Saving Grace

Two years after the tragic car accident that killed his girlfriend, Max Mancini is beginning to find peace. Jeff Cricco

The good dreams are more painful than the bad ones. Because every time Max Mancini dreams something good -- like Molly being OK -- he is inevitably reminded that, in fact, Molly's gone. "I wake up and have to relive the whole thing over again," Mancini says.

Mancini, 27, an accomplished Colorado freeskier, bears a four-inch scar on the right side of his head from the car accident. It also left him with a crushed skull, broken ribs and lingering neurological problems that occasionally cause him to trail off in mid-conversation. But Mancini is coping with these things.

Reconciling his mind is another matter. Because on the afternoon of Sept. 30, 2007, Max Mancini survived when Molly Jackson -- then six months pregnant and the love of Mancini's life -- did not. In the two years since that day Mancini has undergone countless hours of therapy, trying to, as he explains it, "relearn who I am."

"I'm starting to feel more of a rhythm," he says. And it's true; medically speaking, Mancini's progress has been extraordinary. The Crested Butte local is back to ripping on skis -- he stars in the 60th anniversary Warren Miller film premiering this fall -- and he is happy, mostly. His sense of humor has returned. The piercing migraines that at times confine him to a dark, quiet room are easier to predict and treat.

But Mancini carries deep feelings of guilt. And he is haunted by a mystery he'll never solve: He doesn't know what caused him to drift into oncoming traffic that day on a curvy stretch of two-lane highway, U.S. Highway 285, outside the small town of Fairplay, Colo. He recalls neither clipping the SUV nor getting T-boned by the pickup.

What he remembers is this: waking up in a hospital, incapacitated by pain in his head, frantically fearing for Molly; she had been riding in the passenger seat when the pickup smashed into her side of the car. Mancini was unable to speak, owing to a breathing tube in his mouth. He remembers motioning the nurse for pen and paper. He scribbled one word.


"It doesn't look good," the nurse replied.

He wrote another word. Alive?

The nurse shook her head. "She didn't make it." Then he learned their unborn son had died, too.

Throughout his career as a professional skier, one word has followed Max Mancini: grace. And it's meant to communicate his particular way of getting down a mountain on telemark gear, which free up skiers' heels for knee-dipping turns and backcountry mobility. Think cross-country skis on steroids.

"Even in the hairiest situations, Max has got this incredible, graceful glide," says Chris Patterson, a videographer who has worked with Mancini on five Warren Miller films. "It doesn't even look like he's trying."

It was in Crested Butte, the Colorado ski town most easily mistaken for a commune, that Max's life both on and off telemark skis began. He grew up in a log cabin and frequently rode to school in the bucket of the family's front-end loader. And while many of his friends nurtured their talents on traditional alpine ski equipment or snowboards, Mancini followed the lead of his telemarking dad, a ski bum in his own right who moved to town in 1974 with his high school sweetheart. At age 9, Max stuffed newspaper in his mother's leather tele boots and began to learn the art of the freeheel turn on 197cm straight skis.

"It was just a really, really cool feeling," he says. "You're lower in the snow and the turn is so much more graceful."

With a local laboratory of the most extreme terrain in America, Mancini mastered the discipline quickly. At 19, he scored a sponsorship with Rossignol, and he went on to win national championships in both racing and freestyle. He also fashioned himself as a backcountry savant, learning to read avalanche terrain like a mountain jedi. He remains one of the only freeheel-tribe members who shreds terrain parks as fluidly as Alaskan faces.

"Max is the kind of guy who will just go for it," says three-time Winter X Games medalist Peter Olenick. "If he sees something that he thinks is remotely possible, he'll make it happen.

"Even if everyone else is like, 'You're crazy, Max.'"

For all his talent, Mancini always wanted more out of life than just skiing. He met Molly Jackson, then 23, a snowboarder and pianist from Dallas, at a Warren Miller film showing in 2006. She had a smile that glowed and a voice like a pop singer. And she was funny. As funny as Mancini -- which, for a guy who once adopted a wild squirrel, named it Dog, and passed time in college watching TV with it, is saying something.

They moved in together in Crested Butte. It was the first step, as they saw it, toward forever.

On the day of the accident, Mancini and Jackson were driving home to Crested Butte after a doctor's appointment in Denver; it was a routine 6-month prenatal checkup for Jackson. Mancini's parents were out of town at the time. When a police officer reached them, he instructed them to call St. Anthony's Hospital.

"Ask for the chaplain," the officer said.

The crash had fractured Mancini's skull in a spiderweb pattern. (Jackson, 24, died at the scene of the accident.) Doctors performed surgery to remove a pair of clots in Mancini's brain and eventually installed a two-inch titanium plate to stabilize the right side of his cranium above his ear.

"They arranged everything like it was a broken egg," Mancini says. "They put it all on a plate, fit all the pieces back together, then they put it back into my head."

