Skier 'Superwoman Sally' of Colorado Springs is back from the brink of death

By Scott Rappold Updated: December 2, 2013 at 3:00 pm • Published: December 2, 2013 | 7:00 am 0

Sally Francklyn stood high on Cody Peak in Wyoming, a lifelong skier at the top of her game, living the dream in her version of paradise, Jackson Hole.

She clicked into her skis and dropped into a strip of rock-lined snow outside the ski area, so steep there's little margin of error if things go wrong.

Things went wrong. She fell and slid nearly 900 feet.

"I had a broken ankle, a broken back, a broken neck, a broken helmet, a broken skull . and I think that's it," recalled Francklyn, 18 months later at her parents' house in Colorado Springs.

The bones have healed, but Francklyn knows she will never be the same. The rocks that stopped her plunge and shattered her helmet also left her with a traumatic brain injury and accompanying symptoms that likely will be with her the rest of her life.

She's only 26.

Sports injuries often are thought of as a hobbled limb or battered back, but what about those that can be more permanent?

Many sports now are looking at the issue of head injuries. But such introspection could be needed nowhere more than snow sports. Traumatic brain injuries are the leading cause of skier deaths.

In Francklyn's case, she is left with difficulty speaking, double vision and balance problems that prevent her from resuming her old life.

But don't pity her. Francklyn nearly died and is now on the mend. This month, she's moving out on her own and getting back to work in the ski industry.

And there's something very important she wants you to know about skiing.

Following her dream

Dream jobs can be tough to find, especially in the ski industry, but Francklyn had one.

"I traveled the world and got to ski," she said, her words slow and tentative, rising and falling in tone as she occasionally struggled to express herself.

Raised on skis at resorts Ski Cooper and Copper Mountain, she graduated from Air Academy High School in 2005 and majored in English at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Skiing was her passion, and she spent 10 years on the ski patrol at Copper Mountain. She wrote articles for ski publications and websites and worked in public relations in the industry. It was the kind of career many 20-somethings would covet.

Skiing Colorado was all well and good, but she was being called north.

The Teton Range of Wyoming, jagged and stunning, is a proving ground in the world of extreme skiing, and Francklyn believed she had the talent, fueled by the confidence of youth, to make it there.

She landed a job at a PR firm and moved there in early 2012.

"Of course we were worried about it, but we had to let her follow her dream," said her father, Reg Francklyn, a photographer in Colorado Springs. "She had a great head on her shoulders and great judgment, but bad things can happen.

"Some things you just can't do anything about."

A 'pretty grim' outlook

Francklyn has told the story many times, but it comes to her second-hand. She doesn't remember anything but the night before she and three friends set out to ski the run known as "Once is Enough."

They took a ski area tram to the top of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort on March 24, 2012, and began hiking. After hiking up Cody Peak, a friend went first and pronounced it skiable. Then Francklyn dropped in and made a couple turns.

Nobody saw what happened next. Maybe she fell out of a ski. Maybe she "lost an edge," skier lingo for when a ski turns sideways and leaves the snow, usually resulting in a fall.

Neither she nor her parents are interested in speculating on the cause. As far as they're concerned, it was an accident.

"There was some reason that I went down. I don't know," she said.

She might have died right there had her friends not stabilized her long enough for a helicopter to arrive.

Her father, a veteran of 30 years with El Paso County Search and Rescue, knew all too well the outlook was not good. Doctors at the hospital in Idaho offered no promises, as she remained in an induced coma to ease the brain bleeding.

"It was pretty grim," he said. "When they have somebody in an induced coma, they've got them under there because they're trying to turn the body's motor as low as it will go, then they try to get the blood out of the brain.

"After that, they take off the anesthetics and turn the lights on to see if anyone's home. A lot of times when they do that, nobody's home."

Shining spirit of a star

When Dr. Glen House, medical director of rehabilitation at Penrose Hospital in Colorado Springs, first met Francklyn, he was not optimistic.

