Skip to content

Broken neck isn't stopping Canadian ski cross racer

Kristofor O’Brien Mahler is recovering from a broken neck suffered during a night race in Switzerland in December

A Canadian ski cross racer is recovering from a broken neck suffered in the sport.

And he can’t wait to get back to ski cross again, although it looks like he’ll have to wait until next season to do so.

Kristofor O’Brien Mahler, 28, is the son of Lorraine O’Brien, who is from Olds, Alberta. 

Mahler suffered the injury Dec. 12, 2023 during a night race in Arosa, Switzerland.

“Course conditions weren't great, and that's probably what led to ultimately me breaking my neck,” he said during an interview with the Albertan.

“It was actually raining that night, and the course crew was probably a little bit overwhelmed with the conditions of the course.

“But basically, I came over a jump. I was in second behind one of my teammates.

“(I) just landed in a little bit of soft snow and my feet stopped. My head went down and basically the body came over top.”

Amazingly, he was still able to get to the bottom of the course under his own power.

“I was able to actually ski down after that crash and proceeded to get some medical attention later that evening and then the next day actually, because again, this was a night race,” Mahler said.

“I found out through some imaging in a local centre that I had a broken neck. So it was quickly put in a in a collar to mobilize that and then I spent about two to three days in hospital before being stabilized and allowed to fly back to Canada and basically start my recovery here.”

Mahler said luckily, as the crash happened, he had tucked his head down to his chest. As a result, his injury wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

“I mean, it's kind of a weird word to use when you have someone in a collar, but yeah, I definitely got lucky with the break," he said.

"Because what actually happened, was there's a piece of the vertebrae called the lamina, and it broke off, moving away from the spinal column, which is the part where I got lucky in the sense that it didn't impede on the nerve for any of the column," he said.

“It actually decompressed it and once we understood that the neck and the vertebrae was stable, it was basically just a waiting game and we were trying to avoid surgery through just immobilizing the neck then.”

Doctors cleared him to take off the collar and start carefully moving his neck around.

He’s not training for ski cross yet, but is working out in the gym a few hours a day, getting some physio and doing some stretching exercises. He also gets massages, takes some saunas and cold plunges.

“I do get into the gym for some various exercises and each day (I’m) progressing it a little bit further and just testing out the mobility and strength of the neck,” he said.

“But I haven't been back on skis yet. I won't be back on race skis this season, but hopefully next.”

Mahler began skiing when he was just two years old.

“My parents got myself and my two younger brothers into skiing just as a family activity to do on the weekend,” he said.

Mahler got into alpine racing, a sport he did until he was about 18.

He took a year off, then got into ski cross. He made the provincial ski cross team, then the national team.

Over the years, Mahler has won gold, silver and bronze medals in various competitions and was ranked fifth in the world before the Dec. 12 fall.

But he has also had a few other crashes.

“So the first big injury I would have had was six years ago now, and that was a shoulder dislocation. Put me out for a year-and-a-half on that one,” Mahler said.

“In ski cross I took a big fall over a jump. And then two years later I blew my ACL (a knee ligament), so I had reconstructive surgery on that as well. And that was another year, year-and a-half out from sport, recovering.

“Ironically, ligaments are a lot more impactful and take a lot longer to recover than bones do. So this one (the broken neck), from a grand scheme of things, has actually been a little bit easier.”

At 28, Mahler is getting near the time when most ski cross racers age out – although he notes some manage to continue doing the sport in their 30s and even 40s.

He still has some goals he wants to reach, so he’s anxious to get back at it.

“I’ve not made an Olympic team yet,” Mahler said. “I was very close in the last one. And going into the next Olympics in 2026, in Cortina (Italy), I definitely have that in my sights. And so that'll be a big goal that I'm looking to achieve in the next few years.

“And then within ski racing is also something called the Crystal Globe, which is touted as probably the hardest trophy to win in a sliding sport. And that means that you are ranked number one at the end of the season amongst all races.

“So (it means that) you were consistent, and for me as an athlete, showing up every day and consistently performing is definitely my goal. And so that's another medal and trophy that I want to try to (get).”

In a sense, Mahler said, injuries are just part of the price to achieve those goals.

“It's just a part of this sport. You try and do everything you can to mitigate it. But I've got some goals still left that I want to obtain,” he said

“It's a little bit more dangerous than other winter sports, but nonetheless, I really enjoy it. I definitely love pushing myself.”

Mahler's mom, Lorraine O'Brien says the fact her son wants to return to the sport after breaking his neck spurs mixed emotions for her.

"Firstly, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride in Kris’s resilience and determination to pursue his dreams despite facing such a setback," she wrote. "Kris has shown unwavering commitment to his dreams and is truly an inspiration for anyone experiencing a setback in life. 

"I am in awe of his courage and continued perseverance to come back stronger.  At the same time, as his mom, I grapple with the fear of him experiencing further injury or harm.  It’s a constant balance of emotion on any given day.  Yet, amidst conflicting emotions, I fully support Kris’s decision to return to a sport he loves.  I will always support Kris in pursuing his passion and fulfilling his dreams."

O'Brien said her son's experience "serves as a powerful reminder that success in life is not always measured by victories, but the strength of character and the willingness to overcome obstacles in life.I guess that’s why sports is such a great teacher of life lessons. I believe in Kris's ability to navigate whatever challenges are ahead and emerge even stronger than ever, so I’ll be there cheering him and supporting him in any way he chooses." Go Kris, Go Canada."

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks