by Marilynn Preston
The campaign to get skiers and snowboarders to wear helmets has been wildly successful. According to the National Ski Area Association — always a fun group — three times more skiers and snowboarders are wearing helmets now than in 2002.
That’s up 70 percent in a dozen years! That puts it on a par with obesity and diabetes. The word is out, and people get it. Even our macho men. Wear a helmet when you ski or snowboard. It’s like wearing a life vest. When the unexpected happens, it can save you.
And the unexpected can easily happen when you downhill ski. You catch an edge; you’re bombed from behind by a Red Bull snowboarder; there’s a white out, and suddenly you’re on a steep bump run instead of the blue smoothie you started on.
And then there is Nature in all her glory: the magnificent mountains and beautiful trees, steep cliffs, hidden rocks. And when you lose control of your skis and find yourself sliding headfirst into one of those rocks, you want to be wearing your helmet.
I cheerlead for wearing helmets. I would never ski without one. And I’d bet anything brain injuries have gone way down since everyone starting wearing a helmet.
And this is where the story gets interesting.
“SKI HELMET USE ISN’T REDUCING BRAIN INJURIES,” The New York Times headline screamed at me just days before heading for Snowmass, Colo., for some downhill skiing, or as we call in my family, “research for the column.”
“Although skiers and snowboarders in the U.S. are wearing helmets more than ever,” reporter Kelly McMillan wrote, “there has been no reduction in the number of snow-sports-related fatalities and brain injuries.”
McMillian called it “an unsettling trend.” I’ll say.
The experts she interviewed offered up different explanations. I read them all, taking notes, and here are some things you should know:
HELMETS WON’T ALWAYS PROTECT YOUR BRAIN. A certified-as-safe ski helmet has its limits. It does a good job of protecting your head against cuts and skull fractures, but not so much when it comes to preventing concussions or traumatic brain injuries.
IT’S EASY TO DEVELOP A FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY. Experts know that tucking your brain inside a cushioned, hard-hat ski helmet gives you a false sense of security. In that way, it’s a lot like wearing sunscreen. You think you’re totally protected, but you’re really not. (Isn’t this essentially what Edward Snowden is telling us?)
MORE SKIERS ARE PUSHING THE LIMITS. Symbolically, in terms of fitness and well-being, this is a good development. It builds confidence and deepens awareness to go to the edge, to test your limits, to face your fears. Downhill skiing takes you to all those places, and more, which is why focused training for the sport, mentally and physically, is so important.
But so is the understanding that the athletes you see at the X Games, at the Olympics, skiing faster, jumping higher, twisting and turning through the air, have all trained for thousands of hours to be as good as they are. And still they crash and burn. I’m thinking of Lindsey Vonn, but there are countless others.
“There’s this energy drink culture now, a high-level, high-risk culture that’s being marketed and impacting the way people ski,” says sport psychiatrist Robb Gaffney, quoted in the Times piece. “That’s what people think skiing is, but really, that’s the highest level of skiers doing the highest level of tricks.”
So if helmet use is up, and brain injuries aren’t down, why bother to wear a helmet at all?
Here’s why: I learned to ski late in life, but not too late. I’m a happy, well-coordinated, nonaggressive intermediate with no interest in going faster, steeper, blacker. I aspire to Slow Skiing, a sport I may have invented.
This January, on day one of a terrific ski school program in Snowmass called “Women’s Edge,” I had an accident. I lost control of my skies, fell, slid and hit a rock headfirst.
My helmet was deeply dented but I got up, feeling remarkably OK. After 15 more minutes of skiing, I remembered actress Natasha Richardson, who didn’t get checked out after a ski accident. She died later that day.
My CT scan showed no internal bleeding and I was able to walk out of Aspen Hospital with a mild concussion and life-changing sense of gratitude and grace.
If I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I’d probably be dead.
Marilynn Preston — healthy lifestyle coach and Emmy-winning producer — is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country. She has a website, marilynnpreston.com.