Snowboard star makes youth's wish a reality
Washington native Casey James, right, suffers from Renal Disease and faces a second kidney transplant. He and friend D.J. Fechko, left snowboarded with Travis Rice, center, through the Make-A-Wish Foundation last week. JULIE WEINBERGER / COURTESY PHOTOView our entire photo gallery >>
By Brandon Zimmerman, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
February 22, 2012
Casey James knows about doctors. The 18-year-old has seen more in his short life than anyone should.
Born with renal disease, a condition in which the kidneys fail to adequately filter waste from the body, James has fought long and courageously for life. He has had one kidney transplant. Soon, he faces another.
However, during a doctor’s visit late last spring, James got some good news that improved his mental state.
Doctors asked James if he had been granted a wish through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. His answer was no.
The foundation grants wishes to children under the age of 18 with life-threatening medical conditions. James, who turned 18 in July, had only a few months to have his wish granted. So doctors and foundation volunteers quickly put plans in motion. When James’ Make-A-Wish volunteer asked for his greatest wish, he didn’t hesitate: “To snowboard with Travis Rice,” the Washington resident said.
For the Make-A-Wish foundation, this was ambitious stuff. Many boys and girls with life-threatening medical conditions have wishes that can easily be fulfilled — to travel to a theme park or to meet their favorite athlete. James wasn’t thinking that way. He didn’t just want to meet Rice. He wanted to spend a day snowboarding with him.
Rice, of course, is a Jackson native and snowboarding icon. His latest film — 2011’s “The Art of Flight” — gave him celebrity status that included an appearance on “The Conan O’Brien Show” and a spot in a Red Bull television commercial.
The only snag was finding a way for the Make-A-Wish Foundation to contact Rice. Fortunately, Casey Thompson, a former publicist for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, is now a communications specialist for Red Bull. And Red Bull is a major partner of Jackson-based Brain Farm Digital Cinema, the production house with which Rice has made two movies, including “The Art of Flight.”
After a few phone calls and emails, James learned last summer his wish would be granted this winter.
“When I found out,” James said. “I was in shock.”
James, his family and his best friend, D.J. Fechko, made the trip to Teton Village for a few days last week to see his wish become a reality. On Feb. 15, James, a snowboarder since he was 8 years old, hung out with Rice for several hours at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort.
There are few words to describe the emotion on James’ face during the meeting. It was, in every way, pure joy. Rice gave James a brand new Lib Tech snowboard, and the group shared breakfast together then posed for pictures under blue skies beneath the Aerial Tram.
Fechko was also in awe. James met Fechko during their freshman year at Gig Harbor High School near Tacoma, Wash. Fechko has been by James’ side throughout his medical struggles, taking him to the hospital at times when conditions warranted.
“He’s been there for me through my medical issues,” James said. “He knows everything. He’s been to the hospital with me. He’s taken me to the hospital. I figured there was no better person to share it with.”
Said Fechko, “I’m so thankful to have a friend like this. It’s just an honor to be here and meet the only snowboarding idol of me and Casey. I’m so thankful this actually happened.”
James’ mother, Jo James, stood alone near the tram dock watching her son have the experience of a lifetime. It was a moving moment for a family that has ridden an emotional roller coaster.
Jo James said there were many moments during her son’s teenage years when he would call her into his room to show her video clips of Rice snowboarding.
“He was always like, ‘Mom, come in here and watch this video,’” Jo James said. “[Rice] is his idol. I’m just so thankful this all happened. I’m also glad it happened to him while he was older. He can really appreciate it more.”
The plan last week was for James and Fechko to spend the day snowboarding with Rice at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Rice, however, called that off, because he had a bigger plan.
“We’ve got a big surprise for them,” Rice said.
So, the James family extended their trip by a day. With good cause.
On Thursday, Rice surprised James and Fechko by arranging a heli-ski trip for the group in an undisclosed backcountry location.
On his Facebook page, James called it “the sickest day of my life” and said of Rice, “He’s the most down to Earth, humbling real person I know.”
Rice is one of Jackson’s greatest snow-sport athletes. However, he showed he also embodied the great spirit of Jackson Hole by displaying a huge heart last week. He gave two deserving youngsters a moment they will carry with them for a lifetime.
If you’ve ever met Rice, you probably were impressed with his humility, intelligence and heart. For an athlete who dazzles us by spending most of his time flying through the air, Rice is completely down to Earth.
“It’s an honor. It’s very humbling to be chosen,” Rice said. “For me to be chosen is pretty substantial considering what’s out there to be done. To be chosen to go riding with, I was blown away.”
Brandon Zimmerman is the sports editor at the News&Guide. His column details offbeat sports stories and runs weekly.