Keane Horner wasn't born and raised in the mountains. In fact, his childhood in Kansas was about as far from the ski slopes as you could get. He first learned to ski with his family on annual trips to Colorado and a small 300-foot ski hill in Kansas City, a place not exactly known for snow sports.
It wasn't until he graduated from college in 2010 and got hired with Utah's Major League Soccer team Real Salt Lake that his love for the ski slopes really took off. He was a natural, and from that first winter he was hooked, spending as much time as he could on the slopes.
The powdery winter landscape became a second home to Keane. He was even able to land his dream job working for Ski Utah after moving to Phoenix for a short time and realizing he didn't want to be somewhere without snow. It was during the course of that move to Phoenix that Keane probably experienced a hamstring injury from overexertion. It wasn't a big deal at the time — he was able to just push through it and eventually the pain went away — but it may have set the stage for a much more serious back injury to come.
He and some friends were on a trip in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in January 2019 where they were skiing in the Teton Mountains. It was about two o'clock in the afternoon after several hours on a beautiful day on the slopes when Keane took a trail through some trees. He was tired and remembers hitting a bump where his heels took most of the impact. The pain that shot up his leg to his back was instantaneous, like a bolt of lightning through his body.
"My friend joking described it as looking like I had been shot, I was skiing and I just dropped," he said. "I told my friends 'my day is over' and went down the bar. It was the slowest lap I have ever done to get down the hill."
The pain was excruciating. The first morning back from Jackson it took him four hours just to stand up. Keane crawled out of bed (literally) and when he eventually was able to stand he had to use a ski pole to hobble around his apartment. He immediately headed to the Orthopaedic Injury Clinic at University of Utah Health, and organization he knew well from his day job.
U of U Health is one of the largest partners of Ski Utah, offering expertise and care for athletes who suffer skiing injuries. One of the benefits of the Ortho Injury Clinic is the availability. It operates like an urgent care but only for orthopedic injuries, so you get specialized care in a convenient walk-in clinic. It's part of the broader University Orthopaedic Center that helps athletes and weekend warriors alike recover from injury and reduce the risk of injury while on the slopes.
In the days immediately following the injury, Keane was struggling. The back injury was making even the most basic daily tasks impossible.
"The mental battle is tough, on the bad days and even some of the mid-range days it's all you can think about. Everything else comes second to the pain," said Keane.
Fortunately the othopedic experts at U of U Health had a plan. He got an MRI at the first appointment that revealed a pinched nerve in his lower back (an L5/S1 injury disc bulge with a left central disc extrusion abutting the S1 and S2 nerves, to be exact). Doctors connected him with a physical therapist (PT) who gave him basic exercises he could do at home and he worked with them for several sessions until his back was feeling better.
He even started doing pilates at the recommendation of his PT, something he never thought he would be interested in before, but it has helped his back tremendously.
"The care emphasis was on getting it fixed and not spending more time in a doctor's office. That put me at ease, and it becomes easier to commit to do the work when the focus is on getting you better and ideally — in the nicest way possible — never seeing you again," said Keane.
His PT and physician did, however, set expectations that it was going to take some time before he could get back to doing the physical activities he loved, including skiing in the winter and cycling in the summer. The injury sidelined him from that for quite a while first because of the pain, and later because of the concern that it could flare up while he was alone on a bike ride or out in the wilderness.
"One mental aspect that is always there in the back of your mind when you're skiing or out on a bike ride is that you are just one bad slip or fall away from being stranded."
When he was ready to get back out on the slopes, the physical therapist gave him stretches he could do out on a ski hill if his back started to hurt. The orthopedic clinic also had services to help Keane get back to his favorite summer activities without making the back pain worse. For example, they refitted his road bike to minimize pain in his back.
His official treatment and follow-up wrapped up in October 2019, about 10 months after the injury. Since that time, Keane hasn't experienced any major setbacks.
Now Keane is back doing what he loves most. He still has his dream job of working with sponsors and partners at Ski Utah, where a work day involves building relationships in the mountains in fresh powder on a beautiful winter day. Fortunately for Keane, Ski Utah's partners at the orthopaedic center could help him get back to a place where that was possible again.