After winning his first state championship in Nordic skiing in February, Henry Snider stood quietly, smiling to himself, while his mom cried and his team cheered.
A similar scene played out during track and field season last spring, when Snider anchored his relay team to the state meet. Snider was the calm amid his teammates’ jumping and shouting.
Snider might be one of the state’s top high school skiers and runners, but the Mounds Park Academy senior does his best to not let it show. He’s reluctant to boast about his successes — which include top-10 finishes at the past two state cross-country and Nordic skiing meets, as well as the most recent state track and field competition.
It’s all the more surprising considering that, a little more than three years ago, a horrific skiing accident nearly derailed his athletics career.
But again, ask Snider about it and he’ll refer to his brain surgery as “a somewhat small procedure” that “wasn’t a huge” deal.
His mom, Chrissy Snider, remembers it a bit differently.
While a sophomore at St. Paul Central, Snider and his family went to a ski camp in Ironwood, Mich., a few days after Christmas. Out on a run with his teammates, Snider fell on ice and smashed face-first into a tree.
An ambulance rushed him to the local hospital, then to Duluth two hours away. He eventually ended up at Children’s Minnesota in St. Paul, where the Sniders live and the extent of his injuries became clearer.
He had a severe concussion and brain trauma, brain fluid leaking out of his nose whenever he sat up, a fractured skull above his nose and through to his brain at his sinuses, as well as a shattered cheek/eye orbital bone. Snider had to lie flat for a couple of days to solve the brain fluid problem. Once the swelling went down, doctors discovered bone shards stuck in the back of his eye, necessitating the brain surgery to remove them at the University of Minnesota about two weeks after the accident.
It would take a full 18 months for his balance and heart rate to return to normal. Snider missed a month of school and lost 40 pounds. And for a kid who already struggled with school because of dyslexia, trying to return to regular life weighed on his mental health.
It didn’t feel like it at the time, but Chrissy Snider says now the accident was “a total blessing in disguise.”
“He was spiraling downhill and then he hit a tree and everything just kind of stopped,” she said. “And we needed to reassess what is the best path forward.”
The first sign of progress came over the summer, when Snider went to a six-week wilderness class his mom signed him up for while he was still in the hospital. That subdued confidence Snider is now known for reappeared when the campers were lost trying to find the portaging trail to the next lake. Snider threw one pack on his front, one on his back, picked up a canoe over his head and started walking. Everyone followed, and they made it to the lake.
Chrissy Snider attributed her son’s turnaround to community support — so many people along the way offering her son encouragement or little kindnesses. Like Mounds Park Academy, which accepted his transfer to restart his sophomore year despite his grades. Like his three younger siblings who keep him down to earth. And like his many coaches who kept skiing in his life.
Amy Cichanowski, executive director of the Minnesota Youth Ski League where Snider started as a fourth-grader, was one such mentor. She’s watched him go from an average skier before the accident to a perennial top finisher.
“We were lucky that he already had the love of skiing instilled in him completely before the accident,” Cichanowski said. “So it was almost therapeutic for him to get back into skiing after the accident. I feel it was actually part of the healing process for him … like the skiing was his anchor in recovery and actually helped him get through that.”
Once fully recovered, Snider immersed himself in his training for the past two years. While several doctors predicted he’d never ski again, Snider is proving them wrong.
“He has been through so much, just physically and also mentally,” Chrissy Snider said. “Most kids don’t have to just restart and decide how they’re going to make changes in their life. But he did and he kind of turned everything around.”
Snider recently endured another setback. He had been preparing all season for the cross-country skiing junior nationals earlier this month in California, hoping to place in the top 10 after four races to earn All-America status. But the coronavirus pandemic cut the event short halfway through, ending Snider’s season prematurely.
But Snider won’t let disappointment deter him. He’s still hopeful he has a track and field season to look forward to before he attends Michigan Tech, where he earned a scholarship to race cross-country and Nordic skiing while studying engineering.
“That’s just sort of how I’ve always been,” Snider said. “Just knowing I’ll get through whatever’s happening.”