Dr. Jamie Watkins is used to helping winter athletes put themselves back together after training and racecourse injuries, but the Snowmass Village resident found himself in need of help following a slide for life into B-net while working as one of the U.S. Ski Team’s team doctors during the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Korea.
Watkins survived unscathed, with just his pride hurt, and able to laugh about the incident at the High-1 ski area when recalling it this week. As one of the last people off a training hill laden with injected snow “as if you iced the top pitch of Aztec,” Watkins lost his footing and traveled about 200 yards into a fence, he said. “A total yard sale” on a rock hard surface, which kept Watkins, an expert skier, from being able to gather his gear.
The ski patrol had to intervene and as he was skiing past veteran Lindsey Vonn, she asked, “Doc, doc are you hurt?” He replied, “I’m supposed to ask you that.”
Surviving the fall at High-1 wasn’t the reason the U.S. Ski Team this week awarded Watkins its prestigious J. Leland Sosman Award, which will be presented tonight during the chairman’s awards dinner as part of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Congress in Park City, Utah.
The award recognizes an individual of the medical community that best exemplifies the traits of Sosman, who was “known for his energy, persistence and passion for U.S. Ski & Snowboard sports,” according to a letter from Tiger Shaw, the team’s president and CEO. Watkins joins a prestigious list of ski team doctors, including Richard Steadman, Larry Gaul, Tom Hackett and Randy Viola, among others. The J. Leland Sosman Award has been presented annually since 2008.
The nomination to support Watkins, who has worked with the team for eight years, said the following: “Jamie has traveled with us for several years now and has been a great ambassador for our program. He often travels to the lesser known locations that have minimal medical support and is able to provide a high level of medical expertise and give our staff and athletes a high level of confidence when they are training or competing. He is also a resource for many different medical scenarios and is able to connect us with experts in a variety of specialties”
Those skills came in handy while the trauma surgeon was working in the remote Ohau Snow Fields on the South Island of New Zealand with the men’s ski team. Watkins treated an athlete whose case of the crud worsened almost to the point of kidney failure, when the nearest hospital was more than an hour away, and helicopter service was iffy.
The skier was back on his feet the next day, while the doctor allowed that, “I was pretty spooked.”
Most work days are filled with less drama.
“Being a team doc is a little like being an airline pilot. The best you can do is not screw up,” Watkins said.
Another section of Tiger Shaw’s announcement about the Sosman award refers to “Jamie’s commitment this past year by overcoming personal challenges and traveling to Korea to give support to those athletes training at a location away from the Olympic Games.”
Watkins said the “personal challenges” phrase likely refers to him continuing his team duties while taking treatment for lymphoma. He received a call while still in the hospital asking, “Can we send you to Korea with the girls’ team.” He replied, “You realize I’m still taking chemo, right?”
Once arriving in Korea, the athletes and staff were on guard for a nasty and highly contagious Norovirus outbreak.
“We were able to stop it in its tracks,” Watkins said.
His initial assignment with the team came in 2010 and followed the Vancouver Olympics, when, through a mutual contact, he was asked to accompany the men’s speed team to Chile during a summer session. Though the camp shifted to New Zealand due to snow conditions, the alliance ended up being successful and has led to winter and summer assignments for the surgeon. Watkins said unlike other team doctors, including those who specialize in orthopedics, “I don’t have a typical sports background.”
While ski racing is fraught with potential dangers, “If you hit something at 80 mph, you might also hurt your spleen.” He later added that during his tenure with the team “fortunately I haven’t had any super high energy classic trauma injuries.”
That’s not to say there aren’t challenges. “It’s different from working in a conventional hospital,” he said. One example is how the team doctors may have to work with consulting physicians that may be 12 time zones away, he said. Different cultures may also approach diagnoses differently; for example, MRI imaging is not readily available in parts of New Zealand, he said.
But what is available in the southern hemisphere is good skiing. “Portillo’s pretty nice,” he said of the classic Chilean resort, and New Zealand, while not a place where steeps are plentiful, “is really beautiful and full of nice people.”
The team doctor is usually stationed at the start of the race so “if someone wipes out, you can ski down to them,” he said. Their uniform includes a heavy rucksack filled with medical supplies.
“You spend a lot of time standing around,” he said. And while he’s on the hill plenty, much of Watkins’ snow time is relegated to side slipping on the edge of steep courses.
Watkins enjoys the mountain lifestyle and has been a full time resident of Snowmass Village since 2001, though his parents bought their first unit, at the Laurelwood, back in 1969. His mom, Kimball Watkins, has served on town of Snowmass Village volunteer boards.
During the 1980s, Watkins worked for Aspen Skiing Co. in the race department as a NASTAR pacesetter, a position he still recalls fondly as one of his best jobs ever.
While work as a trauma surgeon has required heavy travel – he served a stint as chief of surgery in Grand Junction and also has worked in the New York area to be closer to his children – Watkins affirmed his heart is in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“My mail goes to Snowmass, my driver’s license lists that address and I’m registered to vote there,” Watkins said, adding that he was among those who cast a vote in the original Base Village referendum of 2005.
Follow Madeleine on Twitter, @Madski99