Cadet returns to USAFA after ski accident

  • Published
  • By Don Branum
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
Everyone has good days and bad days. In that respect, Cadet 3rd Class Audrey Springer is no different from her classmates in Cadet Squadron 17. What sets her apart is a spirit of determination that has brought her back to the Air Force Academy a year after a near-fatal skiing accident.

"I've wanted to be a pilot since I was 3," Springer said. "My grandfather was a pilot in Vietnam. When I was 3 or 4, he took me to the Boneyard outside Tucson, and it was super cool. ... It definitely inspired a lifelong obsession."

She arrived here in the summer of 2011 along with about 1,200 other young men and women who made up the Class of 2015.

"It was a culture shock. It was different from anything I'd done before," she said.
"It was hard, but I was glad I was doing it."

Springer settled into life as a cadet, but her path took an unexpected turn in Keystone Jan. 19, 2013.

"I was skiing with some friends and got cut off," she recalled. "I ended up flying into a tree."
She was transported via aeromedical evacuation to St. Anthony's Hospital in Denver. After three weeks there, she went back to her hometown, spending three weeks at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

"It was pretty positive," she said.

So that's what she worked on, under her doctors' supervision.

"They put restrictions on when you can put weight on broken bones, and I was not very happy with that," Springer said. "I don't like restrictions. I listened for the most part, but once they started saying things were pretty good, I took that as, 'They're fine, time to go.'"
Springer listened to her body and pushed herself as much as she could without risking injury. Her doctors reacted unhappily at first.

"But once they saw me moving around," she said, "how could you not be happy about your patient working hard?"

Someone from her family visited her each day of the 2½ weeks she was in the rehab facility. Her father would bring her sisters, and her mother would take off early from work to see her, she said. Some of her high school friends, who were on spring break at the time, also stopped by.

She continued a physical therapy regimen after she left the rehab center: two hours a day, five days a week. The rest of the time was hers.

"My dad was home, so I hung around with my dad and my dog," she said. "My sisters were at school, and my mom was at work, so it was pretty boring."

To make matters worse, going out and about wasn't an option.

"Chicago in March is not the most beautiful place," she said, laughing.

At the same time, though, Springer realized she needed to stay busy, or else she'd go crazy. Thus began the "Keep Audrey Busy" program. The first step in the program was to get back in touch with classmates at the Air Force Academy.

"It was good to keep tabs on what was going on, but also hard. It's hard not to be part of something you're so involved with all the time," she said.

But she was determined not to miss graduation for the Class of 2013. She came back to the Academy in May, to seek advice from 10th Medical Group professionals on whether she was ready to come back as a cadet and to visit her friends in the senior class.

"It was weird," she said about coming back after having spent months at home. "It was weird to see recognized freshmen. And it was hard to see my friends graduate when I'd missed the last semester of their time here."

But the fact that she made it to the Academy at all impressed officers throughout her chain of command, including Lt. Col. DeAnna Franks, the air officer commanding for CS 17.

"I was surprised to see you were back here," Franks told Springer, "and I'm sure many of your friends thought, 'Wow, it's incredible to see you,' and that you were even willing and able to be here. I think it was a truly remarkable moment."

Another moment in Springer's recovery that stood out to Franks was a photo of the cadet water skiing during the summer.

"I really didn't believe that was her," Franks said. "I thought, 'Oh, that must be her sister,' and I had to recheck. And she said, 'No, ma'am, that's me.'"

Springer said it didn't feel like a big deal to her at the time. But for Franks, it was a sign that Springer was ready to come back to Colorado.

Springer ramped up her Keep Audrey Busy program in the fall, auditing classes on civil engineering and art history at the University of Illinois - Chicago while interning for a local radio station. She said the radio station internship was interesting because it forced her out of her comfort zone.

"I'd go to concerts and storefronts and just get the word out about the radio station," she said. "It was promotional: Enter this contest and win two pair of tickets or a T-shirt. I don't enjoy public speaking, but that definitely helped. I took a lot away from that. I'm interested to see, when I look back, how that's going to manifest in my future career, whatever that may be"

One benefit of the internship was going to concerts, Springer said with a smile. Another one was getting to tell people they'd won something.

"Some people were legitimately so excited when they won a contest, even if it was just for a couple of stickers or a pen," she said. "I like making people happy, and I like seeing that directly."

Springer sat in on the civil engineering class to keep her engineering mechanics knowledge from going stale, and she audited the art history class because she found it interesting.

"I just showed up and got whatever I wanted" out of the classes, she said. "I feel like I actually learned more because I was more interested. I wasn't trying to cram notes or stressing."

The "Keep Audrey Busy" program ended when Springer returned to the Air Force Academy last month.

"Pretty much back to the grind," she said. "It's a tough grind. But I think I have a more relaxed approach to it now, because I realize there are bigger problems in the world. One graded review is not the end of the world to me."

Spending a year away from the Academy, recovering from a life-altering event, has given Springer a perspective that most 20-year-olds couldn't appreciate: the value of relationships and the value of time.

"We all get so caught up in getting a 4.0 (GPA) ... and being the most athletic and being the best at everything you do," she said. "But I think the biggest drawback is that we forget how to connect with other people, and that causes problems down the road. If you need to get a task completed and you can't communicate that, or you can't connect with somebody emotionally, it's hard to get the task done."

Springer is now classmates with the cadets she coached through their freshman year, Kayla Robertson and Asia Williams, whom Franks described as two of the squadron's "most top-notch girls." Robertson said she looked up to Springer her freshman year and that becoming classmates has only strengthened their friendship.

"She was very approachable as a coach, so I knew that I could go to her if I had any problems," Robertson said. "She also made sure to hold me to a high standard. Even after her accident, she continued to text or email me to check on how I was doing.

"Now that she's my classmate, I've gotten to know her even better," Robertson continued. "She is extremely hard working and dedicated. She is also a great teammate, always willing to help out her classmates. In addition, she knows how to stand up for herself as well as what she believes in, and she doesn't let other people tell her that she can't accomplish her goals."

Springer said she's looking into leadership positions within Cadet Group 2 and still plans to become a pilot.

"I really want to fly HH-60 (Pave Hawks) search and rescue," she said. "I wanted to do that before, but especially since my accident, because I got medevac'd, it's very personal. I realize it's super important."

But she realizes the road to becoming a pilot has a few obstacles she'll have to overcome.
"There's a lot of medical paperwork, but I'm pretty persistent, so hopefully it'll work out in the end," she said.

If she can't become a pilot, she said she'd explore a career in intelligence.

In general, Springer says she's a lot happier and a lot more positive.

"I had three (Graded Reviews) (last) week, and Sunday night I was just like ....'why?'" she said. "But ... I like impacting other people's lives. I want to make something of my life. I don't need to affect millions of people, but even if I just affect one person, then I feel like my life is important.

"Just never take anything for granted. It's a cliché ... but it's such a gift. We're so lucky to be here every day. Especially as a cadet," she added. "Being away for a year made me realize how special it is, not only to graduate without debt but just to be surrounded by people who are for the most part just as driven as you are."