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Skier fights back to top after serious concussion

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Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — It's no secret that being a professional athlete takes talent, skill and hard work. But for one Park City freestyle skier, it's more than that — it's a constant drive to succeed even in the face of adversity.

Jay Panther knows what it means to fulfill a life-long dream. He held a coveted position on the U.S. Freestyle Ski Team until a severe concussion sidelined him. Now he's fighting back and inspiring others along the way.

Speeding down the slopes, navigating through a maze of moguls and twisting through the air — it's just another day at the office Panther. But this dream job was almost lost forever.

"It was terrifying to think I might not be able to ski or compete again," said Panther. "But potentially more scary was the thought that I might never be the same again."

Panther's story begins in the snowy landscape of Lake Tahoe. He grew up with the mountains in his backyard.

"They would pick me up from school and I would change in the back of the Subaru while we headed to the mountain," he said.

It was in those mountains that he found his true passion.

"I found out there was a U.S. Ski Team and you could go to the Olympics," Panther said. "I was like, that's what I want to do."

But at 12 years old, his family moved to Louisville.

"When I got there, obviously, there was no snow in Kentucky," he said. "So I focused on other sports."

At 18, Panther earned a full-ride scholarship to Vanderbilt University for baseball. But a late-night talk with his father would change the course of his life.

"It was terrifying to think I might not be able to ski or compete again," said Panther. "But potentially more scary was the thought that I might never be the same again." -Jay Panther, freestyle skier

"You know dad, what would you say if I told you I was going to leave Vanderbilt and go try to be a skier again?" said Panther. "Without even missing a beat, he said, ‘go for it.'"

So he did. Panther left college, returned to the familiar slopes of Tahoe and began training.

"In 2010, I won a U.S. selections event and that won me a U.S. Ski Team spot and World Cup starts," he said. "It was phenomenal. I will never forget that."

But in the fall of 2011, while preparing for a competition, Panther crashed and hit his head hard. He endured crippling headaches and dizziness for months.

A functional MRI revealed a severe concussion.

"The doctors were scared for me," said Panther.

He made the difficult decision to put skiing on hold and focus on his health. His search brought him to Heber City and Dr. John Hatch, a chiropractic neurologist.

"It was a pretty strong case," Hatch said. "I hadn't seen up to that point someone who had vertigo for as long as he had."

Dr. Hatch started Jay on a specialized program to treat his brain injury. The program included hour-long stays in a hyperbaric chamber and daily functional stimulations using light.

"We all receive input from our sight, from our sounds, from our smell — even taste," said Hatch. "Sometimes we can use those stimulatory responses or sounds or light and make changes to even lower back pain, neck pain and in Jay's case, concussion."

Panther said while the techniques were a little unconventional, they worked.

"I laugh and call it voodoo magic because some of it is pretty outside of the box," said Panther.

A follow-up MRI revealed no lingering signs of a concussion.

"The doctors were ecstatic," said Panther. "They had never seen recovery like that and they never would have expected to see that much improvement."

This season, Panther is back in the competition. He won the top prize at the Freestyle North American Cup. When he's not training in Park City, he visits schools throughout the country to share one message.

Never give up on your dreams, he tells students, and persevere through any challenge.

"I think it's good for the kids to hear, and obviously good for me to hear," Panther said. "In all our trials and struggles we are not alone."

Panther competes Saturday in the U.S. Freestyle Championships back home in Lake Tahoe. A win there would earn him a spot back on the U.S. Ski Team, bringing his dream of competing in the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games closer to reality.


Ashley Kewish


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