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The Inspiring Story of How an Olympic Athlete Lost His Legs Due to Crystal Meth and Found a Better Life
By Davin Seay
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
I got up late that morning. It was close to ten when I opened my eyes, to the sound of some wild animal fishing in the garbage cans. As soon as I realized what time it was, I could only think about one thing: the mountain was already open and I wasn't out there capping it.
My feeling of frustration grew when I glanced out the window and saw that, after five days of a heavy blizzard and thick fog, the sky was now a bright and cloudless blue. The storm that had brought me up to Mammoth Mountain a week earlier had passed. The weather report had called for five to seven feet. Instead, almost fifteen feet of fresh champagne powder had been dumped. Conditions were going to be epic. This is what I lived for.
Of course, so did a lot of other guys. As I jumped out of bed and quickly began getting myself ready for a day of nonstop snowboarding, it was almost as if I could hear the exuberant shouts of everyone else already up there, dropping cliffs, catching air, and getting perfect rides all up and down the mountain. I prided myself on being the first one up the lift in the morning and the last one off the slopes before nightfall. Now I'd be forced to stand in line, take my turn, and, worst of all, ride through snowthat someone else had gotten to before me. I was anxious, obsessed in fact, with getting where I needed to be. I wasn't thinking about the necessities I should be taking with me. That was my first mistake.
Or maybe not. Maybe my first mistake was the attitude I brought along to the mountain in the first place. Back then, there was an arrogance I carried around with me like a chip on my shoulder, a selfish self-regard that always put me and my agenda first. After a year of consistent drug use—a carefully calibrated combination of crystal meth, potent marijuana, and alcohol—I had pretty much lost touch with the rest of the human race. I was a loner, the master of a world that I manipulated at will and shaped to my specifications. To say that I was a control freak doesn't begin to explain how I led my life in strict accordance with my own priorities. Whatever didn't meet my exacting standards, I simply discarded. And since people were far from predictable, they were the first to go.
It might have been different if there had been somebody else with me that day, a friend, a snowboarding buddy, someone to tell me to slow down and take it easy, that the mountain would still be there when I showed up. But I'd long since passed up the opportunity for companionship. I did what I did by myself and for myself and I liked it that way. I lived inside my own head, alone with my thoughts and my schemes and the satisfaction I got from pursuing perfection. A favorite coach of mine used to say, "Experience is something you won't get until after you need it." Since I didn't have it, I didn't know I needed it.
That day on the slope was going to be perfect, and I was already missing out. It was an intolerable situation. I moved quickly through the borrowed condo where I was staying, distracted by the sunlight filtering in through the high windows, haphazardly grabbing a few odds and ends without really thinking about what I was doing.
Why bother? I'd been up those slopes hundreds of times before. I knew Mammoth like the back of my hand. I'd spent as much time as I possibly could amid that stunning Sierra Nevada scenery, coming in from my home in Southern California dozens of times a season. I yearned to be up above the tree line at eleven thousand five hundred feet, where you could see the curvature of the earth. I had an intricate map of the snowboarding trails imprinted in my mind, the best tables, drops, and hits, the secret places where the cornices curled like frozen waves across the spine of the ridgebacks, the places few others ever went, where the powder was fresh and unmarked and waiting for me. I was totally familiar with this environment, completely acclimated and supremely self-confident in my ability to master the most difficult terrain. I owned that mountain. At least I thought I did.
Now that the storm had cleared, conditions were optimal and I wasn't about to weigh myself down with a lot of unnecessary clothing and equipment. I had several different options that I'd brought with me in anticipation of the ever-changing weather conditions on the mountain, including a heavy-duty waterproof Gortex outfit. But I knew that would be bulky and unwieldy and that its thermal protection might be too much for such a pristine day. Instead I chose a Ripzone jacket and a pair of ski pants with zip?out linings that I immediately removed. I put on the stripped-down shell over my cotton boxer shorts and slipped on some regular gym socks and a long-sleeve T-shirt. I grabbed a thin beanie, spring gloves, and a small pair of goggles. My main concern was to stay as lightweight as possible. I was dressing for what the weather forecast said it would be: about twenty-seven degrees. I wasn't protected enough to keep me from getting cold as I rode up on the lifts, but I knew I would warm up on the rides, when my body was in motion.
I looked around for my boots, a pair of Burtons I had bought secondhand. When I first got them, I could still smell the stink from the previous owner's feet. The dude in the shop told me that they had been used by a pro rider. A pro rider was what I wanted to be. I'd sprayed them heavily with Lysol, which didn't help much, but I liked the boots primarily for their speed lacing system, which used a dial to cinch up the laces and made getting in and out of them much quicker and easier. As I said, I was in a hurry to get to the mountain that morning.
