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Should skiers wear helmets? Ask Becci Nealy

by Chuck Smock

Another head injury suffered on the ski slopes has people talking about the importance of wearing helmets while skiing and snowboarding.

This time, however, the injured person wasn’t a politician or celebrity. She is a Douglas County student-athlete.

Becci Nealy, a Carson Valley Middle School freshman who played for the Douglas High junior varsity soccer team last fall, is recovering from a serious head injury she suffered in a snowboarding accident Sunday at Heavenly.

Nealy, 15, underwent 2-1/2 hours of emergency surgery Sunday to remove a blood clot between her brain and her skull and to secure bone fragments in her skull with two titanium plates. She was moved out of the intensive care unit Wednesday and was expected to be released from Washoe Medical Center today.

Nealy had several friends visiting in her private room Thursday night. She said doesn’t remember anything about the accident.

– No helmet. She was not wearing a helmet at the time.

“A lot of stuff was closed so we hiked over to the Stagecoach Chair,” Nealy said. “My friends said they saw me fall once, and then they saw me fall again. I probably hit my head on a rock.”

Pat Nealy, Becci’s father, said his daughter’s friends found her lying face down in a pool of blood.

Because CareFlight helicopters were grounded by high winds, Nealy was flown to Reno in a fixed-wing air ambulance, her father said. She then was taken by ambulance to Washoe Medical Center, where she has made remarkable progress.

“Her doctors think it’s amazing she’s recovering as fast as she has,” Pat Nealy said Thursday night.

He added that his daughter can’t hear out of her left ear, which is just below where the trauma occurred. She was scheduled to see a hearing specialist Friday.

“She is also having some short-term memory loss,” he said. “The doctors think that will clear up, but they’re not sure how long it will take. And she’s experiencing some headaches. The doctors said those could last a year or more.”

Nealy said she had thought about buying a helmet earlier in the season, but never did.

“I’m definitely going to get one…if my parents ever let me go snowboarding again,” she said with a laugh.

– More sales. Adam Finch has worked at Nevada Sport Co. in Gardnerville for two years. He said the store has experienced an increase in sales of helmets so far this season, mostly from parents buying helmets for their young children.

Finch estimated the store sold 100 helmets last season. He said it has already sold about 70 helmets this season and expects to sell several dozen more before the season ends.

Nevada Sport Co. offers two brands of helmets that range from $70 to $150.

Finch, 19, whose sister Arielle is good friends with Nealy, joined nearly a dozen of Nealy’s friends at the hospital Sunday night after the accident.

He said seeing and hearing about accidents and injuries that could have been prevented by wearing helmets may be the only way to convince some people of the importance of the protective headgear.

“I do think it’s going to take things like this, but it’s too bad,” Finch said. “Helmets make skiing and snowboarding safer, especially in a year like this year when there is a lot of hard-packed snow and obstacles showing through.”

Finch added that helmets should be worn even on powder days, when collisions with other skiers or trees are still very real possibilities.

The skiing deaths of Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono last winter caused helmet sales to skyrocket.

Nationwide, Americans purchased 242,632 ski and snowboard helmets last season, more than a 200 percent increase over the previous season. Ski and snowboard helmet sales totaled $24.7 million, a significant jump from sales of $7.4 million last year.

”Sales for January (1998) surpassed the entire 1996/97 season,” said Ali Zacaroli, spokeswoman for SnowSport Industries America, which tracks ski and snowboard equipment sales.

Zacaroli said the Kennedy and Bono deaths created more awareness about the helmet issue.

”I think it sort of got people thinking,” Zacaroli said.

n Strap it on. And, at resorts all around Lake Tahoe, it got more than a few to strap on helmets.

“Just being on the mountain, we have noticed an increase in people wearing helmets,” said Erin Bernall, public relations manager for Northstar-at-Tahoe. “And it ranges from little kids all the way up to senior citizens.”

Northstar requires all of the racers on its ski and snowboard teams to wear helmets when they’re on the mountain. Also, all competitors in races and other special events at Northstar must wear helmets.

There are no helmet regulations for the general public at Northstar, which rents helmets for $5 for a full day. The resort also sells helmets in its retail shop.

While Bernall said it is encouraging to see more young kids and older skiers wearing helmets, she’s afraid that the age group that probably needs helmets the most may be the last to accept them.

“I think the teen-age group is going to be a tough group to convince,” she said. “But, in so many of the contests they go to and the contests they watch, all the athletes are required to wear helmets. They’re seeing their role models in helmets, so hopefully they’ll realize it’s a good idea.”

n Scripps Howard News Service contributed to this story.

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