From escaping death to living in a camper, how Casey Andringa became an unlikely Olympian
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Every morning, the skier who was told he might not leave the hospital alive wakes up and finds the newspaper clipping.
"After a winding path of injury and illness, moguls skier Casey Andringa earns Olympic berth," the Park Record headline reads.
"I have to look at that to remind myself that it’s real, that I didn’t dream this," Andringa said.
The 22-year-old from Boulder, Colo., is one of four U.S. male moguls skiers who will compete here, starting with qualifying Thursday night. He is the unlikeliest Olympian of them all, among the biggest surprises on the entire 241-member U.S. Olympic team.
Andringa was 2 years old when Jonny Moseley won the 1998 Olympic moguls with his 360-degree mute grab and 6 when Moseley performed the Dinner Roll in Salt Lake City and hosted Saturday Night Live.
"I watched him at the Olympics and told my parents, 'I want to do that!'" Andringa said.
He has competed at the senior level for nearly seven years but never placed in the top five at a national championships. That winding path of injury and illness has something to do with that (more below).
On May 9, U.S. Ski & Snowboard named the 2017-18 national team in three tiers: The A team had two male moguls skiers. The B team had two more male moguls skiers. The last tier had seven men.
Andringa didn’t make any of them, essentially putting him behind 11 men vying for four Olympic berths to be handed out in January.
He considered quitting. His dad said he would regret it for the rest of his life. So Andringa rededicated himself while spending the summer living on tuna sandwiches in a '90s pop-up camper parked in the woods, wifi-less, with younger brother Jesse, also a moguls skier. Their dad bought it on Craigslist for $2,000. They called it the Viking.
Andringa had one more shot to prove his worth to Olympic team selectors at two lower-level events in Winter Park, Colo., one week before Christmas. Andringa knew that if he performed well, he would be given his first start on the sport’s highest level – the annual World Cup tour – in Deer Valley, Utah, three weeks later.
Not only did Andringa win, he dominated a field that included a few skiers on the 11-man national team. Andringa was given a start in Deer Valley and also in Calgary four days before that.
He finished seventh and fifth against the world’s best mogulists. He was second-best of five Americans in Calgary and second-best of 10 Americans in Deer Valley.
Andringa was named to the Olympic team two weeks later.
"He could be the guy who shows up to the Games, and he doesn’t know what he’s not supposed to do, and he could turn around and be standing on the podium," said U.S. coach Matt Gnoza, who told Andringa in a phone call that he made the team.
"Wow," Andringa replied to Gnoza on that call.
Andringa then phoned his dad.
"He had to pull the car over so he wouldn't crash because he started crying," Andringa said. "Then I started crying, and it was just a whole mess."
When Andringa was 14, he fractured his skull in a longboarding accident in his neighborhood.
“I don’t think he ever went into a coma, but he was basically in a coma, and they didn't know if he was going to walk again," brother Jesse said.
When he was 18, he tore his left meniscus skiing. He tore his right one two years later. Both times, he was on the verge of making the national team.
In between, Andringa spent about eight nights combined in a hospital and clinic in Switzerland as flummoxed German-speaking doctors tried to treat him for a life-threatening head illness.
It all started at a training camp at the base of the Matterhorn in late September 2014. Andringa was with six or seven other skiers from his Vail club preparing for the season.
Early in the trip, teammate Hunter Bailey noticed something.
"His face was f------ like a balloon," Bailey said. "We were having everyone come to our room to make fun of him."
Andringa thought it was just a really bad headache.
"I got sinus infections a lot growing up," he said.
But the left side of his face started to droop, and his left eye was closing shut.
He was rushed to a doctor's office. The rest of the skiers didn't see him again for a week.
"These random things we were hearing like they might have to drill a hole in his skull," Bailey said. "He has meningitis. His mom was coming over. It was f------ grim."
Andringa arrived at the doctor’s office just before it closed. The doctor called an ambulance. Andringa was rushed 30 minutes north to a hospital.
"They did a bunch of CT scans and realized there was a little air bubble on the brain side of the skull," Andringa said, which brought his seven-inch skull fracture from that longboarding accident four years earlier into the picture. If there was an infection, could it easily spread to his brain?
Andringa’s headaches persisted. So bad that he slept maybe two hours the next two or three nights. They wouldn’t give him anything other aspirin in fear that it would mask the symptoms too much to know if he was getting worse.
His phone was out of power with no charger. Andringa lay in bed and counted the dots on the ceiling.
"We just kind of sat back at home and prayed," Jesse said. "I never even talked to Casey at the hospital."
Finally able to sleep, he woke up on the third or fourth day with a 105-degree fever.
"The nurse who didn’t speak English started freaking out," Andringa said. "I was shaking uncontrollably because of how hot I was."
Another ambulance. Andringa was rushed two hours north to the capital of Bern.
That’s when it got really bad. Andringa remembered being in a bright room with German-speaking neurosurgeons prodding his face. He couldn’t understand everything they said, but he knew emergency brain surgery was discussed.
"Finally I had enough of it, and I asked them, am I going to die?" Andringa said. "One of the guys looked at me and said [in a deep accent], 'We do not know.'"
The brain surgery was put off for two days in the hope Andringa would improve. He did. His mom arrived just as he was ready to leave the hospital on antibiotics and an IV.
Andringa learned he had orbital cellulitis, an infection of the eyelid.
"The doctors, if you ask somebody about it, it’s the kind of thing hospitals will see one or two times a year," he said. "They were worried it was turning into meningitis because bacteria was getting towards the brain."
Andringa was finally cleared to fly home. When he arrived at the airport, he saw his Vail teammates waiting for their scheduled flight back to the States from the training camp.
"They were like hey Casey what's up," he said. "To them, I had just gone to the hospital, and they didn’t really know what had happened. But to me, I had like almost died."
Andringa’s plane ticket is somewhere in his room along with that newspaper clipping. He also saved something from his skull fracture, what was left of the skateboarding helmet that exploded but saved his life.
"With all that, I try to focus on the fact that I'm here now and not the fact that it was such an unfortunate time," Andringa said.
Andringa’s skiing helmet has the phrase "Are you afraid?" stickered on it. He takes the helmet off on the chair lift before every run and looks at it.
Andringa said he won’t be allowed to have the sticker on there at the Olympics due to strict apparel rules. He will probably write the phrase on a piece of paper and keep it with him.
It doesn’t remind him of the health scares, but of this past summer, when he thought about quitting the sport at age 21.
"To me it was kind of like are you afraid of this chance that you have?" Andringa said. "Are you afraid to achieve this dream you’ve had your whole life? So it's kind of fired me up a little bit."