camera shot the video. "It happened really fast," Hathcock told SI.com "At first I thought it was any other kind of bail, so my reaction wasn't anything crazy." Once he saw the severity of the injury, however, Hathcock's mind moved to the weight plates that were stacked behind Ogar when he began his lift.
They should not have been there. Rule No.1 in facilities where Olympic lifts are performed is that the lifting area and its surroundings should be free of clutter. The role that those errant plates may have played in Ogar's injury will likely be explored in court, but Hathcock believes that Ogar's spine withstood the initial impact of the bar falling on his upper back before the bar bounced off the plates and struck Ogar at his T-10 and T-11 vertebrae, where his spinal cord snapped. The video is inconclusive as to whether the bar struck the plates, but it clearly hit Ogar's upper back on its initial descent. It appeared to hit him far closer to his T-1 vertebrae (between his shoulderblades) than his T-10 (low mid-back), though. So why the injury at T-10?
Ogar's surgeon, neurotraumatic specialist Dr. Mohsin Shah, noted that "flexion-distraction" injuries like Ogar's, in which the spine is struck or bent violently, often defy traditional explanation. "It's like breaking a popsicle stick," Shah said. "The point where it snaps isn't always the point where the most pressure is applied." Injuries like Ogar's, Shah added, are almost exclusively the result of high-speed car or motorcycle crashes. "This is the most freakish event I've witnessed," said the 15-year veteran of spinal trauma.
While the mechanics of what happened outside Ogar's body remain uncertain, what happened on the inside is clear and final. Now is not the time to ask Ogar why he dropped the bar the way he did, the error that betrayed years of training and catalyzed the tragedy that unfolds in those pixelated five seconds. Despite the chilling prognosis, Ogar, Shah, Hathcock, and Ogar's other supporters believe firmly that CrossFit Inc. (which has responded to past criticisms of its injury issues with venom) is not to blame.
Instead, Hathcock instead points to the six-figure sum that has been raised online to help his friend manage the lifelong medical gauntlet that lies ahead. Although the OC Throwdown is not a CrossFit-sanctioned event, CrossFit Inc. made a "significant contribution" to that fund. (Ogar did not have medical insurance.) CrossFit spokesman Russell Berger expressed sadness at the injury "to one of our own" and cited Ogar's years of lifting experience and his freshness going into the snatch in accepting the consensus: "By every indication this was just an unfortunate freak accident." Still, Berger said that the incident will inspire the company "to pay even closer attention to our already strict safety measures" at CrossFit Inc. events.
"This isn't about blaming CrossFit or the OC Throwdown or anyone else," Hathcock says. "This is about how the CrossFit community came together so quickly and so unconditionally."
Despite that largesse, there remain several unignorable layers of sorrow. "I understand there has been an outpouring on social media about Kevin one day regaining the ability to walk," said Dr. Shah. "Unfortunately that's just not the medical reality."
The deepest anguish, of course, will continue to be felt by Ogar, whose reaction to the unthinkable has so far been nothing short of inspiring. He flew home to Colorado 11 days after the incident to begin a grueling rehabilitation period that will likely fill the rest of his life. The mystery of whether he has emotionally and psychologically accepted his condition is known only to him. "I broke the news to him in the ER," Shah recalled. "He is a remarkably strong person. He was in control until that moment, but he broke down. Beyond the operations themselves, that was most difficult part of this for me."
To donate to a fund for Kevin Ogar's medical care, go here.