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Sibling Rivalry on Skis
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
The Collins brothers are an orthopedic surgeon's dream, and their mother's nightmare.
A compaction fracture of the femur.
A cracked sternum.
And that's just a partial list of the maladies that have befallen Chris, 27, during the brothers' four-year careers as professional "freeskiers."
Sibling rivalry being what it is, Matt, who's 24, can recite his own roster of ailments, including two torn ligaments and three surgeries and all that on only one knee (the right one).
Even as pre-adolescent amateurs the brothers, both Baker City natives, skied along that brink where a ride in the ski patrol's rescue toboggan always lurks just a minor mistake away.
The Collinses, home for Christmas this week, still laugh when they remember the day Matt, then 10, suffered a concussion for the first (but not last) time.
Matt was speeding down the Lower College run at Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort. He turned his head to see if anyone (Chris, maybe) was following him, and before he turned it back he collided with a tree.
"You were out when we got there, but then you woke up and started talking some kind of gibberish," Chris remembers.
"I don't remember anything except riding the toboggan down to the lodge," Matt said.
Although "freeskiing" is difficult to define, if you wanted to explain the sport to the unfamiliar you could do worse than to describe it as skiing in places that almost every skier in the world would deem unskiable.
"We're willing to do stuff that a lot of other skiers aren't willing to do," Matt said.
When the Collins brothers see a cliff that would provoke a carabiner-clanging shudder in many a mountaineer, they smile.
Then they go ski straight off it.
Chris figures the tallest one he ever did was at least 100 vertical feet.
When the brothers see an ice-fringed canyon they wonder just how fast they would have to ski, and just how high they would have to soar, to clear the chasm.
But sometimes fast isn't fast enough, and high is just a tad too low.
What results then are new entries for the catalogues of bodily damage that the Collinses' parents, Linda and Tim, would prefer not to include in the scrapbooks that document their sons' many appearances in skiing magazine photo spreads, their product endorsement deals, and their starring roles in videos.
Waiting is the worst part.
The Collinses never know when they'll next hear from a son who's just been splinted or casted or stitched up.
"It's terrifying," said Linda, who teaches second grade at Brooklyn Elementary. "Sometimes it's so stressful I can hardly believe it."
She ascribes it to mother's intuition that she knew something was wrong when her husband, who has worked as Baker City's attorney since 1973, arrived at Brooklyn on Feb. 26 of this year.
"I knew he hadn't forgotten the check book," she said. "I knew when Tim walked into my classroom that someone was hurt."
"It's a horrible feeling."
The someone that time was Chris.
The day before he had tried to jump across a river near Bella Coola, British Columbia. (A not uncommon thing to attempt if you happen to be a freeskier.)
Because the ground along the river is flat, Chris needed a snowmobile to tow him up to speed before he reached the jump ramp.
Unfortunately for Chris, the snowmobile wasn't moving fast enough when the tow rope slingshot him, water-skiing style, onto the ramp.
He landed short, slamming into a landing ramp that was made of snow with a consistency more like ice than soft powder.
The impact cracked two vertebrae in his lower back.
"I knew right away that I couldn't get up," he said. "I was down, and there's no way I'm moving."
Although Chris spent about a week at a Portland hospital, he actually recovered from the injury sooner than Matt did after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on June 2 at Mount Hood.
Matt, who had suffered that exact injury a couple years before, said he still can't ski without pain although he still hopes to someday eclipse his own record of jumping more than half the length of a football field.
Tim Collins shares his wife's worries about their sons' sometimes harrowing exploits.
But he said his fear is tempered somewhat because he knows his sons, besides being skilled skiers, are also careful or at least as careful as people can be who ski off 100-foot cliffs.
"I'm not terrifically concerned," Tim said. "They don't go into anything lightly, and I think they know what they're doing."
Planning for Injuries
Planning is an important part of every stunt they do, the brothers said.
"We don't just rush into something," Chris said.
But the brothers concede that even under the best of circumstances, and even with a smidgen of luck, freeskiers might as well expect an occasional fracture.
"Injuries are definitely a part of the game," Chris said. "One of us is usually hurt, and sometimes both."
Both Collins brothers are quite familiar with the upstairs couch at their parents' Baker City home.
Each has spent many hours recuperating on its soft cushions.
"Injuries always bring you back home," Chris said. "It's nice to have mom around when you're hurt."
It's nice, too, they admit, to have such big fans supporting them from Baker City.
And Linda and Tim have more than the obvious reasons to be proud of their sons.
It was their parents, after all, who were the boys' first ski instructors. The Collinses taught their sons to ski by guiding the boys down the slopes at Anthony Lakes.
"We thought this would be a fun way to spend time with our family, and it was wonderful," Linda said.
In a brief biography posted on one of the many freeskiing Web sites in which the Collins brothers are featured, Chris recalls that his earliest memory involving snow was skiing between his dad's legs at Anthony Lakes.
Matt, too, remembers riding the chairlift with his parents almost every winter weekend.
"I remember going up all the time from the time I was five or six," Matt said.
Even before the boys were in high school it was clear they would never be satisfied with schussing down the easy slopes with the recreational skiers.
"I can remember them coming home and telling me they'd done their first back flips," Linda said. "It didn't take them long to outgrow our skiing ability."
Tim remembers the day the boys decided it would be fun to jump from the chairlift before it reached the top of the hill.
That stunt earned them a two-week suspension from the slopes.
When the Collinses set up a trampoline in the back yard, barely a day had passed before the brothers, then ages 10 and 13, were performing airborne acrobatics of the sort rarely seen outside a circus big top.
Chris said both the tricks they learned on that trampoline, and all those winter days at Anthony Lakes, prepared the brothers for freeskiing.
Anthony's varied terrain challenges skiers, he said, with plenty of steep terrain and rocks to get big air from.
"I still have a blast there," Chris said. "I'm really glad I grew up here skiing Anthony Lakes. I kind of owe the skier I am today to Anthony Lakes."
But perhaps the biggest benefit to the Collins brothers' budding skiing skills was having each other to compete against.
For Matt, Chris was the big brother he always tried to keep up with.
And for Chris, Matt was the little brother who seemed to ski better every run.
He also was the little brother who did the family's first back flip.
One year while he was in high school, Chris said he gave up skiing for snowboarding, the latest craze.
It was during that year that Matt, who stayed on two boards instead of one, "narrowed the gap," Chris said.
"I can't remember anybody ever pushing me harder than Matt," he said.
In fact, now that both are adults, Chris said he tries to emulate his younger brother's fluid skiing style.
"I feel like he skis smoother than I do," Chris said so smooth that a friend of the brothers nicknamed Matt "Brother Smooth."
"I feel like my skiing is more mechanical," Chris said. "I often try to imitate his style."
Matt, on the other hand, envies his brother's stunt skills.
"He works super hard to learn stuff," Matt said.
For all their years of competing, though, the Collins brothers never allowed their rivalry to foul up their friendship.
It's a relationship both parents are proud of.
"They were always close, and they've always been very supportive of each other," Linda said.
"They've always skied together, and Matt was always trying to do what Chris did," Tim said.
But even with the memories of so many winter weekends on the slopes with her sons, never did Linda imagine they would one day be paid to ski slopes so steep the snow can hardly cling to them, or leap across gaps that might give an eagle vertigo.
"I'm amazed they can do this," Linda said. "It's exciting that they're following their dream together.
"But I'm more proud of who they are as people."