April 29, 2011

All's Well that Ends Well for Mahaney

by Jac Coyne | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

After a nasty snowboard crash, Chris Mahaney almost saw his Olympic dreams derailed. With his body healed and his confidence high after helping Colorado College earn its first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament, Mahaney is once again thinking gold in Russia in 2014.
© Charlie Lengal

Airborne, and about halfway across the 90-foot of expanse at the Aspen snowboardcross venue, Chris Mahaney knew this wasn't going to end well.

In the midst of his training run prior the finals of the Winter X Games in 2009, for which he had already qualified, Mahaney had calculated he could make a move during a jump that, in hindsight, the wet conditions didn't allow for. It was just one of the many snap decisions that happen when competing in snowboardcross, which consists of six snowboarders simultaneously hurtling down a course at speeds up to 50 miles per hour, all while being within 12 inches or so of their competitors.

It wasn't like Mahaney was a novice. He was the youngest ever member of Team USA to compete at a World Cup in 2007 and had placed fourth at the 2008 World Championships. In a sport that is moving so fast and allows for such a small margin of error, even the pros can miscalculate a high-flying maneuver once in a while.

"It was probably a 90-foot jump and I ended up going only about 88 feet," said Mahaney, now a junior at Colorado College. "I then fell about 25 feet or whatever. That doesn't always feel that good."

As he took inventory after the crash, it became evident that what was once a healthy ankle and foot was now a soupy skin sock of tendons, ligaments and bone fragments. And that arm hanging dislocated from what once was a shoulder socket? Yes, that would probably need to be looked at, too.

"It took us about a week to find the right foot specialist because a lot of people didn't have faith in what I wanted to do after they put me back together," said Mahaney. "I still wanted to compete at a high level."

'High level' in snowboardcross equates to winning an Olympic gold medal, and Mahaney has set his sights on achieving that goal at the 2014 winter games in Russia. That might be a quixotic quest for many kids who grew up on the Gold Coast of Connecticut, but it's becoming a bit of a family business. Chris' father, Kevin, won an Olympic medal in sailing in the '92 Barcelona summer games.

But just like his father, who was an All-American lacrosse player at Middlebury, there was some unfinished business to attend to before turning his sites on the Olympiad. After missing his freshman season competing and his sophomore year rehabbing -- Mahaney spent two and a half months in a wheelchair since his shattered shoulder made crutches untenable -- he took a shot at the Colorado College lacrosse program in the winter of 2009 in hopes of being ready for the 2010 season.

The prospects didn't look good.

"A lot of doctors said I wouldn't be able to run for more than maybe a mile at a time," said Mahaney. "I just battled past that."

Under the watchful eye of the Colorado College trainers, Mahaney started to get back some more movement in the ankle and showed occasional flashes of the 6-foot-2, 190-pound close defender who had earned three letters at the Brunswick (Conn.) School. But he wasn't at the level Guy Van Arsdale, who was in his first year of coaching the Tigers, needed out of his poles.

"He was able to play, but he was hobbled," said Van Arsdale. "He's a big kid and pretty athletic, but he didn't really move the way he was capable of moving."

Not only did Mahaney play in just five games last spring, but he was also converted into a short-stick defensive middie -- one of the most thankless positions on a lacrosse field.

"He saw the field in mop up duty only, but every day in practice he was one of the hardest working guys we had," Van Arsdale said. "For Chris, who is as competitive and driven as there is, that was hard for him. It was hard to come and pour himself into that every day, and know that on game day he was relegated to providing support to his team in ways other than playing. He did an unbelievable job of that, and he just kept working."

Mahaney decided to stay in Colorado Springs for the summer, attacking the track, the weight room, and seemingly every piece of strength equipment known to man. The balance and lower body strength that allowed him to navigate the snowboardcross venues returned, which had the added benefit of making him surprisingly hard to beat for a ground ball.

The quiet confidence in his abilities returned, as well, but even though he was used to being on the biggest stages in the snowboardcross world -- as well as stages he stood on as a member of the Colorado College Jazz Band and the African Music Ensemble -- he was more than content to embrace the grueling task of being a shorty.

"To play short-stick d-middie is a grind, but I like it because you don't get the fame or the reaction, but you're still a huge part of the team," said Mahaney. "This is the only team sport that I can play anymore. To play it at a high level in college is great."

"Chris is driven to do things well and he enjoys doing things that are bigger than himself, but also knowing he has a piece in that," said Van Arsdale. "He has his moments where he's not sure, and I think that's part of what drives him. He's a kid who could have easily been overconfident, but his work ethic wouldn't have been the same. He wants to make sure that if he is doing these things, he's doing them well."

Both Mahaney and the Tigers are doing well this spring. Mahaney has played in nearly all of the games at d-middie, even netting three goals and winning six of his seven faceoff opportunities. The Tigers are a perfect 12-0 and have already punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament after winning the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament last Sunday.

All of the lingering effects of the accident are nearly gone, and Mahaney was able to prove to his coaches -- as well as himself -- that he was back to form in the first game of the season.

With Goucher, a tournament team from 2010, giving Colorado College trouble with a 10-man ride and the Tigers once four-goal lead trimmed to one in the waning minutes, Van Arsdale inserted his d-middie specialist into the game to help on the clear. Mahaney received a pass and headed up field. A quick dodge on his reconstructed foot cleared him of the first attackman, but sent him right into a double team.

Like a snowboardcross rider finding daylight between two competitors, Mahaney deftly split the double-team while drawing a penalty, and then he was suddenly in the clear on the offensive end. With a slide coming, he kicked the ball off to an attackman and Colorado College went up by two goals with only a minute left in the game.

"He's coming off the field, and he's ear to ear with his grin because he knows that he made the play," said Van Arsdale. "The beauty of it is the role he has on this team is not lost on us as coaches or to his teammates. It's not a real glamorous role and people don't understand how important it is, but he has fully embraced it."

"You bring it up and it kind of gets me emotional about all the things I've been through," Mahaney said, his voice cracking slightly. "My whole family was there and they knew what I had been through. I came off the field so ecstatic and so happy with a huge smile. It just kind of encapsulates all of the things I had worked for. I was so happy to beat this team that nobody thought we had a chance of beating. All of the training and work in the gym and running ladders really paid off."

However far Colorado College makes it in the tournament, the last game of the season could very well be Mahaney's final college lacrosse game. While he has another year of eligibility and some courses to finish up, snowboardcross events in Australia, Argentina and Austria beckon him as he follows his dream of wearing the Stars & Stripes with an Olympic gold medal wrapped around his neck.

It won't be easy, and there will be a lot of grunt work and thankless tasks. Fortunately, Mahaney's lacrosse career has prepared him for that.

Unlike his ill-fated jump two years ago, one gets the sense that Mahaney's next move is going to end well.

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