'Still Going to Send It': Snowboard Coach Returns to Snow After Life-Altering Accident

On Christmas Eve 2020, Chris Waker wasn’t huddled around the fire celebrating the holiday. He was on the mountain — before his life changed in an instant.

A professional snowboard coach, Waker was enjoying the winter day with a friend and an athlete before he left one of Copper Mountain Resort’s terrain parks and the unthinkable happened. 

“There was a little roller up ahead,” Waker said. “I was going pretty fast, but it was an easy run. I went to do a high-speed maneuver over this roller, and I turned my board sideways in the air. All of a sudden, I caught my toe edge, and it drove my face into the ground. I didn’t have time to put my hands out in front of me to brace my fall.”  

Spending many years on the professional snowboarding circuit as a World Cup halfpipe rider, Waker was accustomed to taking a slam or two, but as Waker laid face down in the snow, he could tell that this freakish fall felt much different than the ones he had grown accustomed to between the icy walls of the halfpipe.

“I didn’t really know what was going on. I just knew I couldn’t move that well,” Waker said. “I asked my buddy to grab on my leg for me. A few moments went by, and I asked him if he was grabbing my leg. He said yes. That is when I realized that I couldn’t feel or move 90% of my body.”

While laying on the ground waiting for help to arrive, Waker’s mind quickly turned dark as he grappled with how he was most likely paralyzed from the neck down.  

“‘I am not going to do anything ever again. My life is over.’ That is pretty much what I thought at that time,” Waker recalled. “‘All of the things that gave my life so much joy — snowboarding, skateboarding, surfing, mountain biking — I will never be able to do any of these things again.'”

Waker’s assumptions about his condition soon rang true. Doctors treated him for his spinal cord injury and soon determined he had broken his C5, C6 and C7 vertebrae in his neck, rendering him paralyzed from the neck down.

“I was rendered a quadriplegic, technically a C5/C6 quadriplegic,” Waker said. “It is an incomplete injury, so I do have some sensation and healing.”

Chris Waker/Courtesy photo
Chris Waker lays in a hospital bed while he recovers from a neck injury that he suffered at Copper Mountain Resort on Christmas Eve in 2020.
Chris Waker/Courtesy photo

After having multiple spinal fusion surgeries on his neck, Waker spent several weeks in the critical care unit at the Craig Hospital in Englewood before beginning the laborious rehabilitation process. 

Being a former professional athlete and a nationally recognized snowboard coach, Waker entered the rehab program with the mindset that he was going to work as hard as he could to improve his condition.

Waker did not know what to expect throughout the therapy process, but he realized after a few sessions that the road to recovery was going to be longer and more challenging than he initially expected.

“I had to start pretty much from scratch, relearning everything from having to feed myself for the first time or sit in a wheelchair,” Waker said, “relearning how to manage my bowels and bladder, trying to pick things up off of the floor without finger function, opening up bottle caps — simple daily tasks that we tend to take for granted.”

With support from friends, family and the snowboarding community, Waker eventually progressed to the point where he could move to San Diego to continue his recovery process in more favorable temperatures that last year round. 

Along the recovery process throughout the last three years, Waker never once let his injury affect his lifelong love for being on the snow and soon made it a goal of his to return to Summit County in order to once again enjoy a day full of turns while out on the mountain.

“I did not want it to taint my perspective of the sport,” Waker said. “In my case it was just a freak accident. I didn’t want to have any bad blood towards the sport. I still love it and am still in touch with a lot of my athletes. It is a community I am really still a part of.”

Feeling like a part of him still lives deep within the Rocky Mountains, Waker booked a trip back to Summit County at the end of March. With help of the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, he strapped into a sit-ski at the base of Breckenridge Ski Resort where he used to frequent as an athlete and competitor.

With several friends and athletes there for support, Waker loaded the lift and soon was shredding down the mountain he had called home for so many years. 

“Going up the chairlift I had just a surge of emotions,” Waker said. “Reminiscing of all those memories of being a competitor and a coach. Just so many amazing times at Breckenridge.”

Although Waker sit-skied for the first time in Winter Park, the trip marked the first time back on snow in Summit County since the accident back in 2020. 

The moment was not only emotional for Waker, as expected, but it was also a special for Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center ski instructor Tyler Eaton, who skied alongside Waker throughout his two days out on the mountain.

“It was one of those lessons where you can’t help but hoot and holler,” Eaton said. “You couldn’t stop him from wanting feedback — or just wanted to keep ripping. It was a really fun time. Really cool guy to hang with, but real, cool, fun skier to be on the mountain with. He was constantly asking for feedback, as I would expect from a coach of his level. Eager to learn, eager to have fun and eager to rip. It was such an easy day.”

Chris Waker/Courtesy photo
Summit County professional snowboard coach Chris Waker is pictured while recovering from a neck injury that he suffered at Copper Mountain Resort on Christmas Eve 2020.
Chris Waker/Courtesy photo

Among other extreme sports, Waker has now skied, surfed and mountain biked after his injury, proving that anything is possible with the right mindset and perspective toward the situation at hand.

“Everything is going through something in their life and has a story,” Waker said. “It may not look like mine, but I just want to show everyone that no matter what you are going through you can still get back to the things that you love. Life is all about perspective and finding the light in the dark times. My motto has been ‘still going to send it.’ No matter what life throws at you, you have to find that positive perspective and still have to send it.”

Over the last several years, Waker — who still owns a place in Blue River — has used the “still going to send it” motto for his new career path as a motivational speaker where he has been able to travel across the country to talk to corporations, sports teams and schools. 

In the coming months, Waker hopes to reach more people through his motivational talks while continuing to push his comfort zone by competing in an adaptive surfing competition in Hawaii in May. Waker is also eager to continue to expand his skills on the sit-ski.

To learn more about Waker and his story, visit ChrisWaker.com.

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