My snowboard was also a Burton, a 164.5-centimeter "Code" model. A guy my size, 5'9.5", should have been using a smaller board, but I preferred the longer length for its increased stability and strength for my big mountain, custom free-style riding, which I took full advantage of. Its shape was a little like a figure eight or a modified dog bone, curving in at the middle and wider at the front and back. It was made from laminated graphite, a tough, hard material that was state of the art for snowboarding thanks to its light weight and durability. The board was equipped with ratchet bindings that could be adjusted for just the right foot stance.
When I bought it, the board had been stamped as a second because of some small flaw. It was cheaper than a top grade model, which sealed the deal for me, but before I took it, I asked, "Hey, brother, can you grind off the marking?" I didn't want it known that I was riding anything other than the best. It was just another part of the image I had constructed for myself, a mix of ego and drug delusion. But in point of fact, I was one of the best, at least when I was on my board. Coming down the slopes on a great run, I could see others stopping just to watch me or point me out to their friends, saying, "Dude, watch this guy. He's awesome! He'll hit every jump." The way I saw it, I had a reputation to uphold. Some of it, of course, was drug-fueled ego, but there was also some truth to my high self-regard. I had a natural flair for snowboarding.
Still imagining I could hear the amazed shouts of the snowboarders on the slopes, I took a quick look around the condo for whatever else I might need. I slipped a twenty-dollar bill out of my wallet, thinking I'd use it for a quick lunch at one of the lodges that dot the slope. Off the kitchen counter, I scooped four pieces of Bazooka bubble gum to chew while I was riding for a quick hit of sugar. I grabbed my cell phone and my MP3 player, programmed with the music I would use as a soundtrack for the day. I had actually planned out which playlist I would select for which run I would be on at any given time, matching my moves to a particular song, which during that time included a lot of hip-hop and rap, especially Eminem.
The funny thing was, when I was actually out on the slope and about to take a jump, I'd never hear the music I'd so carefully sequenced. As I'd approach a ramp, building up speed, I'd remind myself to listen to the song I'd prepared for that very moment. But as soon as I got airborne, exhilaration would overtake me and my mind would empty. It was one of the few times that would actually happen—when the incessant chatter between my ears would fade to nothing and I'd be part of the majestic emptiness around me. Then, as soon as I returned to earth, the thudding beat in my ears would return and I'd be back where I was before.
That morning I forgot to take a lot of things I normally carry with me any time I ride. One of the most essential was a two-way radio that had a range of about seven miles and that I'd made a habit of carrying along no matter how unencumbered I wanted to be. The same was true of a torch lighter that I had originally bought to smoke my kush in between runs. Because of the high altitude, most regular lighters didn't work, and I had made a point of finding one that could produce a flame even in the thinnest air. I would also normally pack a couple of apples with me, one to eat and the other to carve and punch out for a makeshift pipe, ducking down into the tree line for an occasional toke through the hollowed-out core. This time, instead of the fruit, I knocked back a couple of bottles of water and slipped one into my pocket to drink later. I was ready to go.
Except for one last item. Before I closed the door behind me, I patted the pocket of my jacket to make sure it was still there—a small plastic baggie with a half gram of high-quality crystal meth. That was one thing I made sure never to go anywhere without.
I had been doing meth on a daily basis for the better part of a year, and by the time I arrived in Mammoth, on February 1, 2004, it was starting to catch up with me. I still harbored the illusion that I was in control of the drug and not the other way around, even though the gaunt face that greeted me in the mirror every morning said otherwise. My gums were receding, my skin had broken out, and I could see my haunted, hollow eyes staring back at me like a paranoid stranger's. There was no hiding what was happening to me: I was destroying my body. Yet, at the same time, I was focusing with all the obsession that the drug pumped into me on my physical condition. Being in good—make that great—shape had been one of the most satisfying achievements in my life and one in which I took justifiable pride. But it wasn't just the way I looked or was able to perform as an athlete that made being ripped so significant. I genuinely enjoyed working out, building muscle and endurance while feeling the release of endorphins as I pushed past my own limits and strived for a new and improved version of myself. It was true that I had loved sports from the time I was a kid, but what really gave me a sense of accomplishment was to shape and hone my body, to make it responsive and resilient and ready for any challenge. It was a big part of my identity and made me feel more accomplished.
