Olympic snowboarder Kaitlyn Farrington announced Thursday her retirement at age 25 due to congenital cervical stenosis, a narrowing of the spine in her neck. She won the halfpipe gold medal at last year’s Sochi Olympics.
“I thought I was too young to hear the word ‘retirement,’” she told ESPN. “There’s so much I still want to do in the halfpipe. I thought I’d be pushing the sport for many more years and try to make the Olympic team in 2018. But the risk of snowboarding in a halfpipe or hitting jumps is too high. It’s been tough to accept, but I’m retiring from competitive snowboarding.”
Farrington first became aware of the condition in October during a product shoot in Austria. According to ESPN, she had a rough takeoff from a jump and landed on her upper back and neck. It wasn’t the worst crash of her career, but she lost all feeling from her neck down. “I was looking up at the sky thinking, ‘Get up. Just get up.’ All I wanted to do was stand up and walk,” she told ESPN.
After two minutes, Farrington regained the feeling in her body and was able to stand and walk. She told ESPN that she felt okay and was even able to snowboard the next day. But after flying home to Salt Lake City, a spot on her neck continued to bother her for two weeks. She visited a spine specialist, who ordered an MRI and X-rays.
“When I went back to have him read the MRI, the first thing he said was, ‘You have congenital cervical stenosis and can never snowboard again,’” Farrington told ESPN. “I burst into tears. I yelled at him and told him to get out of the room. I wasn’t ready to hear it. It was the worst conversation of my life.”
Farrington visited other doctors, each time hearing the same diagnosis. “Essentially, the canal formed by her vertebrae that the spinal cord runs through is too narrow in that area of Kaitlyn’s spine,” U.S. Snowboard team doctor Tom Hackett told ESPN. “There is no room to allow for any movement of the spinal cord when the spine flexes or bends, to prevent the cord from getting kinked or pinched… It’s only by the grace of God that nothing worse happened before this injury.”
Farrington began to accept the reality of her condition after talking to Hackett. “Kaitlyn knows what it was like to lie on the ground conscious and not be able to move,” he said. “I reminded her what that felt like. I said, ‘That’s the risk. That’s why you can’t do this anymore.’”
Since then, Farrington has started to focus on the positives, like the fact that she made the U.S Olympic team and took home a gold medal. “I am so thankful for my friends, family, and sponsors for their support throughout this time,” she posted on Instagram Thursday. “It’s been an unbelievable run and I look forward to the next quarter century. Cheers to early retirement.”