JEONGSEON, Korea, Republic Of — Wendy Massie heard the howls. They pierced through what had been a picture perfect morning at the family’s cottage in Pointe au Baril, on the east coast of Georgian Bay.
From what she could make out from the panicked screams coming from the dock, her youngest son Alex had been cut badly. She bolted from the cottage and as she ran, she grabbed a rope from behind the boathouse to use as a tourniquet.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to see,” Wendy said.
She arrived upon a mother’s worst nightmare.
“It looked like a crime scene, a horror scene. Blood everywhere. Pieces of bone,” Wendy said.
Seven years later, Wendy was part of the eight-member Massie family cheering section that hollered from the grandstand as Alex roared down the mountain at Jeongson Alpine Centre in the snowboard cross event at the Pyeongchang Paralympics.
The 22-year-old para snowboarder was eliminated Monday in the round of 16 in a thrilling race against New Zealand’s Carl Murphy. But the day was a victory for Alex and his family.
“I’m not mad at all,” Alex said with a wide grin. ”I left it all out there. I’m happy that I raced my best race. It’s my first Games, take what I learned from this, go back and train hard for the next four years, and hopefully bring home something really shiny from Beijing (in 2022).”
Finland’s Matti Suur-Hamari won gold in Massie’s category. American Brenna Huckaby, who last month became the first amputee athlete to be featured in Sport Illustrated’s “Swimsuit Issue,” won gold in the women’s event.
Alex was just 16 when he lost his lower leg wakeboarding. He rattled off the date: ”July 25, 2011. Your standard sunny nice day, kind of like it is here today,” he said.
He’d wanted one last run before breaking for lunch. Climbing into the water, there was some miscommunication with the driver, who put the boat in reverse, sucking Alex under. The propeller hit him five times.
In the ambulance ride, Alex asked his mom if he’d lose his leg.
“I told him ‘No no no, that’s not going to happen,’” Wendy said. ”I told him ’It’s all there, I saw it, it’s all there.’ I had faith that wasn’t going to happen. His leg wasn’t intact, but it was all there. I was holding it together, and if you can imagine it was like a scored hot dog. It was cut in five places. If I had let it go, it would have unravelled. It was kind of horrific.”
Over 10 days, four surgeries, and two hospitals — in Barrie, Ont., and Toronto — doctors tried to save his leg, but were finally forced to amputate due to lack of blood flow.
But Alex was far from out of the woods. He endured a laundry list of compilations that read like a season of “ER.” He had a three-inch blood clot in his femoral artery that threatened his life. He suffered infections.
He finally left the hospital just before Thanksgiving, and in December, he was cleared to use a prosthetic leg. Three days later, he fell getting out of the shower, and broke his amputated leg in three places, including two breaks in his femur.
“That actually hurt more than losing my leg,” said Alex, who was forced back into a wheelchair for another four months.
Wendy was Alex’s partner in rehabilitation. She lived at the hospital. When he was moved to the rehab wing, she went home to sleep, but was back every morning by 8 a.m. When he finally came home, the two decided to ditch the snow and ice of the Ontario winter, and headed for their Florida home, a bungalow that was easier for him to negotiate. She got him a recumbent bike. They swam. They golfed.
“I’m proud of him for so many reasons,” said Wendy, dressed in Canadian red and white, including big suede gloves with beaded Maple Leafs. ”People say ‘Oh, you know, good for you.’ I don’t take anything away from him in his recovery and the person that he’s become, and his drive.
“He actually made it easier for us to go through this, because of the amazing attitude that he had. He never really had a bad day. We pinkie swore in the hospital that we would be positive and we would not let anything get us down.”
Alex returned to high school a little over a year after his accident. He spent a year adjusting to his new body, and then tried out for the high school football team.
“He went out to football practice and said by the second down he felt completely himself,” Wendy said. “And partway through the practice the coach came up to him and said ‘Well, when you said you wanted to play football, I thought it was a great idea, I didn’t want to hold you back. But I didn’t know that you could play football.’”
Alex, who’s a burly six foot three and 265 pounds, started every game for the Barrie North Collegiate Sr. Wildcats as an offensive guard.
“When he was in hospital, I starting doing research, and I learned that one of the biggest challenges that faces kids with disabilities is loneliness, and I never wanted him to feel disconnected or lonely,” Wendy said. ”So the best way to make sure you’re not lonely is to get yourself back and doing all the things you want to do. We heartily encouraged him to do everything and anything that he could.”
Massie first took an interest in Paralympic snowboarding when it made its Games debut in 2014 in Sochi. He’s consistently been among the top in the world since 2015, winning bronze at both the world championships and X Games that year. He captured a pair of World Cup bronze medals, and silver at the X Games in 2016. Last year, he was fourth in snowboard cross and sixth in banked slalom at the world championships.
Massie had been gunning for the podium in Pyeongchang. But moments after he was eliminated he flashed his cheering section, including brothers James and Jeffrey (brother Andrew hadn’t made the trip) and dad James a big unshaven grin. He raised his hands in the shape of a W, for the Wu-Tang Clan.
“Any kids out there who are missing a leg or have any form of disability, it just shows you can do anything you want, and it can be pretty fun and pretty gnarly, and you get to travel the world with really cool people and make really cool friends,” said Massie, wiping a meaty hand through his long hair.
Then he departed the media interview area, leaping over four barriers to get to his brothers and dad, who wrapped him up in a huge hug. Alex grabbed a big Canadian flag and waved it wildly for the delighted crowd. Just like a gold medallist would.
“It’s been a pretty crazy journey, but as long as you stay positive good things come. Never get down on it,” Alex said, imparting his philosophy on life. ”My big one I always say to kids is, you know the old thing about how the grass is always greener on the other side. The truth is, the grass is always greener where you water it.
“So if you want to have a good happy life, you’ve got to put in that work, and go out and water your lawn.”
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press