"She had such a severe head injury, she was not even able to respond and acknowledge anybody initially," he said.

Many tense days followed, as doctors and nurses tried to elicit some kind of response, something to show she heard and understood, even as a machine breathed for her.

Raise a finger. Stick out your tongue. Nothing. And then came May 10, 2012.

Said her father: "Finally, one day, she could do it."

House said she was able to differentiate between raising one and two fingers. Once that happened, she was ready for rehab.

Most people cannot imagine what it's like to relearn everything, but Francklyn did. She learned how to raise her head. Then to swallow. Then slowly, painstakingly over months, to walk again, three people helping her take a couple of steps. She would cry and moan through the pain but never quit. She took brain training classes.

While the interconnections of nerves in her brain had been damaged badly, her spirit shone through.

"She has this kind of athletic personality and history, and it really began to kick in," House said. "She was a superstar."

Her friends, from Wyoming to Boulder to Summit County, came in droves, and they coined a nickname for her: "Superwoman Sally."

Physical therapy has allowed her to ride a bike - tandem, with her father - go on walks and even cross-country ski. She hopes to take some downhill runs on the bunny slope this winter. Her physical injuries have healed, and her doctors are amazed at her progress.

"Truly, in our private conversations, I never thought she would be to the point where she is, up on a bike, riding a bike, speaking, writing, to that degree," House said.

"Because she was so severely injured, from where we were starting, it's just been amazing how far she's come."

Finding a new calling

Most patients who leave a hospital after a long stay do so in a wheelchair. Francklyn walked out the doors.

"It felt great to get back on the road to recovery," she said. "Being who I used to be instead of being a handicapped person, it was great for me to be able to do."

But she isn't who she used to be.

She used to be right-handed. Now she is left-handed. She was an accomplished writer, but these days the words don't come so easily, though she still has penned several articles.

"It'll be hard to have the same job I used to have and ski the same stuff I used to. I know that will not happen," she said.

She has found a new calling. She knows she would have died on the rocks had she not been wearing a ski helmet.

Now, every chance she gets, she extols the importance of helmets. Ski industry statistics say one in three skiers and snowboarders don't wear them.

"The reason I was saved during my ski accident is because I was wearing a helmet," she said. "Whenever I see pro skiers not wearing a helmet it makes me really angry, especially when they are sponsored by a company that makes helmets."

The California-based High Fives Foundation, which encourages helmet use, has funded some of her medical expenses and uses her story to demonstrate the importance of helmets.

Francklyn showed no stage fright this fall when she stood in front of hundreds at a ski-movie premiere and spoke about the importance of wearing one. She hopes to do more public speaking on the topic.

"Your head is more than just a brain bucket. A helmet saved my life, and it can save yours, too," she told the crowd, to wild applause.

A positive personality

As she gets better, Francklyn also grows restless.

Going from life at full throttle in ski country, surrounded by friends, to life at her parents' house in Colorado Springs, where she hasn't lived in eight years and knows few people, has been rough.

So she is eager to move on. December will see her return to Boulder, where she still has many friends. She'll be working part-time for a ski manufacturer.

Her parents are wary. But just as they wouldn't stand in the way of her dream to move to Jackson Hole, they won't now.

"I am so excited for her," said Barb Francklyn. "Of course I'm nervous. I'm her mother. That's my job. To be around people her age, her friends, in a place she loves, I think she's just going to blossom there."

Her mother will stay with her for the first month. She also has a roommate.

Said her father: "People with brain injuries, they get fatigued more easily so there are a lot of challenges. But Sally has really impressed a lot of people."

Though communication is sometimes difficult, it's hard to miss the excitement she feels at rejoining her friends.

"What has gotten me through this are my friends and my family. I couldn't have done it without them," she said.

And while her brain is injured, her smile is the same.

"My personality is positive, more positive than negative," she said. "A lot of things are different than they used to be, so I will have to get used to that. But I don't have a negative outlook."

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