My accident was the best thing that has ever happened to me
By Tola Fisher
Matt Masson is a passionate skier who was so severely injured in an accident in 2010 that he had to relearn how to walk, talk and ski. In his inspiring story, Matt says his accident has been pivotal in leading him to achieve what he could only dream of pre-injury.
Skiing is a dangerous sport, and freeriding the extreme version of an already death-defying activity. A style of snowboarding or skiing performed on natural, ungroomed terrain without a set course, goals or rules, freeriding was a rebellion against the traditional highly regimented style of skiing in the sport’s early years.
Travelling to Switzerland for the Freeride World Tour (FWT) earlier this year was a chance to witness the athletes of this incredibly challenging sport in which the best snowboarders and skiers compete in the most renowned ski resorts across the world. Naturally, I was wowed by the flips and jumps of the masters of this sport but I was equally amazed by its fans, one of whom is 32-year-old Matt Masson.
Matt was born to British parents but his father’s work had taken them to live in Hampshire, Paris and Düsseldorf before moving to Geneva when Matt was eight, and it was there that he first learned to ski. He quickly became obsessed with the sport and he and his older brother Tim soon progressed to ski parks and off-piste skiing.
They moved back to England when Matt was 15 but he continued pursuing the sport he had fallen in love with and in time, qualified as a ski instructor. At 18 he followed his peers to university, choosing to study leisure marketing at Bournemouth but left after a year to live the enviable instagram-worthy life of a seasonnaire.
While qualified to instruct skiing, Matt worked in bars in the winter and taught sailing and windsurfing in France, Canada and Greece and had just returned from working in Australia when he came back to London to visit some friends.
At 23, Matt was living a charmed life of a man who has everything he wants at his fingertips. He was travelling the world doing what he loved with a youthful energy of someone of his age, and then he fell – literally. It’s surprising, given the nature of his favourite sport, that his accident actually happened completely away from the mountains. Matt was at (now defunct) Proud nightclub in Camden in 2010 when a night fuelled with alcohol and bravado led to him attempting to prove his ability with a girl he had just met by hopping over a fence and falling through a corrugated-plastic roof outside the club. His stunt had him plunging three floors down, landing on his head and knocked out cold.
When London’s air ambulance reached him, Matt was deeply unconscious, and his airways were partially blocked with limited breathing. His condition was so severe that they gave him a general anaesthetic right there in the car as they tried desperately to stabilise him. Within an hour of his accident, he was at the London Royal Hospital fighting for his life. This was November, and with his parents now living miles away in Chichester, all they were thinking about was getting Christmas ready for the family when they awoke to more than 30 missed calls, all from the early hours of the morning and messages to say that their son had been taken to hospital.
Matt suffered a traumatic brain injury and scans revealed his brain was a bruised and bloody mess. After two weeks in intensive care, while waiting for brain pressures to settle down, he was moved to a high dependency unit while everyone waited to see if he would ever wake up. Matt’s mum, Anne, says, “I can just remember the extreme anxiety, with each day a seemingly endless wait as we hoped for better news. All we knew was that he might wake up or he might not, but we kept hoping until the day that he finally did wake up, and it all got a lot better then.”
Although no one can prove it, Anne says she believes part of Matt’s recovery was down to his passion for skiing. It wasn’t until one of his friends played him his favourite ski film, Claim (2008), that he started to show signs of waking up. Matt was then allowed to move to a hospital in Chichester nearer his parents, and when he spoke, one of the first things he said was, “I want to ski!”
Matt went on to rewatch hundreds of ski films with freeriders doing tricks and flips all over the mountains. A friend contacted one of his favourite freestyle skiers, Jacob Wester, who sent a signed photo to his bedridden fan. At that point, Matt was not retaining enough memory to remember who was visiting him, but he was so proud of the gift from his hero that he showed it to anyone and everyone multiple times as he continued to be encouraged to recovery.
