Making spirits soar: Sit-skier Kennison launches off X Games big air jump
Freeskier takes to skies over Buttermilk in sit-ski, completes journey from crash on Vail Pass to Snowmass groomers to X Games big air
From a paralyzing crash on Vail Pass to the green groomers of Snowmass Resort to the top of the X Games big air jump Sunday, Trevor Kennison’s inspiring journey over the past seven years has changed his life and his family’s world for the better.
Yes, a broken back from a 2014 snowboarding accident has been a family’s inspiration for hope, not sorrow and pain.
“I feel super thankful — friends, family, all the support, sponsors. After breaking my back in Colorado and living around in the valley and learning how to sit-ski here, just having the whole thing come full circle is just super, super awesome,” the 29-year-old Kennison said on a beautiful Sunday afternoon after making two attempts off the Buttermilk jump.
And while Kennison might be the mayor of the village who got him atop the X Games course, his sister Ashley Curaso is the town manager from the time he returned to Colorado.
“My sister taught me in Snowmass; that’s where I first learned,” Kennison said of getting on a sit-ski. “My brother-in-law that first year, there’d be a foot of snow and — you know that saying there’s no friends on a powder day — he would follow me on the greens and pick me up. For a whole year he’d do that, and I got better.”
In the years since that fateful day on Vail Pass, Kennison has used his joy of life to find a new journey from promising plumber to inspiring freeskier.
Kennison landed in Avon shortly after his sister moved to the Roaring Fork Valley in 2014. But within a few months he was fighting to make sense of his new life after weeks at Denver’s Craig Hospital. The accomplished snowboarder crashed in November 2014 while riding Vail Pass with friends. A life-long gifted athlete, Kennison suddenly had to learn how to work for what he wanted.
“He was always into snowboarding and was good, but nothing crazy,” Ashley Caruso said Sunday while watching her brother garner accolades and admiration from his friends and fans. “He’s always been a very talented kid in any sports he’s done — swimming, basketball, soccer, he even decided to play volleyball one year and made all-state.
“The kid’s extremely gifted, but his accident was life-changing in the sense that he knew he had to work. This is the first time he actually had to put some effort into it, and this is what got him where he is today.”
Finding a new path
When Kennison had his accident, his mother, Olga Pardo, was living 2,000 miles away in Rhode Island. When she finally made it to the Colorado hospital, Pardo put her faith into a higher authority for guidance.
“When I came to see my broken son, I got on my knees and I cried when I heard the news that Trevor’s back was broken,” she said Sunday. “I gave it to the guy upstairs, and I said, ‘I’m giving this anxiety to you, and I’m not taking it back, and this is the first and last time I will cry, because I know you got his back, and I’m going to see what you’re going to do with his life and you got his back.’
“Look at what he has done with my son. Look around. He has used a village of people to help my kid, and I have a lot to be thankful for.”
It was that faith and family support that helped Kennison get to the top of the big air jump Sunday and another round of inspiring actions for those who might be searching for a purpose.
There was a brief time after his Vail accident that doubt crept in. But the love of his family and renewed optimism have helped him do incredible things on a mono-ski setup that weighs nearly 50 pounds.
Kennison’s mission became being the best freeskier on a sit-ski. After the accident, he spent time back east with his mother and then made his way back to the Colorado mountains, and Ashley’s role as big sister (just one year older) helped give him the kick he needed.
Ashley and her husband, Thomas, live in Basalt, and she works in Snowmass Village. The trio made countless laps on the Snowmass trails that first winter, and Kennison quickly found his flow.
Once that clicked, the drive to go big took hold.
“Ashley has a lot to do with Trevor’s progress, and she is really the backbone of this whole operation. … Ashley saved Trevor’s life,” Pardo said. “He was very depressed, and within six months he was going to commit suicide, and she put him on a mono-ski, and her and her husband saved him. I have a lot to thank Ashley for. She is an incredible little woman who is just as big or bigger than Trevor.”
Finding his people
As he became more bold on his sit-ski, Kennison started posting videos on social media and an inspired-crowd started following him, including Team USA freeskier Colby Stevenson. Others have joined the journey (nearly 65,000 followers on Instagram), and a big part of his village was there Sunday in a show of support.
Those social posts caught Stevenson’s attention, and a friendship grew. Over the past five years, they have done ski trips together, pushing each other. Stevenson was in the big-air start house Sunday and other Olympic-bound freeskiers were in the landing area.
“Two summers ago on Mount Hood he was like, ‘Alright, man, what’s the speed for the jump?,’” Stevenson recalled Sunday. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know, man, I don’t know if it’s the right jump for you, it’s super-poppy and big.’ And he was like, ‘I’m going to hit it with or without your help.’ So we figured it out, and he was perfect on the first try.”
Kennison, who lives in Winter Park, said hanging out at the Mount Hood trip “the whole (freeski) crew and we just vibed. … Colby helped me with towing into jumps and filming me, and he let me feel included. And that was the awesome part about it. It is that whole camaraderie that’s amazing.”
It is the validation from the freeski community that has helped in Kennison’s mental recovery, his dad, Bernie Kennison, said at the base of the jump as his son was surrounded by fellow skiers and inspired onlookers.
