When David Schlicht completed an aerial ski jump at the Park City Utah Olympic Park a year and a half ago, his aspirations were as high as the air he caught on the cork 720 trick he landed.
A spot on a future World Cup or U.S. Olympic team was not out the realm for the then 15-year-old, a skier since his toddler years who had been racking up accolades as a slopestyle skier with his inspiring jumps and difficult terrain park challenges. The Steamboat Springs teenager lived part time with a host family in Summit County so he could be a member of its ski team and train at Copper Mountain’s terrain park.
“I loved the thrill of it, and I really liked the jumps.”
But on June 20, 2021, after years of practice and thousands of ski runs, it wasn’t a nail-biter jump that would change his life, but what would happen in the few terrifying moments after he completed it.
That afternoon, David took off from the Utah practice slope made of artificial snow and splashed down from his high-flying aerial onto the mountain-sized inflatable airbag skiers use in the summer while they train. For the jump, he extended himself upward as well as vertically, all the while rotating his body twice for a total of 720 degrees in the air before returning to earth.
As he took off his skis and began walking off the puffy bag, he remembers the wind picking up and then, within seconds, being violently flung through the air. As his coach, teammates and spectators watched in horror, the bag came loose from the anchors tethering it to the ground. Like the sail of a boat, it gathered ferocious momentum in the wind and scooped up David with tremendous force as it flipped in the air. Still wearing his boots, he plunged 60 feet onto hard ground and rocks, with the bag landing on top of him.
“I started screaming and yelling, and I began trying to crawl my way out. I crawled myself to the edge, and then they lifted up the air bag and pulled me out.”
Facing the severity of injury to his legs below the knee
While their son’s accident was unfolding, David’s parents Hal and Suzanne Schlicht, were in Steamboat Springs. His mother, senior vice president and sales director at Alpine Mountain Ranch & Club, recalls getting a call from David’s coach, who was with him while medics prepared him for the ambulance ride to Salt Lake City Primary Children’s Hospital.
As his parents awaited more news, neither could have realized the extent of his injuries until a nurse called soon with an alarming update: “She said, ‘Your son is not going anywhere – he’s experienced serious trauma,’” Suzanne remembered.
While she immediately started the drive to Salt Lake City, Hal, a business owner, stayed in Steamboat, cell phone in hand, to provide the hospital with needed consent for medical procedures.
David’s accident was serious and complicated: extensive injuries and fractures in both heels and his left ankle, tibia and fibula; deep wounds, lumbar fractures and fracture blisters covering his lower extremities; he needed a blood transfusion and was in intensive care and the neuro-trauma unit for 10 days. Surgeons performed fasciotomies on both sides of David’s left calf to relieve swelling and pressure – a procedure in which his muscle sac was cut from his ankle to his knee. He also needed external fixators, or hardware, on both shins and heels to keep those areas temporarily intact in anticipation of future surgery.
Surgeons in Utah ultimately closed both sides of the fasciotomies in his left leg but told him he would likely suffer permanent muscle damage and diminished range of motion. His right heel particularly was in very bad shape. It was missing a massive amount of tissue and skin and was badly blistered.
Back home to family and friends, and more surgery
Foreseeing a long road ahead that included surgeries and rehab, the family decided to head back to Colorado and to UCHealth for its high-quality medical staff and limb restoration program led by Dr. Jason Stoneback. After a painful drive back to Steamboat where David stretched out in the back of the family car, he arrived home to a newly built wheelchair ramp a friend of the family had constructed, along with a first-floor bed, where he spent his first couple of days out of the hospital.
But the reprieve was short-lived. A few days later, David was in Denver for an outpatient visit when doctors said he needed to go to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital at the Anschutz Medical Campus for wound care. It would become their home away from home for the next 20 days, as medical staff would tend to his two shattered heels and a left pilon fracture, which is a break of the shinbone near the ankle.
When Dr. Nicholas Alfonso, a UCHealth orthopedic surgeon, met David the next morning, he was blunt: “Any one of these injuries is life-changing, but you have three,” he told him.
The family remembers that moment, and while they were alarmed by the frankness of his statement, Alfonso’s honesty helped forge a relationship that would take them through dark moments.
“That bond of trust was incredible because we knew he was always shooting straight with us,” Suzanne said.
For Alfonso, he had to balance the need to communicate the severity of David’s injuries against the desire to instill optimism in his patient.
“Especially with a young person, it’s a very delicate situation. I must be realistic, but I don’t want to devastate this young man. He needs some hope, as the situation he was facing can be overwhelming and hard on the psyche,” said Alfonso, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
On July 13 — David’s 16th birthday — he had pilon surgery to reconstruct his left ankle.
“I like to say Dr. Alfonso gave me a brand-new ankle for my birthday.” David said with a laugh.
Next came both heel surgeries, after which the family returned to Steamboat, David in a wheelchair.
A difficult and extremely important decision for David
But a month later, they found themselves back in Denver as UCHealth providers tried to stem growing infections in his right heel. Medical staff performed wound debridement (removing dead tissue), and David had nine surgeries, including one that removed all the hardware in his right foot in a continuing effort to save it.