It wasn't the identity of the run-of-the-mill meth user. For them, a wasted body was the price they paid for getting high, but I wasn't willing to pay that price. I continued to work out, intensely and methodically, even as I continued to ingest the poison that was eating me away from the inside.
I once heard a description of meth's effects that I'll never forget: it is as if the wheels of a fine automobile, a Maserati for example, have been mounted on rollers and the car is revved to the max and left that way, running twenty-four hours a day, until the engine burns out. It's going nowhere at a hundred miles an hour. So was I.
But I firmly believed that I was going somewhere, pushing myself to the limit and using the drug to fuel my crazed pursuit of physical perfection. A good day for me would begin by snorting a couple of lines of speed, taking a couple of hits on a bong, and heading over for the gym. Whenever I had the chance, I'd be snowboarding, surfing, or playing hockey. Two or three or five hours later, I'd head out for the beach, looking to surf or play some volleyball, then pedal home on my bicycle or back to the gym to soak in the Jacuzzi. All the focus and concentration that meth gave me, I put into building my body.
I was kidding myself. No matter how hard I exercised, no matter how intent I was on keeping myself in shape, there was just no way I could fully compensate for the degenerating effect of the drug. What had started out as a terrific side benefit—the way meth curbed my appetite and kept me lean and mean—soon turned into an alarming loss of weight and the inability to maintain the proper diet for my level of activity. I was getting gaunt with dark circles under my eyes, the telltale signs of the downward addictive spiral.
Worse still, I was beginning to lose control of my motor skills and even the ability to translate thought and instinct into action. A few weeks before I'd headed up to Mammoth, I had cracked a beer late one night, getting ready to settle back and zone out on my second-favorite pastime, surfing the Internet. An hour later I looked up from the screen. The beer was just where I had left it, untouched. I'd forgotten all about it. Only then, when I finally reached for it, did I experience a strange disjunction between my mind and my muscles. My thoughts could send a signal to my body, but somewhere along the way, it was getting scrambled. It was like nothing so much as a string tied to my arm and holding me back. I'd become a puppet to my habit.
If I was frightened by what I was becoming, there was another part of me that just didn't care. I considered myself totally self-sufficient, as long as I had that little baggie of white powder with me at all times. My loner status was enhanced by the fact that I seemed to have completely forgotten how to relate to people. At bars or parties, I talked too loud, too fast, or too long until those around me would start to back off, a wary look in their eyes.
As time went on, my contact with the outside world diminished in rapid degrees. I didn't care about that either. I preferred being on my own, planning my workout regimens and attending to the thousand little details of my life that had to be perfectly executed. It got so that it was a real challenge just to leave the house. It would literally take hours of preparation before I could walk out the door. The shower had to be just the exact temperature I required, and every bottle of bath oil had to be lined up in its proper sequence. I would shave down every trace of stubble and comb my hair until it was perfectly in place. Trying to pick what outfit to wear was a major undertaking involving dozens of possible combinations, and more often than not, by the time I was finally ready to leave, I'd decide I'd rather stay home anyway, pecking away at the computer keyboard until the break of dawn. I tried to keep up my regimen at the gym and still spend time at the beach, but even these activities were done in isolation and had to be planned out in every detail.
There was only one thing that got me out of the narrowing confines of that self-imposed exile from reality. There is something so simple, so elemental about the joy of snowboarding that, in those few minutes during a run down fresh powder, I could forget all about myself and the crystal palace that had become my prison. Ask anyone who snowboards enough to get good at it. If words don't fail them completely, then they might try to explain that weightless, walking-on-water sensation that comes up through your feet and lifts your whole body. When it's freezing cold and the humidity is low and conditions are just right, you're pushed along as if by some invisible hand, cushioned by the snow that arcs up in a rainbow dusting whenever you make a turn. And sometimes the turns even make themselves, like when you're riding through the trees, kicking back and letting the board take you where it wants to go, following the contours of the mountain, weaving through the forest all by itself. When that happens, and you're just along for the ride, it's easy to give up control and just go with the flow. You're a part of the natural world and it's a part of you.
It might seem paradoxical. I was a slave to a drug that gave me a sense of total control. I was involved in a sport that removed the need for control. I was building up my body and tearing it down at the same time. I was an athlete and an addict. We're all creatures of contradiction, I guess, but my case was an extreme example. My whole life had been about testing my own limits. And I had some remarkable achievements to my credit. But there was still something missing. I was on a search, but I didn't even know what I was looking for.
Excerpted from Crystal Clear by Davin Seay Copyright © 2009 by Davin Seay. Excerpted by permission.
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