PITTSFIELD, Vt. – With the Green Mountains as their backyard playground and professional ski instructors for parents, the four home-schooled Marshall children grew up as the fastest kids in town, easygoing and friendly while inwardly focused and driven. To many in this tight-knit town of 427, the Marshalls’ berths on the US Ski Team seemed a predestined rite of passage, perhaps even a prelude to Olympic glory.
The ability of middle siblings Cody, 27, and Chelsea, 23, especially stood out. When the two left home to live and train at the national team’s Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah, making it to the 2010 Winter Games together was a dream that crystallized closer to reality with each ski season.
But on the eve of the men’s Alpine team selections for Vancouver, Cody wasn’t skiing with Chelsea in Europe on the competitive World Cup circuit. Cody was home in central Vermont, perched in front of the wood stove with a cup of black coffee, methodically ticking off the list of medical procedures he’s undergone in the past six months.
“Basically, they took my skull and removed it to reduce brain swelling,’’ he said. “I had a splenectomy. I was in an induced coma. I had eight fractured ribs. I had a fever of like 107.8 one night. I remember pieces of it, a very hazy memory. In the hospital, it was a long time before I could grasp what was going on.’’
The severe trauma didn’t come from a racing mishap. On July 15, 2009, Cody was leaving a shopping mall with friends in Park City. He hopped on the handrail of an escalator to slide down. Instead, he lost his balance, toppled backward, and landed headfirst 25 feet below. At first, doctors told Chelsea that Cody might not live. When Cody finally woke up after six weeks, the concern was whether he’d ever be able to walk or talk.
Defying the odds, a half-year later Cody is back on skis. He is grateful to be alive yet impatient to see if he can strengthen his body and mind for a return to world-class competitive skiing.
Chelsea has reached the sport’s most elite level – she was named to the women’s US Olympic ski squad Jan. 26.
“Last summer seems like ages ago,’’ Cody said, losing himself in thought while reconstructing the timeline. “I think a lot of people would say, ‘Ski racer . . . he’s done. Career over.’ I looked at it the way an athlete would look at it. It’s definitely taught me some patience. It’s definitely a life lesson that I got from all this.
“But it certainly isn’t going to stop me.’’
Getting a very early start Route 100 is the main drag in Pittsfield, and the town’s post office/convenience store sits just before the rise where the peaks of Killington, 7 miles south, first come into view. The Pitt Stop is the type of joint where a life-size black bear carving stands sentinel at the front door and snowmobiles idle at the gas pumps. Pat Fuster works the counter, and has known the Marshall family since long before the “Go Cody Go’’ posters and fund-raising canisters went up throughout the village last summer.
“Those kids have skied all their life, and they’re nice kids, every one of ’em,’’ said Fuster. “If there was a patch of snow on the mountain, they were up there.’’
Across the street at the Swiss Farm Inn, the breakfast regulars aren’t shy about chiming in about the town’s first family of skiing. A neighbor, Noel Gluck, put it this way: “To pick up the New York Times and see ‘World Cup, Cody Marshall, Pittsfield, Vermont.’ It’s like the whole town hit the big time.’’
Don Marshall has taught skiing at Killington for 32 years, and his wife, Barb, is an instructor at Sugarbush. Cody’s introduction to the sport was typical for the family: The day after he was born, Don and Barb took him out for a few runs.
“He was up at Killington, and he wasn’t even 24 hours old,’’ said Barb of that November afternoon in 1982. “He was right there against my chest.’’
As they got older, Don recalled how Chelsea “was always keeping up with her brothers.’’ Her motivation? “I didn’t like getting left behind,’’ Chelsea wrote from Europe last week in an e-mail.
In 2003, Jesse (now 29) was the first Marshall to make the US Ski Team. Back surgery ended his career just as Chelsea and Cody were rising to national prominence. Tucker, 19, is an aspiring racer on the New England circuit.
Cody won the NorAm Cup slalom championship in 2007 and 2008, but resented the label “late bloomer.’’ When a previous coach told Cody he had “no faith’’ in him before the 2008-09 season, Cody determinedly had a breakout year, earning his first World Cup points and finishing third in slalom at the US Alpine Championships.
With an eye on Vancouver, Cody and Chelsea were living last summer in Park City, training for the 2009-10 season. Cody has “no recollection’’ of his fateful fall, but teammate T.J. Lanning said that he, Cody, and a few friends went for pizza and beers at the Sidecar, their usual hangout. They weren’t out late because they had to be in the weight room early the next morning.
“It was just such a fluky accident,’’ said Lanning. “I know I’ve slid down that handrail any number of times without even thinking about it.’’
A seemingly endless series of emergency operations drew the Marshall family to Cody’s bedside. “It was just minute to minute if he was even going to make it,’’ Jesse said.
Family members said Chelsea’s devotion was a major factor in Cody’s recovery. “She, out of all of us, was able to push him and get him to do things, motivate him,’’ Barb said.
Chelsea had training in New Zealand scheduled for August and thought seriously about not going.
“I went back and forth for a while deciding what the best decision would be,’’ Chelsea explained. “I talked to his doctors and my family, and I knew that Cody wouldn’t want me to miss my camp.’’
Her decision to push onward came down to the last minute. “I almost missed my plane that day ’cause it was hard saying goodbye,’’ Chelsea wrote.
“Chelsea’s going to the Olympics because of the amount of devotion she’s shown to her sport,’’ Jesse said. “And that same devotion is a large, large reason why Cody has progressed to where he is today.’’
Emotional slope return By Christmas Eve, Cody was ready to try skiing. The previous five months had been a blur – repeatedly ripping out his feeding tube, going for his first walk, with Lanning, being released from the hospital but having to wear a helmet. But now Cody was home in Vermont, and he wanted the entire family to take a run together down Skylark at Killington.
“That was obviously a big day for me,’’ said Cody. “I was kind of worried about it. But as soon as I clicked into my skis and felt snow moving under my feet, I had complete faith.’’
Barb said the run became “a little overwhelming’’ when locals recognized Cody, and the group picked up “quite an entourage’’ of well-wishers. Jesse hadn’t been on skis since his 2006 injury. Chelsea was home on a brief holiday break.
“Cody’s really blown any conventional recovery plan out of the water,’’ said Jesse. “He understands the road in front of him. But at times he gets impatient. Sometimes I have to remind him how far he’s come.’’
Cody said he experiences no lingering pain, but he’s lost 30 pounds and his short-term memory is “a little messed up.’’ Family and friends have launched a website, www.thinkcody.com, to raise funds to defray medical and training costs while giving Cody an outlet to write about his progress.
“It’s a little bit easier for me now because I have very specific goals,’’ Cody said. “I want to get back to ski racing.’’
His status is up in the air for next season’s US Ski Team. “I don’t know what they’ll do with me,’’ he said, noting that funding is tight and competition is fierce.
Cody and Tucker were about to start a late afternoon run at Killington on Jan. 26 when Cody’s cellphone rang with an unexpected call from Europe.
It was Chelsea: She had just been named to the Olympic team, and wanted her brother to be the first to know.
“It’s bittersweet going to the Olympics and not having him compete alongside me,’’ Chelsea wrote. “It would have been a unique experience to share, but I look forward to us both competing in the 2014 Olympic Games.’’
For Cody, 2014 is far off. “I still have a lot of challenges to face before then,’’ he said.
One of them is trying to find a way to get to Vancouver so he can support his sister.
“Chelsea gave up a lot to help me out,’’ said Cody. “She was so selfless in that respect. I want to believe that all the good she did is coming back to her right now.’’