If you haven’t heard of Philipp Schonger, you haven’t been paying attention! After all, he isn’t just a local legend in the US kiting scene, or the highest jumper in the Columbia River Gorge. Philipp, at age 43, is so good at his craft that he has earned his place as a member of the Naish International Team! However, being a big air superstar is a perilous pursuit. If you read the No Pain, No Gain? article in the latest issue of IKSURFMAG, you’ll have heard a bit about what happened to Philipp just a few short months ago. Ready to find out the whole story? Read on for the full interview!
Being at a high level in any sport comes with significant risk; kiting is no different. Is this something you’re always conscious of?
I am definitely aware that kiting has a high risk for injury especially when you seek out extreme conditions that push your limits. In general if you only like cruising in light to medium wind (< 25 kts IMO) on your twintip or hydrofoil, risk for getting hurt is relatively low, but it’s still present. My friends and I are Big Air Kiters and we are always looking for the windiest places in the Pacific Northwest (or around the world like Penghu, Taiwan or Cape Town, South Africa) to beat our personal best for highest jumps. Combined with executing tricks at extreme heights and or pulling megaloops comes with an extra set of risks for injury.
Do you accept potential injury as a side-effect of kiting?
I have always accepted that potential injury is a side-effect of kiting. In fact, every time I come off the water without any injury, I say a silent “Thank you” to nature and never take it for granted that I didn’t get hurt. I accept the risk because I love the sport. It’s my passion. I never thought I would have the type of injury I sustained though. I always thought it would be a broken leg, knee or another broken rib, but not a ruptured intestine that could have killed me.
You had an extremely rare, but serious injury in Hood River recently. What happened?
I had a life-threating injury as a result of a failed megaloop that slammed me into the water followed by several violent cartwheels at the end of last summer in Hood River, Oregon. I was riding with my friend Darren Lee near Wells Island, about 1.3 miles upwind of the Hood River Event Site, in 35kts+. It was a strong, gusty and choppy day. A combination of things went wrong, including not having a clean take off, pulling the loop too early, and catching a strong gust I didn’t expect. After the extremely hard impact and barely being able to breath I knew right away something was wrong with me. All I could think of was trying to get back to shore asap and rip off the harness from around my waist as the pressure was unbearable. I relaunched my kite in agony while Darren retrieved my board and hat. Then the painful journey back to the launch began. I powered up the kite just to go about 100ft before getting out of breath, managing the pain in my abdomen, and doing it again and again until I made it to the beach where luckily someone was ready to land my kite. I ripped off the harness from my body and finally collapsed on the sand.
After about 10 minutes of rest on the sandbar trying to assess what just happened, I gathered up my remaining energy, left all my gear on the beach, and slowly made my way up to my car. I figured sitting down for a while to rest, drinking some water and maybe eating something would probably allow me to shake off the hard hit. It wouldn’t be the first time I experienced a hard crash, little did I know at that time that it would be a life threatening injury. I remained seated in my car of 1 hour, 2 then 3 hours before I finally asked a friend to please take me to the emergency room at the Hood River Memorial Hospital as my condition hadn’t improved.
After about 2+ hours of X-rays, CT Scans, IVs and morphine at the ER I was discharged with a potential concussion and abdominal contusion. Nothing appeared to be wrong with my head, chest, lungs, but my abdomen was quite swollen and painful still. It was recommended to take some over-the-counter pain meds (Tylenol) as needed, get some rest due to the potential for a concussion, and do some light stretching as possible. With that relatively good news in mind I was relieved nothing worse was wrong. My friend Doug picked me up from the hospital and drove me to where I was staying in the area. Not being able to move around much I spent the next 2 nights and day in bed, being optimistic that I would start feeling better soon. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. On Monday morning I decided to drive back home to Seattle as my condition wasn’t improving by much and I wouldn’t be able got go kiting anyways. I dragged myself into the car to drive the typical 3.5 hrs drive from Hood River, OR to Seattle, WA. It took me 6 hrs though since I had to keep stopping and resting due to the pain.
