Professional Skier Profile: Speaking with Tanner Hall about his road to redemption
In May of 2009, at the peak of his career, on a film session in the terrain park at Stevens Pass, Washington with TGR, Hall overshot a landing and dropped 40 feet out of the air to flat, demolishing his legs. “It was the equivalent of being smashed in the knees by a car going 45 mph,” says Dr. Vern Cooley, a 20-year veteran of high-profile surgeries (like Tiger Woods’), who performed multiple surgeries on Tanner after the crash.
“I thought I was done, not only done with skiing, done with life. I was at rock bottom,” Tanner recounts. “I felt explosions in my legs. I was thinking the worst. I couldn’t feel anything below my waist. I thought I was paralyzed. I just kept saying, ‘My career is over. My career is over. It’s done.’” After the initial evacuation, despite concerns of blood clots, he was insistent on going back to Park City to see Dr. Cooley, the doctor he trusted. Tanner could not fly, so his friend, TGR filmer Pete O’Brien, drove him, busted and broken, screaming in agonizing pain the 14 hours back to Park City. “It was like a bad dream. Tanner was on a morphine drip and thought he would never be able to ski again,” says O’Brien. The medical assessment was bilateral tibial plateau fractures, both ACLs torn and micro fractures on his right knee—traumatic and seemingly career ending.
Tanner pushed through surgery after surgery and excruciating physical therapy with the goal of getting back on the hill. After his first ACL repair, he had to take painkillers for months to sleep. The pain led to more drugs, and the drugs took over. “It was apparent that I had become a different person. Something was not right,” he says.
It took CR to call him out on his birthday. “You’re not healing. You’re not the same person. Let’s get you healthy buddy,” CR said to Tanner. Embarrassed and tired, Tanner denied having a problem.
Left: Tanner blasting through a line at Retallack Lodge, BC in 2011. Right: Not a future spin, but rather a futurish mid-line 360 during filming for 2011’s Retallack: The Movie at, you guessed it, Retallack BC. Photos by Dave Heath.
But in the face of his best friend’s heartfelt concern, he broke down and finally admitted to CR, “I have a problem… and it sucks.” Getting off the pain pills was like getting hurt all over again. The first day he was off the pills, he remembers, “It felt like I broke my back.” He was irritable and angry. His mother recalls emotionally, “It was really tough to watch my son be a completely different person.”
Skiing, the thing that mattered most to him, was slipping away. He was struggling with severe addiction and crippling pain. “CR really helped him come out of that,” remembers Darla. CR’s own experience with near career ending injuries in 2005 had produced in him a profound ability to share inspiration and wisdom beyond his 24 years.
After CR’s first accident, it was Tanner at CR’s bedside for weeks, waiting for him to emerge from a coma. As CR recovered, he came out with a new, caring attitude. And CR’s outlook helped bring Tanner back to his goals. Johnson reached into the dark places of Tanner’s depression and pulled his friend out of that hole. Tanner got off the pills and began to believe he could come back to skiing. He and CR became even closer. Through traumatic injuries and a roller coaster of emotions, they had proven that they had each other’s back. Tanner was on the road to recovery. He attributes this turn almost completely to CR Johnson.
Left: If you’re going to leg press 540 pounds, hitting this gap-to-wall after the injuries Tanner has endured is a solid argument aginst being labeled a jock. Photo by Rocky Maloney.
Then, brutally and without warning, Tanner’s world crashed again. On February 24, 2010, while abroad on a trip to Jamaica to set up a new business, Tanner received word that his best friend had died while skiing. “I can’t tell you what that did. I just locked myself in the bathroom and cried.” CR had been Tanner’s lifeline when he needed it the most, the person who could reason with Tanner, the person who had saved him. And now he was gone, and it crushed Tanner. Alcohol filled the void. “CR was my savior. He had come out of his coma wise. He came back from that different. He didn’t like drinking and smoking. He treated his friends well. He treated life well. He was helping me with all of that. When he passed away, I just started drinking myself retarded.”
For more than six months, Tanner binged. Even through the making of his life story, Like a Lion. The loss of both skiing and CR pushed him to new lows. Once again, it was those around him who helped. Tanner recalls Eric Iberg drawing a line in the sand one day, “I’m pretty much over watching you kill yourself, man.”
“It was apparent that I had become a different person. Something was not right.”
The words had impact. He stopped drinking. He returned to the gym on his own. Each day he would fight through the pain knowing that one day it would hurt a little less. He was learning patience, mostly because he had no other choice. Dr. Cooley comments, “His ability to recover and stay motivated is remarkable. I’ve never had a patient with this type of injury recover as quickly and as fully as Tanner did. He is in the top one percent of athletes I’ve seen.”
As severe as Tanner’s physical trauma was, CR’s death knocked him down even harder than the crash itself. But he felt it was CR’s presence that drove him to come back. He says, “My best friend is my guardian angel.” And in June 2011, Tanner believes that CR led him to Jess Tidswell at the Center of Excellence in Park City, a meeting that would not only change the course of his recovery but help him see beyond just coming back. Tidswell would help guide Tanner to define his next goal: Sochi 2014.