By EVAN MCCULLERS
The Daily Inter Lake
Scott Ping thought he was going to die. In fact, as he lay motionless on top of a soft patch of snow on what had been a normal February day at his Whitefish ranch, he wasn’t sure he hadn’t already died.
Ping, a well-known competitor in the skijoring world, knows some people will roll their eyes at what he says happened next, but he swears by it.
“Believe it or not, my deceased mother came to me, and she said, ‘Scotty, you’ll be all right,’” Ping recalled on Saturday as tears welled up in his eyes. “I didn’t see her, but I just heard her in my mind.”
Ping found himself on the ground, temporarily paralyzed, on that cold February day after his horse, Kona Koffee, slipped and rolled over him during a routine practice run in preparation for the National Finals Skijoring Races in 2011. His neck was injured badly between the C1 and C2 vertebrae, the site of the most serious spinal-cord injuries.
“When he went over, I actually heard my neck break,” Ping remembered. “It was like a .22 shell going off in my head, and I couldn’t move.”
Somehow, he regained enough feeling in his hands to reach his phone and dial 911. An ambulance arrived 20 minutes after the accident, and movement of his toes returned approximately two hours later.
“It kind of chokes me up really, thinking about it,” Ping said.
“The doctor said that 10 percent of the people that have my injury live, and one percent of them can walk again.”
Against the odds, Ping mounted his saddle atop Kona Koffee again in October 2011, just eight months after his catastrophic injury. He went on to win eight consecutive skijoring races during the 2011-12 season, including the North America Championships.
On Saturday, Ping stood beside Kona Koffee near the staging area for horses, riders and skiers before they hit the 850-foot skijoring course at Rebecca Farm, still with four titanium screws in his neck as a reminder of his near-death experience almost seven years ago.
Instead of allowing the catastrophic injury to deter him from skijoring, it has only strengthened his bond with the sport he fell in love with nearly 20 years ago.
Ping loves the adrenaline rush that comes with the sport, in which horses traveling up to 50 miles per hour tow skiers with a rope while they attempt to hit ramps, ski around gates and grab rings scattered around the course.
But much more than the adrenaline, Ping loves being a member of the tight-knit community of skijorers who traverse the West each year from late December to early March. Each season brings approximately 10 competitions, more than half of which are held in Montana.
“It’s a skijoring family,” Ping said.
“We’re all together, and we all go to these races, travel around a lot. We meet in different cities and we have fun and we know each other and we help each other out. It’s really very unique that way.”
One of Ping’s favorite stops every year is Wisdom, an uber-small town in southwest Montana that balloons each year when skijoring commences.
“There’s like 38 people in Wisdom that live there this time of year, and then we come in and (there are) 1,000,” Ping said. “People pitch tents and just have a big campout. We all camp out in the snow and party and skijor. Don’t win much money, but we sure have a good time.”
Another of Ping’s favorite parts of the sport is its involvement with various charities at tour stops around the West.
He recalls organizing an event in Lincoln, a small community east of Missoula, to help raise funds for its ambulance crew. The story was picked up by NBC’s Today show, and more than $6,000 in donations poured in.
“Everybody had a good time,” Ping said. “We got to skijor, and people loved it. We hooked a few more people.”
Dubbed “The Granddaddy of Skijoring” by his fellow competitors, Ping is now the oldest skijorer regularly competing in the open/pro division, the highest class in the sport. Kona Koffee is also the oldest horse in the open division.
“We’ve been around the block a few times,” Ping said, patting the docile horse on the snout.
In addition to his role as competitor, Ping is among skijoring’s most prominent ambassadors and one of its pioneers in the Flathead Valley.
He has served as president of the North American Skijoring Association and currently sits on the board of directors of Skijoring America, an organization dedicated to promoting the sport across the country.
Ping had a hand in bringing a skijoring event to Whitefish nearly 15 years ago, a competition now known as the Skijoring World Invitational due to its immense popularity. He’s also introduced countless people to the sport on his practice course in Whitefish, the same one on which he suffered his devastating injury years ago.
“I wanted to keep giving back, keep giving to other people who like the sport,” Ping said.
Ping still has vivid memories of his introduction to skijoring.
A friend invited him to a competition in Bozeman back in 1998. He agreed to attend and was hooked immediately when he witnessed the horses, riders and skiers zooming down the course.
“First time I watched it, I said, ‘I gotta do that,’” Ping said.
He was fully engrossed less than three years later, having purchased a horse and all necessary equipment, and competed in the National Finals Skijoring Races for the first time in 2001.
It’s been a long and winding road since then, one that’s included highs such as victories at the National Finals Skijoring Races, the Skijoring World Invitational and the North America Championships. There have also been plenty of low points, of course, including the one that nearly took Ping’s life.
He wouldn’t trade any part of it, and he doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.
“I’ve had some pretty rough knocks,” Ping said, donning the commemorative Carhartt jacket he received for winning the North America Championships in 2012, the year after his injury.
“I broke my ankle. I broke 12 ribs. I broke my neck. And I’m still doing it. I can’t stop. I just can’t stop doing it.”