Column: Teammate’s death inspires skiers to race in his memory

Column: Teammate’s death inspires skiers to race in his memory

Mike Costa had been sick two weeks before the accident, senior Rob Fox, of Northeastern’s men’s slalom team, remembers.

“He was really sick,” Fox said. “But he still came up every weekend.”

As a first-year member of the downhill ski team, Costa had already earned a reputation among his teammates – a team player whose enthusiasm for skiing was contagious. Costa had become a staple at the team’s weekly ski races, held every weekend from the start of the season in January to the end in February. It would have been strange if he weren’t there.

So he was exactly where everybody expected him to be on the morning of Feb. 7, 2004: the back seat of teammate Keith Bertolino’s yellow Ford Mustang on the way to Berkshire East resort for the weekly meeting.

Costa was probably nervous. Since he was a newbie to the world of ski racing, he often was nervous when he got to the racecourse, Bertolino said.

But he didn’t make it there this time.

The rain from the night before left an icy sheet over Route 2, causing Bertolino’s Mustang to fishtail while navigating an incline and slide into oncoming traffic where the car collided with another.

Teammate Kristina Brodsky, who was sitting in the passenger seat in front of Costa, suffered fractured vertebrae, a collapsed lung, a lacerated spleen and liver and a fractured pelvis. She also had head trauma, and still suffers from some memory loss, Bertolino said. Bertolino had broken vertebrae, a collapsed lung and a few broken ribs. Costa lost his life.

The ski races, and the season, were over – now it was time to regroup.

Surely, a teammate knows how to console you after a bad run resulting in a loss. But how do you console each other after a loss of this magnitude?

“We spent a lot of time with each other and comforted one another,” said Rhiannon Quirk, who has been on the team for four years and is now president. “Even if it had nothing to do with the accident, we always hung out so nobody had to feel like they were alone.”

Also absent was Bertolino, who was kept in a drug-induced coma for five days after the accident. His spinal injuries were severe, there was a chance he could never walk again – skiing again was simply out of the question.

“I had five of the top spine surgeons in the nation and they were all debating whether or not I could return to skiing and racing,” Bertolino said. “It was debated for a while because my injury was so severe and infrequent.”

Bertolino was in and out of the hospital for months – spending three months keeping his head and neck steady in a halo to protect his broken vertebrae.

Meanwhile, his teammates continued to cope, and they weren’t alone. Two weeks after the tragedy they got support from outside their team. Two members of the Tufts University racing team started a memorial race for Costa. It was held at Mt. Snow.

“At that point no one on our team was in a condition to organize a race like that,” Fox said. “They took charge and they were the first ones responsible for the race.”

The Mike Costa Memorial Race has continued to grow, along with his legacy. This past Sunday the race was held at Wildcat Mountain in New Hampshire, with proceeds from the race contributing to Youth Enrichment Services, which provides skiing lessons for underprivileged children and is the charity Costa’s family chose.

And that’s not all. There’s also the Mike Costa award, which the slalom slopers give to a teammate every year who “displays the selflessness and enthusiasm for skiing that Mike did,” Quirk said.

It’s been three years since the accident, and since then the team has continued on an upward path. Membership has gone up, enthusiasm for skiing has risen and the teammates are much closer than in years past. The team has improved as well; the women’s club participated in the regional championships this year.

“Since I raced freshman year, two of the members have become coaches and there’s maybe only two or three people left from that original team,” Bertolino said. “The atmosphere has changed a little bit; we’re more of a team and people are motivated to do things.”

There was one familiar face this season – Bertolino. After three years, countless numbers of doctor’s appointments and hours of debating, the junior computer engineer finally hit the slopes again.

“It felt pretty good to get back, especially when I thought there was no chance I would ever get back,” Bertolino said. “Just psychologically it was a good feeling to return to skiing after people said you should be accepting of being alive.”

Bertolino has done well this season, finishing in mid-pack more often than not in his races.

But more importantly, the team itself is having fun.

“It’s a pretty unique team,” Fox said. “You spend the whole weekend together with everyone, it’s not the most competitive sport, and it’s more of just enjoying the sport and having fun.”

Qualities, I’m sure, Costa would attest to.

– Matt Foster can be reached for comment at [email protected]

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