Dave Genchi is paralyzed from his chest down and is scheduled to leave the hospital July 10.
Denver They both live for the days where riding a line in waist-deep powder is as good as it gets.
They both are creative, talented, hilarious, bright young men who live for music, their family and friends and being outdoors. It's what drew Andrew "Hondo" Sanders and Dave Genchi to Steamboat Springs.
When Andrew decided to attend a February Big Head Todd and the Monsters benefit concert for Genchi, who had broken his neck snowboarding on Buffalo Pass in December, he never thought a month later he would be in a wheelchair down the hall from Genchi at the same rehabilitation hospital in Denver.
This is the tale of "two beat up Steamboat boys" who both got hurt doing what they loved but lived to tell their stories and have worked tirelessly since the days of their accidents to keep fighting, to keep strong and to "tear it up."
Dave Genchi, 32, grew up a beach boy. As a Melbourne Beach, Fla., native, he took to the seas like a fish. On a surfboard, Dave could do anything.
On snow, he could do even more.
Genchi moved to Steamboat Springs four years ago after vacationing in the area and spending one memorable day with a group of Steamboat Powdercats guides. A photographer and filmmaker by profession, Genchi convinced the Steamboat Powdercats crew they needed him, and he has worked for them "filming the best days of people's lives" ever since.
Genchi moved back to Steamboat for the season on a Saturday in December 2006. Five days later, on Dec. 21, he was on a routine training trip with his fellow guides on Buffalo Pass when, at less than 10 mph, Genchi surf-turned off a hidden rock, slammed into the snow and knew his life had changed forever.
"After four years, I thought I had that place wired," Genchi said reliving the moment from his hospital room in Denver on Tuesday. "That was not the case."
His helmet had cracked in two. He was having trouble breathing and running out of breath quickly.
The guides "all heard the sound of my snowboard hitting the rock," he said.
Pete Scully, a close friend and co-worker at Steamboat Powdercats, said he will never forget what happened next.
"I heard it. We all heard it," he said. "The next thing we heard was the radio call 'Genchi's hurt. We need to get him out of here.' I'll never forget that radio call."
Almost immediately, his fellow colleagues and best friends descended upon him with a plan to get him out off the mountain and to the hospital.
"I told them, 'I only have a few seconds. I can't breathe. I know I broke my neck. Don't take off my helmet. I need oxygen and call for help,'" he said. "That was it. I saw that my hands were wiggling but I knew I broke my neck. It was the boo boo you didn't want to feel."
The quick action of his friends got Dave to an ambulance faster than he has ever heard of anyone getting off Buffalo Pass, he said.
He spent the next several weeks in Grand Junction recovering from a surgery that fused together his fifth, sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae. Genchi moved to Craig Hospital in Denver in January, where he has been ever since.
Similarly, Andrew "Hondo" Sanders, 21, left the comfort of his home in Fort Collins at 18 to pursue his dream job - teaching others his passion for snowboarding. He worked as a Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. instructor for three winters.
Sanders, like so many other Steamboat Springs residents, spent April 15, closing day, celebrating the end of another season.
As the sun began to set, his friends left Broadway and began making their way down the mountain when he fell like he had countless times in his life. Except this time was different.
"I got to See Me and was bombing it down the run," he said while visiting Craig Hospital on Tuesday. "About 3/4 of the way down, I caught my heel edge, flipped backwards and rolled like a rag doll another 80 feet before sliding another 100 feet. I was knocked out."
A nearby friend came to Andrew's side and began pounding on Andrew's chest and moving his arms because he could not.
"I told him, 'I can't feel that. I'm pretty scared. I can't feel any of that right now,'" he said.
Andrew's third cervical vertebrae burst, and he fractured his fourth cervical vertebrae. He dislocated three ribs, tore a tendon in his neck and dislocated his left shoulder. He spent four days at Swedish Medical Center in the intensive care unit on a ventilator.
Andrew quickly made the short trip to Craig Hospital.
And that's how two Steamboat boys came to meet, both hurt in the same town they love on two of her most majestic mountains.
"It's an interesting combination of people having Andrew and myself representing two different sides of the mountain, with me being primarily backcountry and him being primarily Ski Corp.," Dave said. "It really brought two worlds together."