Once home, all I wanted to do was lay in bed and not move. In the late afternoon I went to see my acupuncturist thinking that he might be able to help with some of the pain and swelling in my abdomen. When I started to vomit the following day I set up a video appointment with my primary care doctor. They asked me to come in the same day to evaluate me in person. My wife took me to the urgent care and explained what had happened and how I had felt the last few days including that I had continuing abdominal pain and had started to vomit. The doctor gave me some stronger pain medications as well as recommended a laxative to relieve the pressure in my abdomen, assuming I was constipated and therefore so bloated. When I got home later that day I rested in bed for a bit before vomiting violently into the hallway. I cleaned up the mess, took a shower felt a little better, but not much. Back in bed I figured I needed more rest and tried to sleep before a full on repeat: vomiting violently, cleaning up, showering and feeling a little better. The next morning my wife came in and looked at me: “You look like you’re dying! I am taking you to the ER now!” and off we went.
At the ER at Overlake Medical Center they immediately performed a number of tests and CT scans, again. Once the results were available the ER surgeon came in and said “I am sorry Philipp, it’s what I was afraid of, it’s a worst case scenario. Looks like you have a rupture in your intestine. We need to perform an emergency surgery now.” He explained a bunch of medical stuff and the procedures he’d be performing including risks, etc. – I had no clue what he was talking about and just said “Where do I sign?”. I just needed to get fixed as time was running out. As the situation was so serious I figured calling my parents would be the most important thing to do at this point so I called them and gave them the news, told them I love them and that they shouldn’t worry. Everything will be fine!
After the 3 hour surgery I woke up in the hospital room still drowsy from the anesthesia, the meds and all that just happened to me. I was alive and that’s all that mattered. “I will get through this and come back stronger” I thought to myself. When the surgeon came in for his visit, the first thing he said “You must be a very stoic person, I have never seen anyone with a hole in their intestine and walk around for 4 days. You got lucky!” While he tried to find and fix the rupture in my intestine via a laparoscopy (2 small incisions) it was necessary to turn the surgery into a laparotomy (a major surgery that required a huge 9’’ long incision up and down the midline of my body). It was necessary as the swelling was so severe and the abdomen was so contaminated from the rupture. I had severe peritonitis, an inflammation of the peritoneum, the membrane that lines the inner abdominal wall and encloses organs within the abdomen. I can only assume that the hard impact on the water and the harness spreader bar getting slammed into my belly was causing the injury.
I spent a week in the hospital. It wasn’t fun. It was rough but necessary to ensure there wouldn’t be any remaining infection or complications. I had a tube through my nose into my stomach suctioning anything that would enter my stomach back out to avoid anything going through my intestinal track while it was healing from the surgery (they had to perform a small intestine resection, i.e. cutting out the part that was ruptured then stitching it back together cleanly). Getting in and out of bed, walking around the hospital floor, having difficulties taking a shower or using the bathroom, not being able to eat anything, being poked with needles constantly and being connected to IVs, pain meds, antibiotics, etc. surely wasn’t how I imaged the remainder of my summer to go. I had 58 metal staples up and down my body and every tiny move would be painful.
Over the 2 weeks since the accident, the surgery and hospital stay I lost over 22 pounds of body weight. I was so skinny and weak. Not being able to move and exercise or eating properly was extremely difficult, but a necessary part of my recovery. Over the next 6 weeks I pushed myself to get up several times throughout the day and go for slow walks. First just down to the park, rest on a bench, then back home. That was all I could do at first. Then a little farther each day. I kept pushing every day. “Just 1% better each day” I told myself. “It’s going to be a long road to recovery, but I can do this!”
How has the recovery process been?
It’s been over 5 months now since the accident. I have made a lot of progress, but the surgery incision is about 9’’ long which is what’s keeping me off the water still until I don’t feel any tension anymore. Kiteboarding is all about your core strength and putting a ton of force on your abs. It’s exactly the area that I use the most when kiting, where they cut me open to fix me to save my life. Who would have thought? I am starting to feel strong again though. I have regained all the muscle weight I lost eating right and training hard. I have been going to PT and acupuncture regularly. I work out 3-4 times in the gym now, I swim regularly and continue to do Yoga to maintain my flexibility. I can eat everything I want again and exercise daily. I am super motivated and determined to get back into the best shape of my life and get back on the water soon again!