“It was weird. At that point, I could feel it hadn’t healed,” David said. “I wasn’t feeling good, and it was a pretty bad time. I wasn’t happy to be there. I couldn’t get out of the hospital bed at all. I couldn’t really do anything. I was just stuck there.”
His doctors discussed the possibility of a skin graft from his upper thigh, along with a blood vessel, to replace the absence of skin and tissue in his right heel. But the option of amputation began to be part of the discussion. The Schlichts — David most of all — were faced with making a harrowing pro-con list on whether to continue the medical fight for his leg … or amputate it.
“It was horrible. It was horrible to be sitting in his hospital room for days and days, and the news kept getting worse and not better. You want to talk to your son about the positive things, and there’s not a lot of positive,’’ Suzanne said.
When discussing his ordeal, David, now 17, is candid, quietly confident and composed. He has a wide and frequent smile, blond hair poking out from his cap, and manages to grin even when talking about his lowest moments during the past year.
He said he came to realize that without the amputation, he was looking at a future filled with more operations, more chance of infections and more pain, coupled with less mobility, less freedom and less opportunity for him to lead the life he had dreamed of.
“I ultimately decided I would like to continue doing what I love to do: going on seven- and eight-mile hikes, skiing, fishing, and being outdoors. So, I decided I wanted to get an amputation.”
In September 2021, David had a below-knee amputation of his right foot. Three days later, he had TMR surgery (Targeted Muscle Reinnervation to reduce the chance of phantom limb pain) and three days after that, he left UCHealth for what he hoped was the last time.
His older sister Allison talked about his optimism, never flagging even through the long hospital stays when he made jokes with the staff and asked for a wheelchair that “didn’t look dorky.”
“He was the coolest kid before this, and he’s still the coolest kid,” she said.
Walking high school halls…and life with his prosthetic
After his amputation, David learned to navigate the halls of Steamboat Springs High School, first in a wheelchair, then crutches, and finally, in a prosthetic that came in time for Christmas. He conquered the new hardware attached to his leg with the same resolve that he used to land his gravity-defying ski tricks. His new limb is lightweight and made of carbon fiber, and includes a socket, a pylon and a foot that attaches to his leg, about six inches below his knee.
When he stood on his feet for the first time – unassisted and without crutches – it was a bittersweet moment.
“It was a little weird, but it was pretty cool because I hadn’t stood up on my feet for so long. I had been in a wheelchair, and then crutches since June, so it felt great to be in a prosthetic.” He pauses for a moment and then adds, “Yeah, it was a great feeling.”
A few months later, he was back on skis — his dad had already bought his IKON ski pass. He didn’t want it to go to waste, so he returned to the mountains at Steamboat that he knew so well. He was relaxed and in control cruising down the runs.
That was a year ago: David is now midway through his senior year of high school which is “going great”, and his second winter on skis since the accident.
He has his driver’s license, and a Ford F250 Super Duty truck, a reliable companion for all his outdoor pursuits. And the list is long: archery, elk and duck hunting, fishing, skiing, snowmobiling, water skiing, hiking and dirt biking, all of which he accomplished since leaving the hospital.
He completed regular physical therapy last year but occasionally sees a physical therapist for tissue massage, range of motion and gait training. He has significantly increased the range of motion in his left foot and ankle to near normal. This can be attributed to additional “hardware surgery” Alfonso performed last summer on David’s ankle. And much of the credit goes to David himself and his dedication to returning to high physical activity, supported by weight training and cardio exercise five days a week at the gym.
He reflects on the past year and a half but is not one to curse his fate or second-guess events that caused the loss of part of his leg.
“It happened. There’s no reason for me to be sad about it.”
Facing the future with high hopes
Besides, he’s got too much to look forward to. That includes a “really cool” new prosthetic BioDapt foot specifically for skiing and high-impact sports that gives him more control down the slopes. Configured with a shock system like a mountain bike, the design allows it to efficiently absorb bumps and jumps through the toe and heel. While aerials likely won’t be in his future, David has returned to rails and uses the specialized foot to snowmobile, ride his dirt bike and waterski.
“The new ski foot is great! It has been a huge help in improving my skiing. I have also been using it for snowmobiling all winter,” he said.
And there’s college. He plans to pursue a business degree and become an entrepreneur. His dad can see him operating his own outdoor company as a fishing and hunting guide. David has been accepted at all seven colleges where he’s applied; all are in the West with an abundance of recreational activities, and located in small, tight-knit communities that emulate his hometown of Steamboat Springs.
“He’s very confident. He’s very capable. He’s very sure of himself. He has an innate resilience. As parents, we rarely get to see our children’s reaction to adversity, and I’m thankful to be seeing it now,” Hal said.
David’s easy-going demeanor belies his discipline, determination and drive, attributes that made him a top skier and have allowed him to conquer new challenges with both grit and grace without ever leaving the ground.
“I’ve done everything I wanted to do,” he said. “I can’t think of anything I haven’t done or tried. Having aspirations really got me better and pushed me to get better on my prosthetic. I’m going to stay in the West, stay in the mountains and keep doing the things I love.”