'You're going to be just fine'
"People had told me there was a photographer from Steamboat here," Andrew said. "It was pretty amazing to have both of us here who were injured snowboarding in Steamboat. It was kind of nice, but kind of scary."
Genchi also had heard rumors that there was another Steamboat boarder in the hospital but didn't want to be intrusive with introductions, since Andrew had just moved in.
"When I first met Dave, I was in the therapy gym, and I just rolled up to him," he said. "He told me I looked pretty good. Actually, the first thing he told me was, 'You're going to be just fine.' Usually, a quadriplegic doesn't tell another quadriplegic he's going to be just fine."
"When I first saw him in his chair, I told him right there, 'You're going to be just fine.' I could just tell," Dave said.
The brief but memorable exchange was the beginning of a friendship that has been inspirational not only to the two of them but everyone who has heard them laugh, seen them work out together or listened to them talk about their facial hair, or lack thereof.
Genchi said he was glad to have a partner in crime to keep him company on his road to success.
"He's my inspiration for getting better," Dave said. "Watching him get better, I'd say, 'Man that kid's getting it.' It was amazing to watch. It was inspirational. From him, I found myself going after it and challenging myself. We were always saying to each other, 'Let's see what you got.'"
A very small percentage of paraplegics and quadriplegics who have suffered a spinal cord injury regain the ability to walk and instead focus on learning how to adapt to life in a wheelchair.
Andrew was in that minority who regained his ability to walk, awing his parents, friends, physicians and therapists.
"I was told once at one point that I'd never walk again, but I never let that get to me,"
he said. "I knew I'd walk out of here."
Although bipedal, Andrew still claims to be a quadriplegic and still struggles with some motor function. Living through such trauma has beckoned Andrew to "do something great," including staying positive for Dave and other people coping with the physical and mental "ups and downs" that come with a spinal cord injury.
"We're not handicapped, we're handicapable," Andrew said. "Us handicapables tear it up."
Anatomy of a broken neck
Kenny Hosack, a spokesman for Craig Hospital, has worked with people with spinal cord injuries and brain trauma nearly his entire career.
Unlike having a cold or a broken ankle, spinal cord injuries are very rare and unique medical issues to deal with. Because a spinal cord regulates a body's nervous system, any damage to that cord can have a "ripple effect" on the body, not just paralysis of the legs, arms or digits, he said. Body temperature regulation, bowel and bladder function and skin issues become concerns.
"A spinal cord injury is a relatively rare occurrence compared with other medical issues, but it's very complex," he said.
Craig Hospital, which this year is celebrating 100 years of helping people with spinal cord injuries and brain trauma, was built on a philosophy of helping people rebuild their lives after an injury.
"We say we're here to help people get on with the business of life and to make a go of it," he said. "We have tried to create a culture of contagious caring, of fun, of positive, upbeat role models."
Physicians and therapists and other hospital people dress in normal street clothes and patients are exposed to a variety of structured classes, field trips and recreational activities.
"It's more like a college or boot camp for injured people," Hosack said. "We're not curing them because they're not sick. They're hurt so we're helping them get control of their lives because, even though we're sorry you got hurt, you can still live a good life."
Smelling the flowers
Despite suffering a few medical setbacks since his injury, Genchi is looking forward to "breaking out" of Craig Hospital around July 11 and heading back east to his home in Florida. Andrew was discharged from the hospital June 15 and plans to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder in the fall to study film and music, a driving force of his.
They plan annual reunions and even more frequent phone calls to keep in touch.
They both have similar messages for their communities about what they've learned in the past six months.
"You learn to appreciate every day you get," Dave said. "It sounds cliche, but it's true. Slow it down a little. Appreciate sitting in a garden. Smell the flowers before you rush off and have to go here and go there. Take a minute and take that extra bite of the sandwich."
Scully, who has visited Genchi several times since the accident, said he was amazed at Andrew and Dave's overwhelmingly positive attitudes.
"I've learned a lot about what a person can do," he said. "Dave's had a rough go, but I am so very, very proud he has been able to take the punches as they came. It has been amazing to watch."
All in a day's work for "two beat up Steamboat boys," as Andrew would say.
"I guess I've got a pretty good story to tell at any party," Dave added.