ROBBIE DIXON’S POPSICLE BLUES
by Michael Mastarciyan
Robbie Dixon is laying flat, half-naked, on a twin bed in a beautiful hotel room at The Chateau Lake Louise on the Friday night before the season’s first World Cup downhill - his broken leg wrapped tightly in a blue cuff filled with freezing cold water connected by a hose to a hi-tech temperature regulator he’s jerry-rigged to double as a drink cooler.
If Dixon was the jealous sort, you’d say he was green with envy as teammates and racers from other nations flock in and out of his room to say hello to their fallen comrade in arms - problem is - Dixon’s coloration is ice blue on this night, not green.
“Cuh-can you, puh-puh-pass me, the blanket, puh-please,” Dixon tells me in a frozen stutter, his teeth chattering from the cold inflicted upon his body from the contraption at his bedside.
“Thuh-thuh-this is contraption is fuh-freezing my leg and the rest of me along with it, I’m starting to, fuh-feel like, a human popsicle,” he says with a frigid chuckle just loud enought to drown out the constant trickle of the chilly water circulating back into the refrigerator he’s tethered to.
Dixon, who broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg during a FIS race at Copper Mountain in Colorado just eight days earlier, is already well on the road to recovery and getting more and more mobile with every passing minute.
Driven up to the hotel from his home in Calgary by two guardian angels (his longtime girlfriend Janna and beloved Auntie Cathy) Dixon points to a folded wheelchair near his bed when I ask him how he’s been getting around the palatial halls of this very large and grand Rocky Mountain hotel.
“I’m already walking on crutches, but Jana and Cathy are wheeling me around in style when there’s a lot of walking to be done,” Dixon tells me with his trademark smile.
Dixon’s “trademark smile” and never-say-die attitude have been the 27-year-old’s main line of defence against a string of injuries (most of them concussions) that have plagued him since he made headlines with a 6th place Super-G finish at Kitzbuehel in January 2008.
“It was a clean break. No other damage to the ligaments of the knee or ankle. No nerve damage, so I’m very fortunate that it was a stay-in-the-skin, clean tib-fib break,” Dixon tells me before confiding that he believes there’s always a little bit of luck involved in the ski racing game.
“A lot of the stars have to align for you to excel on the right day. There’s luck for sure and a lot of other varialbles, but you gotta kind of have things working for you, like your ability, your equipment, where you start, it all adds up.”
“I do think I’ve had a few unlucky breaks up to this point. Head injuries, from my own experience, are tough injuries to deal with because timelines on getting back are hard to define. But a broken leg, it’s a break, it’s a bone, it’ll heal. They’ve got the science behind it to mend you up. They can throw a rod in your leg, screw it down and you’re good. With this injury, it’s nice to know I’ve got a timeline, and I’ve got things to look forward too. It’s an easy one to work with.”
Just as he’s about to spill his guts and unload on the emotional side of what an injury like this feels like to an athlete who’s finally back on the top of his game, there’s a knock at the door, and in walk two of Dixon’s best friends World Cup buddies, his current ski serviceman Gernot Grasser, and a former Canadian team technician, Shawn Gaisford, who now works with American racer Andrew Weibrecht.
After offering them cold beverages from the makeshift drink cooler by his bed, Dixon spills on the emotional toll the injury took on him initially, while Grasser and Gaisford sit listening with moist eyeballs.
“I’ve never felt as emotional as I did the moment of the crash,” Dixon says.
“I was completely down in the gutter, so frustrated, so disappointed. Like a kick to the teeth, defeated, it was brutal. You work so hard in the summer to build the strength in your body and in your head. To find that place in your head to be strong, to go out every day and to send it, and to have this happen, I still don’t know what to think of it. The first few days were really, really tough, emotionally. I wasn’t in a state of shock, but I just couldn’t believe what happened. I couldn’t understand what happened. I was saying to myself, ‘What path am I taking?’ ‘Who’s choosing this?’ After the Olympics it’s been a pretty rough go because I keep getting there, I keep getting close to the goal (Editor’s Note: Dixon was 5-hundreths off the Super-G podium at Beaver Creek in 2011 - it would have been his first WC podium) and then I get a set back. It’s like I take a step forward and then it’s two or three steps back. I don’t know, it’s just one of those things that you can’t believe.”
Sensing the mood in the room is getting a tad misty, with his two good friends choking up glued to his every word, Dixon shifts gears and expounds on the reason why he’s back on track and well on his way to recovery.
“What started to make all of this better was the outpouring of well wishes that came on Facebook, and the texts and calls that blew up on my phone the first two days after the crash. I’ve gotten tons of support, and that goes a long way emotionally, to know how much support there is, that’s pretty special. It just kind of solidifies that little something inside you, that makes you know that people care, and you’re doing what you do for a reason.”
Sensitive words coming from a guy shivering under a blanket strapped to a popsicle machine.
“I’ve had some time to take it all in. Stuff like this happens, it’s an extreme sport, it’s part of the process, there’s injury involved, there’s risk, that’s why I do it. I love the speed, I love the thrill, and in the end, it’s just a bone, it’ll heal. I know that this whole experience will make me stronger in the long run. At first I was feeling down emotionally, but the more I think about it, I know I’ve still got some years left and there still lots of racing to be done, and I know I’ll be back.”
And when will “back” be exactly?
“Return to ski is summer, spring would be exceptional, but I don’t want to rush back, I want to make sure I’m good to go.”
In the photo from left to right: Shawn Gaisford, Robbie Dixon and Gernot Grasser