For you, as someone with a full-time career, what does a severe injury mean to you? How does it affect your life outside of kiting?
I am very fortunate that I work at a great company with good benefits. As soon as I was out of commission due to the injury I was able to take sick leave as well as get on Short Term disability leave (an insurance my employer provides) which paid my salary while I was in the hospital and recovering. Probably the most important thing was having good health insurance. Two emergency room visits, major surgery and an extended hospital stay ended up costing tens of thousands of dollars that the insurance paid for. If you participate in any extreme sport I highly recommend making sure you have health insurance coverage. You just never know how serious of an injury you could end up with and not having health insurance could be a huge problem that could affect the rest of your life financially.
Having had a severe injury has affected all aspects of my life. First and foremost it had a huge impact on my family. Primarily worrying about me and adding extra stress to my wife having to take care of me during this difficult time. I am very aware of that fact and really appreciate all she did for me while I wasn’t able to take care of myself very easily. I also worried my parents and extended family and friends and appreciate all the prayers and good thoughts for a full recovery. I’m almost there!
Are you excited to get back on the water, or are you feeling some fear?
I am definitely very excited and eager to get back on the water. Hopefully soon again! I miss the feeling, the freedom kiteboarding provides, fueling the stoke with my friends and sharing it with the community. I have kited for 17 years now and had my fair share of injuries. Broken ribs, torn hamstring, ruptured ear-drum, sprained finger, bruised heel, etc. – I have always come back from any of these “roadblocks” and have accepted them as part of the game. This injury was much bigger and more severe than anything I have ever experienced before. My surgeon told me that I got lucky and that this could have cost me my life. I don’t take this statement lightly and will continue to say a silent “Thank you!” to nature every time I get off the water without having gotten hurt. The injury I had was very unfortunate and rather un-common (at least I have never heard about it from anyone in the kiteboarding community). That type of injury was not even on my radar. It’s just crazy. I am much more aware of my body now and when things hurt or continue to hurt, it’s probably a good idea to go and see a doctor and keep seeing someone until the issue is resolved. Had I waited any longer and not gone back to the ER it could have easily cost me my life. Thanks to modern medicine and experts who have the skills to put us back together when we are broken so we can get back to doing what we love!
In your opinion, is the risk of injury worth the reward of kiting?
Yes! The risk of injury is worth the reward of kiting. Kiteboarding doesn’t have to be very dangerous. There’s always risk of course, but there’s risk I get hurt every time I get out of bed, go for a walk or drive my car. Kiteboarding gives me energy, gets me to exercise outside and enjoy the elements no matter the season and allows me to share the passion with my friends and the community. It helps me disconnect from the day to day challenges, feel the freedom and allows me to fly like a bird, an incredible feeling. Every time I look outside and see the trees move I still get excited and get that amazing feeling that has kept me loving this sport for so long. I have travelled to far and remote places exploring all corners of the planet that I wouldn’t have looked for if it wasn’t for kiteboarding. Kiteboarding has given me so much for so many years. While I will be more conservative going forward in doing any extreme moves at extreme heights, I am still planning on going to “Send it!” when my body is ready and the conditions align!
Philipp’s injury was an example of the worst-case scenario in kiteboarding, but also an important example of listening to your body and advocating for yourself and your health. We are so relieved that the outcome wasn’t worse, and that he was able to get the help he needed. We can’t wait to see this legend back on the water soon, doing what he does best!
Profile photo by Jim Stringfellow.
Thumbnail photo by Andy Petralli (Kite Clash, Squamish).
Cover photo by Chris Tompkins.
By Crystal VenessEditor at IKSURFMAG, Crystal Veness hails from Canada but is based in South Africa. When she isn't busy kitesurfing or reporting on the latest industry news for the mag, she is kicking back somewhere at a windy kite beach or working on creative media projects.