‘I thought I was done’: Baumgartner reflects on race accident that nearly wiped out Olympic chances

Olympic snowboarder Nick Baumgartner addresses students at West Iron County Public Schools on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, in Iron River, Mich. Baumgartner, an Iron River native, is competing in his third Winter Olympics. (Adam Niemi/Iron Mountain Daily News)

Olympic snowboarder Nick Baumgartner addresses students at West Iron County Public Schools on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, in Iron River, Mich. Baumgartner, an Iron River native, is competing in his third Winter Olympics. (Adam Niemi/Iron Mountain Daily News)

Nick Baumgartner raised his hand and smiled as the Iron River crowd cheered loudly in the Charles Greenlund Gymnasium at West Iron County Public Schools.

Then the emotions overcame him. Tears welled up. He bowed his head and smiled, then walked over to his son Landon and patted his head.

During a Feb. 2 rally that both celebrated his accomplishments and wished him luck before his third Winter Olympics, Baumgartner said the support of his hometown crowd always overwhelms him.

“It’s unbelievable to come back here. It’s so emotional. I spoke at a lot of schools in the last few days, but when I get in front of my home crowd it’s hard to hold the tears back,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable the amount of support they give me. Just knowing that they’re all cheering and it’s for me, it’s something that I’ve done. It’s because I dreamed big and accomplished my goals and everyone’s stoked about that. The fact they’re cheering for me is just unbelievable at times.”

Baumgartner races in the snowboard cross seeding race at 8 p.m. CST. The 1/8 final is at 10:30 p.m.

Olympic snowboarder Nick Baumgartner, right, poses for a photo as he addresses students at West Iron County Public Schools on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, in Iron River, Mich. Baumgartner, an Iron River native, is competing in his third Winter Olympics. (Adam Niemi/Iron Mountain Daily News)

Olympic snowboarder Nick Baumgartner, right, poses for a photo as he addresses students at West Iron County Public Schools on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, in Iron River, Mich. Baumgartner, an Iron River native, is competing in his third Winter Olympics. (Adam Niemi/Iron Mountain Daily News)

Baumgartner has overcome obstacles throughout his career. At 36, the physical toll of snowboard cross lingers longer after races. When he was involved in a fall during a snowboard cross race on his birthday, Dec. 17, Baumgartner said he thought at first it was the one that’d knock him out of the Olympics.

While coming down the course in Montafon, Austria, Baumgartner jostled for position against another racer when he cut across in front of Baumgartner.

“First corner he’s grabbing me and pushing me. Then I got out ahead of him and I made a mistake going into the third turn and he cut down low in front of me and he slid right out and let his board go right right underneath the tip of mine,” Baumgartner said. “The best way to explain it is like when you run into your buddy’s back tire on your bike and you fall down, that’s what happened. I went into the back of his board and went for a ride. It happened right as we went off the jump and I landed real awkward on the uphill of a roller, which is not a good way to do it.”

He cracked his T11 and T12 vertebrae, broke a rib, bruised both lungs and had cartilage damage throughout his rib cage.

“When I came to a stop — I mean I’ve had the wind knocked out of myself before, but nothing like this. I thought it was going to get to a point where I was going to pass out,” he said. “I was very scared of that moment. Then I got a little bit of air, just the littlest bit and then I knew — relax, let this go through and you’ll be fine. Then when I was trying to get off the course, I knew something was wrong. I thought it was way more serious than what actually happened.”

People from back home reached out to Baumgartner. He said it lifted the stress as he recovered and wondered if he could still make the Olympics.

“If you would’ve asked me that day, I thought I was done,” Baumgartner said. “If you asked me five days later in Italy at the next race, I thought my chances were over. Then I came back home, soaked in all the love and support from here, then I just worried about my body and I got it done. It was through the support that everyone gives me here.”

Baumgartner’s mother Mary and son Landon, 13, will be on hand as he competes.

“(Ponsse) were going to come out they couldn’t, but they’re still going to pay for my mom and my son to go,” Baumgartner said. “I told them when they were talking about going, I said historically when my son’s at the bottom of the course I do really well. (Ponsse) said ‘if you make the team, I’m going to make sure that both mom and your son are there for you.’ Just cool to know that the company that supports you cares that much and is that invested in what I’m doing.”

The broken bones healed, but Baumgartner said at the time of the rally at West Iron that the muscles were still tense.

“It’s good. The muscles on my back are still trying to protect me, but structurally I’m good. The rib’s pretty much healed,” he said. “The back, there’s no pain any more. Just all the muscles that are trying to protect everything. Takes me a little bit to get going, but once I get out there and the adrenaline hits, there’s no pain.”

With the injury out of the way, Baumgartner said he’s confident about his chances on the snowboard cross course at PyeongChang. Last year, he finished third in a trial run at the course.

“It’s good for the confidence when you know you’ve already performed well on that course,” he said. “Knowing that that course feeds to all my strengths is good, but another thing is now that I’ve told everyone it feeds to my strengths, I better perform. So there’s kind of that as well, but I’m fine with that. Throw it out there and feed off everyone’s energy.”

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