It is six years since Daniel Albrecht suffered brain trauma on the Kitzbühel downhill
Remarkably, he returned from the injury to the World Cup circuit two years after the event
On the eve of the Kitzbühel downhill, he relives an accident he remembers nothing about
Today, he has his own clothing line and mentor's up-and-coming skiers
Saturday’s downhill at Kitzbühel is the jewel in the World Cup calendar, the winner meriting legendary status in the alpine annals.
Like any budding skier, Daniel Albrecht had always dreamed of triumphing at the foot of Austria’s Hahnenkamm mountain but instead, six years ago, he lay face down on the snow, out cold within meters of the finish line.
Online footage of the crash – memorable to everyone except Albrecht who cannot remember anything from the day before the incident to three weeks hence – is not for the faint-hearted.
At the time, he had been the rising star of Swiss skiing with four World Cup wins to his name and a solitary world title – the 2007 Super Combined. On a training run with the finish line in sight, he approached the final jump.
A minor error on his part – exacerbated by the fact he was traveling at 140 kph (87 mph) – saw his skis flap wildly out of control as he battled to regain his balance for 40 meters in the air before landing heavily on his back.
Albrecht suffered a brain injury and a bruised lung, was airlifted to hospital and placed in a coma for three weeks to give both his brain and lung the best chance of recovery.
“It was a hard time,” he recalls. “You have to learn your name, your age, all this stuff.”
His first memory was of a hospital ceiling and it was three weeks after regaining consciousness that he once again remembered his name and the fact he had been a top skier.
“The last memory I have is from the day before. The feeling was great because the slope was in good shape and I was fast in first training and I was skiing easily. I knew that I was going to be fast in this race. Then, yeah, it was too fast!”
Albrecht is able to laugh as he retells the incident, in part helped by the fact he has no recall of the savage beating he took on the final meters of the Kitzbühel course even after watching it back on a few occasions.
To him, it is as though he is watching someone else’s dramatic and sudden alpine downfall, and without emotion.
“If I watch myself in Kitzbühel then I feel like it wasn’t me because I don’t have any memory of him. I know that he was me, I see that it was me but, for me, it was not a person. I was out of my body.”
In the early weeks of his recovery from his brain trauma he did not have the strength to even feed himself. However, slowly but surely he got up to speed although he admits “I have something [his brain] that doesn’t work so good like before. So I’m always in recovery.”
Today, he gets tired quicker and his temper frays more readily than prior to the accident.
But remarkably, it did not end his career, rather it was a dislocated left kneecap after crashing in another training run at Lake Louise, Canada in November 2012 that finally called time on his professional career on the slopes.
Amazingly, it was just a week after being released from the neurological unit that cared for him that he was back skiing despite the inherent dangers of the sport.
“The first time I was on skis, I thought ‘okay, shit, this is a nice feeling, I wanna go back in the World Cup’,” he recalls. “I got down okay [the first time] but it was not so easy because then when I see I have to make a turn and then the brain had to tell the knee what to do. Everything was in slow motion.”
Slow as the process may have seemed initially, within two years, he was back on the World Cup circuit although not quite the same force he previously was. There were to be no further World Cup wins, not that he minded enormously.
He still recalls the feeling of being in the start gate for that first race back: “It was a great feeling. I was a bit nervous. Then I told me, okay, it’s the first race, just ski easily. Then it was so good, the feeling was so great and I was also fast.”
On his return to the sport, the doctors had warned him he might suffer headaches at altitude. He never did. He was also warned about the perilous nature of another knock to the head.
“Skiing is dangerous and it’s always going to be in a little way dangerous. But if you are a skier, if you are a pro, if you’re the downhill, it’s not so dangerous because you know what you can do, you know how it works and, for us, Kitzbühel, when you ski it’s easy.”
Persuading his family, his wife in particular, of that fact was the harder part but, in the end, they knew they could not stand in the way of his desire and the thing that made him tick as a human being.
The return was relatively short-lived, his knee putting pay to his ambitions to once more get to the very top of the sport. Having his career cut short was hard.
“My body told me that ‘no, it’s over now. You came back, you were in the World Cup again, you did it, you have you’re whole life in front of you’.”
Now, he runs his own clothes line, Albright, and also mentors young skiers giving the 30-year-old a new career in the sport.
Part of him, the racer within, would like to be in that start gate to tackle the slope on which he was lucky to survive. But he’s just happy to have had a second chance at life.