2009 Junior World Freestyle Kayak Champion Jason Craig Injures Spine Running Waterfall, Continues to Heal. Plus: How You Can Help

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On March 20, the paddling world was shocked to learn that 2009 Junior World Freestyle Kayak Champion Jason Craig, 17, suffered a severe spine injury after hitting a rock at the base of a 25-foot waterfall on Dry Creek near Marysville, Calif. The efforts of his kayaking friends saved him…

After undergoing six hours of surgery at Sutter Roseville Medical Center in Roseville, Calif., he was accepted into a specialty rehab program for spinal cord injuries at Shriners Hospital for Children in Sacramento, where he is expected to remain in rehab for at least a month. But that is good news. “He has paralysis, but not permanent, for his legs and arms,” his other, Karen, told reporter Bob Brundage of RGJ. “He’s bound up in a corset and uses a walker, but he’s walking. They want him back on his feet to make sure that all those muscles and nerves are working. Frankly, the fact that he’s alive at all … is a miracle.”

Kayaking since he was 10, Craig, who paddles for Jackson Kayak, has quickly become a front-runner in the world of freestyle kayaking, going head-to-head with Dane Jackson at almost every junior event in the world (including the past two Paddling Life Invitational events).

He became the Junior World Freestyle Kayak Champion in 2009.
Craig’s accident occurred when he his kayak struck a submerged rock at the bottom of the drop, after his partners had all landed in nearly the same spot. “I went in the same spot pretty much as the two people who went before me,” he says. “I just happened to hit a rock. I wanted to go farther right, but got pushed left and boofed.”

X-rays and CT scans showed a separated pelvis at the base of his spine and a ripped membranous sac that encases the spinal cord within the bony structure of the vertebral column.

“The doctors had to figure out how to get his nerves to work, keep him walking and keep him feeling, and rebuild a structure that was strong enough to hold the kid together,” said Karen, crediting the doctors’ work.

“I ran the waterfall and took a really big hit when I went under,” Jason told Brundage. “I might have gone unconscious, I’m not really sure. The next thing I remember I was out of my kayak and underwater. I tried to move my legs and couldn’t, and I tried to swim. That was pretty scary being underwater and not being able to move. Eventually I popped up by a rock and grabbed on and held on for awhile trying to move my legs. I couldn’t pull myself up. Every time I did it was super, intense pain, and I shook my head and told the guys I couldn’t get up. The guys paddled over and pulled me onto the shore.”

On shore, the kayakers evaluated Jason’s condition to see if he’d broken his back.

“I could wiggle my toes,” Jason said. “That was a pretty amazing feeling. I was pretty scared that I had paralyzed myself.”

“All the rivers are flooding so this was a rare occasion to get on this particular river,” said kayaker Cody Howard. “We brought out quite a bit of safety gear so we could complete these rivers as safe as possible.”

Kayaker Darrin McQuoid of Davis, Calif., used a spot emergency radio to call for medical help. A helicopter arrived, but couldn’t land so the five kayakers with Jason and one emergency medical responder got him out on a spine board.

“They had to haul him up a cliff, over rocks, down a cliff, across a river and out of a canyon,” Karen said. “He was in shock, and he was hypothermic. It took them between four and five hours to get him to the road.”

Howard, who was taking video of the runs from below the waterfall, knew Jason was in trouble as soon as he hit bottom.

“Right when he landed I said ‘uh-oh,’ because it was a audible impact, just a loud crushing sound from his boat landing on this outcropping at the base of the waterfall,” Howard said. “It was almost immediate. The telltale signs of carnage were there — an upside down boat and a kayaker not emerging. Jason’s a world-champion kayaker and when he wasn’t trying to roll it was pretty obvious he was in some pain.”

Craig was taken to a hospital in Marysville, but immediately was transferred to a level-one trauma unit in Roseville. He is facing a long recovery and substantial medical bills.

“His wonderful group of friends have brought in his kayak sponsors and friends from around the world, and everyone is putting on fundraisers at different kayak festivals,” Karen said.

Information about his injuries and updates on his condition also are posted on the recovery fund Facebook page. The injury will keep Jason from defending his world championship in June in Germany, but he plans to eventually get be back on the water again.

“I’m staying very positive and I’m very excited to go to rehab,” Jason said. “I’m excited to get back at it when I’m recovered and when I’m strong again. I can’t wait to go kayaking, I can’t wait to go rock climbing, I can’t wait to spend time with my friends, go to college.”

Jason Craig Website: www.jasoncraigkayak.com
Recovery fund:

A special account has been established to support Jason Craig’s recovery from his accident. This fund will be administered by Education Design Group. All donations will support medical costs, family travel and rehab expenses. Direct deposits can be made to 121000248 8124276364. Checks and money orders can be sent to the Jason Craig Fund, c/o 250 Bell St., Reno, NV 89509. You also can use the PayPal account at the Facebook page: Jason Craig Recovery Fund.