“I think when they get together that gives him motivation. From the physical standpoint, I think they have a lot of respect for him. I was afraid that people were very superficial, but from what I’ve seen they are very, very …” he paused to gather himself, “they mean a lot to him.”
Before the accident, Trevor and Ashley grew up as snowboarders in New Hampshire. Bernie owned a snowboard shop and would take them out of school — “We missed a lot of school,” Ashley recalled — but their father’s intent was clearer.
“When I brought these kids up, sportsmanship and being humble was a big factor,” Bernie said at Buttermilk.
Their athletic prowess comes from a mix of impressive genes. Their Colombian mother played semi-professional soccer, ran multiple marathons (including two in one week on three separate occasions) and coached a high school boys varsity soccer team from a no-win season to the state semifinals two years later; their father, when not working in the shop, was completing Ironman races (three of them) and countless marathons.
When Kennison made his way to Colorado in 2014, he was short on cash and couldn’t afford a ski pass. He called his mother, who didn’t skip a beat and gave him a credit card number to buy his pass so he could be outside. It was weeks later the accident happened.
Kennison hit a 40-foot backcountry jump, got sideways and landed squarely on his back. In an instant, he was paralyzed from the waist down. After rehabbing at the renowned Craig Hospital, his new life began, but it came with struggles at the start.
“When Trevor came out of the hospital in Denver he sat in my little car, and he cried and said, ‘Mom, I’m sorry for doing this to you. I was going to retire you. I was a plumber, and I was making great money and going to start my own business, Mom. And I did this to you,’” she recalled with a mother’s love Sunday. “I said, ‘Trevor, this was an accident, and it happened.’ Trevor said, ‘Mom, watch, I’m going to turn this around. I’m going to turn my life around.’ I didn’t know what he was talking about, but he felt bad that he did this to his mother. And I didn’t know what he was feeling bad about.”
She said before her son’s accident he was always very loving, very kind and always smiling. When his sister would beat him up, their mother said, he would still love her and never got mad at her bossing him around.
“Ashley was the boss, and he was very humble,” she said. “He’s always been very humble and kind. But this injury has made Trevor a more beautiful person and genuine. The inspirations that he’s given not only to you and I but millions of children and parents — I have nothing to complain about. I have legs.”
Following her son’s dream has become expensive, and Pardo said at one point she racked up nearly $100,000 in debt. But being resourceful, Ashley got a job at the Aspen airport with one of the airlines so they could get discounted travel, and Pardo started working for a national hotel chain so they could stay around the world at an employee rate.
“That’s what family is about. I have a lot to be thankful for,” she said. “I’m not bragging, it’s about finding a way to survive. … The best thing that happened to me is having my son break his back, because I have inspired through him many millions of children.”
Getting to Sunday
After his accident and when he moved back to Colorado, he and his family made it to the X Games, and it was then this dream started: I’ll be up there someday, Kennison decided.
While he quickly became a confident sit-skier (he’ll be in Beijing competing in the 2022 Paralympics), he still wanted to be free. And freeskiing, doing what you want on the mountain and not limiting your runs or tricks, became his cause.
Those early years cruising around Snowmass lead to jumps at the gnarly Kings and Queens of Corbet’s extreme competition in 2019 at Jackson Hole, where only the heartiest of souls attempt incredible feats. And it was his freeskiing family who helped give him the drive to keep pushing.
“I have a lot of faith in him. He just does it, no matter what, and he’s not going to let anybody tell him otherwise,” Stevenson said. “It’s very inspirational. It’s amazing. I love being a part of whatever he’s doing, and can’t wait to go on more ski trips with him and watching him progress.”
Kennison’s X Games reality came true Friday when he stared down the 15-foot big air jump at Buttermilk. That practice run didn’t go as planned as Friday’s snowfall hindered Kennison’s attempt. The light flurries slowed the course just enough that Kennison didn’t have the speed off the jump to clear the 70-foot gap to the ‘knuckle’ at the top of the feature, crashing hard.
“I had a pretty gnarly crash during practice because I didn’t have enough speed, and I wanted to make sure I cleared the knuckle,” he said Sunday.
Ashley said it was that Friday crash that made her a little concerned on how crazy this might be.
“I never get nervous, but this is the first time I’ve ever been nervous. Ever,” she said. “It was incredible. I think it was the Friday crash, that made me say ‘oooooohhh.’ I just wanted him to stick the landing and not get hurt.”
In that effort to get more speed for Kennison’s first attempt Sunday, three of those in his village gave him a big push out of the start house, causing too much speed and sending Kennison soaring off the jump and deep into the landing area. He flew an estimated 95 feet in the air before his sit-ski bottomed out and he fell over.
“In the practice, he hit the knuckle and bounced about 30 feet down and we just really didn’t want that to happen,” Stevenson said, “so we made sure it went a little big on that first try, and he was just a little back seat, he would have landed that for sure.”
As he has been for the past seven years, Kennison was not deterred. He got a ride back up to the top, swapped out his ski and made a second go of it.
“On the second one, I figured one push in would be fine,” he said with a grin as big as his personality, “but coming in I was like, ‘Oh, I think I’m cooking,’ and I kind of scrubbed speed in the middle, and I just boosted right off the jump, and I was like, ‘Ahhhh, OK, try to land this.’ But I just couldn’t land it. But it was fun.”
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