Craig native Aaron Kawcak bounces back from broken neck to coach at Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Aaron Kawcak jogs with a group of junior ability snowboarders across the snow to a parking lot by the fairgrounds.
The junior ability program is offered to kids 14 and younger at the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. It provides advanced snowboard training for giant slalom, slalom, halfpipe, slope style and snowboard cross with optional competition participation.
For Kawcak, the new full-time head coach of the program, it was an opportunity to come home when he needed it most.
He sets them up for a dynamic warmup, which includes lunges, bear crawls, crab walks, running and other movements. Today, he plans on taking them for a hike up Emerald Mountain to help build up their strength and endurance.
“Coaching higher level kids, you get to build a relationship,” Kawcak said. “Teaching, you get them for a half day or two days. Coaching, I became passionate about.”
Kawcak grew up on his family’s ranch in Craig. After working in the oil field for a few years after high school, Kawcak longed for something new.
He deemed himself a “decent” snowboarder, growing up with it, but didn’t know he could turn it into a career. He impulsively left home and found out it was exactly what he wanted to do.
“I took a Greyhound to Utah,” Kawcak said. “I got into a class at the University of Utah on how to teach snowboarding. I enjoyed it but didn’t know how to teach it or realize there was a whole industry and lifestyle. I fell in love with it.”
Kawcak made his way through the ranks, earning a coaching position for Team Utah, the snowboarding sports club in Park City, Utah.
But Kawcak’s grandfather was in and out of the hospital, and he felt like he needed to be closer to family to help out on the ranch.
A week before his intended move back to Craig in July 2017, Kawcak went cliff jumping with his friends and broke his neck. Lying nearly paralyzed in the water, unable to move his arms, Kawcak’s friends fished him out and rushed him to the hospital.
“I was in a halo for three months, not being able to move,” Kawcak said. “Looking back, it was really emotional. It was like being locked up in a cage for months not being able to move or shower.”
A halo is a metal frame that includes a vest, stabilization bars and a metal ring that circles the patient’s head, fastened to the skull. Kawcak remained in the hospital for a week before returning home in Craig.
He was told that fewer than two percent of people who break their c1 vertebrae have a chance to walk again, and the injury can sometimes be fatal. For that week in the hospital, he couldn’t walk, but he would spend the next six months in physical therapy.
“It was in the air. They didn’t know if the halo was going to work,” Kawcak said. “If that doesn’t heal right, they would’ve fused it. I didn’t know if I would have full movement.”
Three months later, Kawcak was taken out of the halo and put in a neck brace, continuing through physical therapy to gain back movement.
Summer turned into winter, and Kawcak wondered if he could go back to coaching.
He interviewed with Tori Koski, the snowboard program director at the winter sports club, and he took on a volunteer coaching job for the winter, driving from Craig to Steamboat Springs every day.
“I was like, ‘Well the only positions we have left are volunteering,’ and he was like, ‘I’m in,’” Koski said. “He worked way more than he asked for, came to USASA nationals, coached trampoline this summer. We needed a head coach for this program to go full time, and he was great with the kids.”
Kawcak said that he took his neck brace off for the initial interview, scared that it called his ability into question.
“In my head, I thought I was capable of doing it but honestly didn’t know if I was going to be able to handle it,” Kawcak said. “I was very cautious, but also, it was a very big confidence builder.”
The return to snowboarding was a mental hurdle. Kawcak thought any time he fell, his neck would break. But, as he continued his volunteer coaching through the winter, he felt more comfortable getting back to the sport he loved.
“Being around the kids and the whole winter sports club environment was healthy for me,” Kawcak said. “It’s worked out well.”