Driven not only by the desired to ski again, Matt also watched Cool Runnings (1994) about ten times a day! He was inspired by the overcoming of adversity displayed by the Jamaican bobsleigh team. He says he was never worried about not recovering, choosing to adopt the philosophy of pioneering freeskier C.R. Johnson who suffered a brain injury while filming in 2005. C.R. spent a month in hospital with two weeks in an induced coma, entirely paralysed except for his eyes. C.R. had to relearn how to use his vocal cords, his arms, his legs; everything. He had been one of the best skiers in the world, overly confident in skiing and in himself. A freak accident stopped that but he refused to let it get in the way of his stride. Unfortunately, C.R. later died in another accident but Matt claims C.R. and his words played a key part in helping Matt back on his skis.
Eight weeks after the accident, Matt could barely roll over in bed and couldn’t even hold his head up when he began working with physiotherapist Lisa Featherstone and asked if she thought he would ever ski again. In the video account of his accident and recovery,* Lisa admits that when he asked she told him she didn’t know but internally she thought it unlikely.
Undeterred and discovering that she knew a ski instructor, a year after his accident Matt convinced Lisa and her friend to take him to the indoor centre at Milton Keynes where he went up and down the beginner slopes for about an hour while they skied beside him. It was then that everyone realised that Matt was going to get back on his skis whether they liked it or not. Sure enough, determined to get back on actual snow, Matt returned to the instructor who taught him when he was just a kid, 20 years earlier. Magali Devouassoux was initially afraid that getting him back onto slopes would send him back to hospital, but after some time taking him back to the beginning, she said he was better skiing than walking.
In 2011, Matt finally met his long-time hero, Jacob Wester, when he was still using a walking frame, and he shared with him his wish to do something he had never mastered before, a backflip. After his recovery, Jacob agreed to teach him and together went to a jump with an airbag to land on rather than the snow, since no one was in a hurry for him to spend another six months bedridden. This attempt ended in an admirable half-turn that most able-bodied people would fail to do, but Matt is determined to one day finish what he started there.
As he continued his mission to get back onto the slopes, Matt sought out other goals which led to him walking 300m carrying the Olympic Torch in July 2012 and walking the Amsterdam Marathon in 2014 – it took him just over nine-and-a-half hours and he raised £12,000 for the High Fives Foundation. High Fives is a non-profit organisation supporting the dreams of outdoor sports athletes by raising injury prevention awareness, based in California founded by Roy Tuscany, a former professional freeskier who broke his back in 2006. Matt went on to do an internship with High Fives in 2017, celebrating his 30th birthday while staying with C.R.’s sister Khalil who presented him with a jacket C.R. had started for his clothing line but died before he could finish. Khalil finished it herself, on C.R.’s old sewing machine, and said that C.R. would have been proud to have been Matt’s mentor.
Just five years after his accident, Matt enrolled in university at Southampton in 2015 to study sports journalism in order to stay in the environment since he was no longer able to teach, and he graduated in May 2018. Matt now holds the unique title of freelance freestyle ski journalist with close connections to freeskiers all over the world. Friends with FWT title holders Markus Eder and Arianna Tricomi, they seem as much his fans as he theirs with his boyish starstruck demeanour making him an endlessly positive and respectful journalist, incredibly knowledgeable in his craft.
Ten years ago, Matt was living a wonderful life until disaster struck, but as he turns 32 he says, “I still ski better than I can walk, but my mum actually said the other morning that I’ve always been lucky. Yes, I had a pretty tough accident but it turned out to be the best thing that has ever happened to me, thanks to organisations like FWT, and publications like Newschoolers and Fall-Line I’ve met all my heroes and been closer to the sport than ever before. It will take more than a coma to wipe this smile off my face.”
*Skiing before he could walk is Matt’s account of his journey from accident to recovery:
Matt currently works for freestyle ski website Newschoolers.com and provided the digital footage for FWT during the final leg in Verbier in 2019. Find out more about Matt at TheWobblyJourno.com