ASPEN, Colo. (AP) – The surgeon told Christy Wise she would never fly a plane again.
It was a brazen pronouncement that seemed all wrong to the captain, an HC130 Air Force rescue pilot whose day job involved, among other things, missions to Afghanistan and saving people from hurricanes.
Only hours earlier – after the boat had sideswiped her right leg and fled without stopping, after her boyfriend, Tim, had tourniqueted the leg to stanch the bleeding and keep her from dying in the water, after she’d been loaded into the ambulance for her life-saving trip to the hospital – Wise had looked down at her still-attached but mangled and completely numb limb, and thought, “This could take me off the schedule for a while.”
After losing the leg from above the knee, Wise was fitted with a prosthetic. Already fitted with a heart that 99 percent of us could only dream of, she did the work – the endless pushups, the leg lifts, the speed work on her newly fitted leg – so she could run one-and-a-half miles in the required 14 minutes or less. She became the first female Air Force pilot to lose a leg above the knee and return to the cockpit.
The surgeon, it turned out, was wrong. Perhaps had he spoken more with Christy’s twin sister, Jessica, or their younger brother, David, the Olympic-champion freesskier, he would’ve offered a different prognosis. Perhaps he would’ve discovered that this family’s gold-medal moments involve more than merely winning the Olympics.
Not surprisingly, Jessica Wise had a lot in common with her twin sister. Family, skiing and service were among her top priorities. Both sisters wanted to ski in college but didn’t have the times to make it into the few schools offering Division I scholarships, the likes of which often went to Europeans and top Americans, some of whom we’ll see at the upcoming PyeongChang Olympics.
Christy chose Air Force Academy, which, for someone with no genuine interest in flying, was a reach – not only to get in, but to make it all the way through. Jessica calls Christy’s matriculation through the academic side of the Air Force Academy one of her most impressive achievements.
“She was on academic probation at the Academy, but she never gave up,” Jessica said. “It was rigorous there, the academics combined with the training they do. To me, that was most inspiring. Until this.”
Jessica chose College of Idaho. Her penchant for helping people led her on a number of trips to the Dominican Republic and other spots in the Caribbean, where she worked on behalf of the Children of Nations nonprofit organization.
She was in Honduras when the earthquake hit not far away, devastating the impoverished country of Haiti in ways that still leave marks today.
Among the carnage, she saw children who had lost legs and who didn’t have any inkling of what a prosthetic was, let alone the idea they might be able to get one and walk again.
Seeing the need, Jessica focused her efforts into helping kids from these impoverished countries get prosthetics and helping the doctors and hospitals learn how to fit them and teach kids how to use them. It also planted the seed that led her in the direction she wanted to go with her medical degree. Jessica Wise wanted to help amputees.
All that started coming together for Jessica in 2010, five years before her sister’s accident.
The Wise family was a family of skiers, and David Wise, three years younger than his twin sisters, spent the formative part of his childhood chasing them down the ski hill at Alpine Meadows in California.
And yet, David could never seem to take his eye off the halfpipes and jumps and rails and snowboards that were starting to populate his and other mountains in the 1990s.
David’s dad struck a deal with him: Get real good at downhill and you’ll get a shot at the bumps and jumps on the other side of the mountain.
David could win all those speed events, and when he entered the freestyle contests, he finished middle of the pack, at best.
“They kept saying, ‘You’re going to give up the thing you’re good at for the thing you’re not good at?'” Wise said. “But they said ‘OK.’ They just let me be me.”
By the time Christy had her accident while paddleboarding in the Florida panhandle in the spring of 2015, David was already an Olympic gold medalist and a three-time Winter X Games champion. He had connections.
Meanwhile, Christy’s can-do attitude and quick road to recovery made her a star in her Air Force circles.
Jessica, however, was struggling.
The Air Force had let her move to the military hospital in San Antonio to help her sister with her recovery, but in the meantime, Jessica was having trouble finding a match for her residency.
“About the worst thing that can happen to a medical student is to have an MD but not be able to go anywhere because you can’t get a residency,” she said.
David and Christy started working the phones, zeroing in on Mountain View Hospital in Las Vegas. David called, among other people, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval to see if he could pull any strings to get his sister an interview. Christy called doctors and administrators at the hospital telling them they’d be missing out on a good bet if they let Jessica slip through the cracks.
After weeks of hearing nothing, Jessica was on a trip to the Dominican Republic when an email crossed her computer. The docs at Mountain View wanted to interview her the next day. She crossed her fingers that the internet would hold up well enough for her to do the interview. It did. She got the spot.
Once there, she asked the doctors why they gave her a chance.
“They told me, your sister kept calling and she had such a unique story that we had to look at your application,” Jessica said. “It was her calling, and the fact that she just wouldn’t give up, the same way so many people stuck with her when she lost her leg.”
There were many who would argue that even before he got married and had kids, nobody had more talent in the halfpipe than David Wise.
It wasn’t until he married Alexandra and she gave birth to their daughter, Nayeli, that things really started to click. All his biggest victories, starting with the 2012 Winter X Games, have come as a married man.
Four years ago in the mountains above Sochi, David stood at the top of the halfpipe with a heart-shaped rock given to him by Alexandra in his pocket, and peered through snowflakes that were falling as dense and heavy as gumdrops.
At the bottom, dozens of people stood with long sticks, to which there were attached oversized pictures of his 2-year-old daughter, who was too young to make the trip.
That was all Wise needed.
His winning run – right 900, left double cork 1260, right 720, switch left 720, then a right double cork 1260 – was a sublime performance, a laundry list of what was needed to win a gold medal in rough conditions in a sport that was new to the Olympic program.
Afterward, he admitted it: “I can go and ski my heart out, but that doesn’t necessarily define who I am. Being a good husband and father is more important. I can have passion with both things and it provides balance.”
Four years later, David Wise, Family Man, will stand at the top of the halfpipe in the mountains above PyeongChang, going for gold again.
Ten percent of all David’s earnings this season, including at the Olympics, will go to the foundation he and his sisters created in the wake of Christy’s accident: One Leg Up On Life . So, in a way, the stakes couldn’t be much higher.
And yet, he’ll walk away a winner either way.
At the bottom this year, his wife and daughter will be there along with his son, Malachi, who wasn’t born in time to have his picture held up at the last Olympics.
Jessica will be there.
Christy will, too.
“It was actually looking like I wasn’t going to get to go,” she said in an interview last month. “I was an alternate for deployment. But I found out last week that I get to go. I’m excited. I wouldn’t miss it.”