Seth Wescott hurdled down a mountain in the Alaskan wilderness so remote the only way to snowboard on it was to reach it via helicopter. Such mountains can be dangerous, but Wescott strictly adhered to his guide's advice and stayed on the black-and-white sun shadow line going down the mountain. The path led him to a rollover, shooting him into the air at around 40 miles per hour.
Only at that point did Wescott's supposedly safe path reveal its treacherousness, as the landing from the rollover proved to be a 40-foot-wide hole in the glacier upon which he was snowboarding. Wescott slammed into the side of the crevasse and was quickly brought to a halt, his ACL torn and his tibia broken.
Seven months removed from surgery to repair the damage from his freeriding crash and less than two months away from the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics, Wescott is almost ready to return to competition.
"I really just had some breakthroughs with how much better the patella tendon was feeling" last week, said Wescott, who returned to training on snow three weeks ago.
His recovery on track, the 37-year-old two-time gold medalist in snowboard cross -- the sport in which four snowboarders at a time race down an obstacle-filled course -- is eagerly anticipating the chance to become the first American man to win the same Winter Olympics event three years in a row.
It's fair to wonder whether backcountry riding -- snowboarding on ungroomed and natural mountainous terrain -- a year before the Olympics was Wescott's shrewdest idea, but don't try to convince him otherwise. The 37-year-old has no regrets, even with the injury he suffered, as it returns him to the innocence of the sport where there isn't the pressure and grind of competitions.
"I don't think I would be able to still be on the world tour all the time if I didn't take the time to freeride every year," Wescott said. "It's, for me, the thing that really allows me to reconnect with the soul of the sport and why I love doing it. It recharges me and gives me energy to go back and refocus on the competitive side of the sport."
And although this year's trip sent him to surgery, Wescott notes that he's gone freeriding in 10 of the past 11 years and until this year had suffered no debilitating injuries. "Comparatively I've been injured much more from World Cup competitions," said Wescott, who tore his pectoral muscle in a snowboard cross World Cup event in January 2012.
The injury is unlikely to change Wescott's practices, but it has added great difficulty to his quest to defend his Olympic snowboard cross medals. Wescott is currently the only man to have won the event, taking gold in snowboard cross' Olympic debut at Turin in 2006 and repeating the feat in dramatic fashion at Vancouver in 2010 with a late pass on Canadian Mike Robertson in the final.
This time, Wescott will have to battle his competitors with limited pre-Olympic training and a knee that may not be fully healed. "To come back from injury within an eight-, nine-month time period will definitely be a defining moment of my Games," said Wescott, who's partnered with Team Liberty Mutual, a group of 13 Olympic athletes united through tales of triumph over setbacks in their paths to the Games.
The snowboarder has never been one to hide his political views throughout his athletic career, despite admitting that as he gets older he finds expressing his political opinions to "become a distraction to your athletics." Wescott refused an invitation to meet President George W. Bush after his 2006 gold medal. In the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, he told the Associated Press that Russia's anti-gay law, passed in June to ban the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations," could tarnish the Games.
"My belief in what the rules of the Olympic Charter are, I think, is kind of what I'm standing behind in the support of teammates," Wescott said. "Hopefully the [International Olympic Committee] will take a stance where they're supporting their own Olympic Charter as well."
Although the Olympic Charter does not specifically mention discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, it does state, "Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on the grounds of race, religions, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement."
Wescott said he doesn't plan to stage or be involved in any form of protest while in Sochi but that he hopes the IOC will more fully consider discriminatory laws in future possible Olympic host countries "so that it's never an issue and that athletes don't ever have to deal with discrimination."
As for those future Olympics, Wescott intends to be there, or at least at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, despite the fact that he'll be 41 by those Games.
"The age, I don't feel it yet," Wescott said. "For me, the biggest inspiration is Kelly Slater on the surf tour. He's 41 years old, and he's dominating pipeline competitions."
Unlike most other sports whose historic athletes have long ago established the age range in which it becomes expected to retire, the relative newness of sports like snowboard cross allow key figures like Wescott to set the bar for longevity.
"With action sports, my generation of people will be the people that set the benchmark for how old you can be and be competitive on a world stage," he said.
Having succeeded in snowboard cross well before its Olympic debut nearly eight years ago -- he won a world championship in 2005 and took a silver before that in 2003 -- Wescott has quickly come to appreciate the unique patriotic experience of representing the United States in Olympic competition.
"The Olympics gives me an opportunity to become so much more emotionally involved in the event than, say, typical World Cup, world championship stuff. That added feeling of what it's actually like to be competing for your nation, for your home state, for your hometown just brings so much more emotional relevance to it," he said. "I'm excited to feel that feeling again."