In the 2008 episode ‘Downhill Racer’, the fifth estate’s Bob McKeown spent time with Dave Irwin, a downhill skier once renowned for his daredevil style, who was struggling to recover from a crash that left him with a serious brain injury.
At the height of his racing career in the 1970s and 80s, Irwin was one of the ‘Crazy Canucks’, an elite group of racers who took on a sport long dominated by Europeans, and became among the fastest in the world. Irwin competed in the Olympics twice, and in 1975 he won a World Cup race, beating out the favourite, Franz Klammer, on his home mountain in Schladming, Austria.
But Irwin’s success came at a cost - he suffered two severe concussions on the World Cup racing circuit, first in 1976 then in 1980 just before the Lake Placid Olympics. At the time, the long-term and cumulative effect of those concussions on his brain was not understood.
Then in March 2001, during a training run for a skier-cross event outside Banff, Alberta, he fell again - and this time, it changed his life forever. His knee drove into his forehead, compounding his previous concussions and putting him in a coma.
After three days, he woke up, but his memory was destroyed. He did not remember his children, his family, his friend or his fiancee, Lynne Harrison, who he’d met just ten months before his accident.
In the years before the fifth estate’s story about Irwin, Harrison had been his constant companion, therapist, and friend, slowly helping him make the comeback of his life.
Now, almost 13 years after that last fall, Irwin continues his recovery in his home in Canmore, Alberta. Harrison says she still notices progress in his short-term memory and mood. Now, when he returns from daily visits to a local coffee shop, she says he can remember more details about who he met there, and what they talked about.
“Hurting your brain affects your whole life and the lives of everyone around you,” Irwin said. “Doesn’t matter if it’s the Olympics, if its a World Cup ski race, if it’s just another day in your life - you’ve got to keep recovering if you have a brain injury. You’ve gotta make sure you keep trying.”
A year after his crash, Irwin was back on the ski hill - and since then, he has been campaigning to get people to wear helmets in snowsports. He`s contacted members of government, helmet manufacturers and Alpine Canada to improve safety standards.
In 2002, he and Harrison created the Dave Irwin Foundation for Brain Injury, to raise awareness and funds for the prevention and treatment of brain injuries. They started an annual event called ‘Dash for Cash’ at the Sunshine Village in Banff, Alberta, where skiers and snowboarders raced to raise money for research grants and programs that support people with brain injuries. Over ten years, they say the event raised about $500,000 that went to various brain injury associations and outreach programs.
Both are proud of their contribution to the Hockey Education Concussion Project, led by sports medicine specialist Dr. Paul Echlin, who published a 2010 study that suggested the incidence of concussions in junior-age male hockey players was higher than previously reported rates.
“All the little things that our foundation has done over the years has really opened up the discussion about how we are allowing our athletes to get injured in their sport,” Harrison said.
Now, they plan to distribute all the money they’ve raised, and end their foundation by 2015. Harrison says they`re satisfied with what they`ve been able to accomplish, and now it’s time to wind it down.
Irwin says he is turning his focus to other life-long projects. After a very long engagement, the couple was married in their backyard in September 2012.
“You have to realize I have a lot of recovery to do, I’m not yet finished at all,” Dave said. “But also I have something called a marriage to do, and that’s important.”