As bad as the physical damage was, the emotional trauma was worse. Don and Marilynn Mancini, Max's parents, feared he might take his own life. So they took steps to protect their son from himself.

"But the bottom line was, Max, he wanted to go on," Don Mancini says.

There was also the issue of criminal charges stemming from the accident. Mancini could have faced seven years in prison had prosecutors pursued a charge of vehicular manslaughter. But instead he was convicted of careless driving resulting in death, a misdemeanor, and sentenced to 30 hours of community service. (Letters to the presiding judge from supporters, including the Jacksons, and the refusal by the crash's other victims to press charges after learning Mancini was sober at the time of the accident also helped his case.)

"[Skiing is] the only thing that's going to get me through this."

-- Max Mancini

Two months after the crash, on Nov. 22 -- his 26th birthday -- Mancini was allowed to return to Crested Butte. Knowing their patient well, doctors issued him a parting caution: Don't ski for four months. If he hit his head, they warned, he could die.

Mancini kept skiing. He couldn't help himself; it was the one sliver of normalcy he could cling to. "It's the only thing that's going to get me through this," Mancini told a friend.

He stuck to groomed runs initially, but he often skied from the first chair of the day until the last. During one stretch he skied 25 days in a row. Only when grief overwhelmed him did he take a day off.

Gradually, Mancini began courting more risk, starting with small cliffs at the resort. He flew to Alaska in April and skied, without incident, the big-mountain faces of the Chugach Range. By the end of the season, he'd put out an impressive film segment -- without ever really crashing.

But Max Mancini still wasn't whole. Ever since he was little, he'd found his greatest peace in making other people smile. Little things: Like rubber-banding the sink sprayer open, or closing the curtains in his college apartment and putting on mellow music so his roommate would sleep through class.

So generous is Mancini with gear from his sponsors that local kids in Crested Butte have a saying: "I'm sponsored by Max Mancini!" It comes with a smile wide enough to rupture an eardrum.

This time around, it was Mancini that needed a spark. "It was the first time I've seen him sad in the 10 years I've known him," said Brooks Baldwin, a high school friend and professional kayaker.

Mancini came up with an idea that gave him purpose. He called it Life Turns: a program to provide kids -- orphans, cancer patients and paraplegics, among others -- who didn't grow up with the advantages he had with a week of winter heaven.

He worked on the logistics for months before he noticed the problem: They didn't have nearly enough money. Enter Molly Jackson's parents, Sharon and Pete Jackson, who donated the majority of the cost.

So this past March seven kids attended the first session of Life Turns, which is now a registered nonprofit. Mancini, who enlisted everyone he could (his sister, old ski buddies, Molly's parents, Molly's best friend) as counselors, pretty much wore a smile the whole week. And the kids bawled when it came time for them to go home.

"It's just the most impossible feeling," Mancini says, "to see some of these kids who've been in hospitals their entire lives, who will have to get their legs broken the month after the camp so they're the same size again, kids who've been through 20-something surgeries -- watching them achieve their goals, like skiing their first black diamond, and seeing the look on their faces."

Mid-thought, Mancini trails off.

"It's honestly more of a healing process for me than it is for any of the kids in the camp."

We asked Mancini for a photograph of himself and Molly together for this article. He obliged eventually, e-mailing a single photograph. He also offered some insight:

"I have attached a photo that I am comfortable with. It is difficult for me to put up photos of us together because I don't want to offend anyone who may not be far enough along in the healing/grieving process. This photo is not much but it means a lot to me. It is of Molly and I and we are sitting on a snowmobile on Vail Pass. I don't know if this one will work as there is not much to see. I have searched for others that would work better but I haven't come across any that I feel comfortable sending. Let me know what you think," he wrote.

You could argue that Mancini's ski career hasn't suffered since the car crash. He's back on the Warren Miller big screen, Rossignol is debuting a Max Mancini Pro Model ski (Mancini is donating his proceeds to Children's Hospital in Denver) and after his second season back on the slopes, observers say he is skiing better than before he had titanium in his head.

Ever-reflective when discussing his ordeal, Mancini makes it a point not to cloak his emotions. He recently decided to return to therapy and says his foremost daily challenge remains forgiving himself.

"I'm still working through that. I mean, I know it was an accident; there's no question it was an accident. But I was still the one behind the wheel," he says.

"I think about Molly. I just think about the interactions we had and how much Molly loved me. I know she would never blame me for it. I'm positive about that. And her family, if they don't hold this against me, then how can I hold this against me? That's what gets me out of the darkness of blaming myself."

In the immediate aftermath of the accident, with the Jacksons in Texas and the Mancinis in Colorado, each family suffered apart. Then one mother, Sharon Jackson, sent a candle to another mother, Marilynn Mancini.

With it came a message titled "Grace":

"How you climb up the mountain is just as important as how you get down the mountain. And so it is with life, which for many of us becomes one big gigantic test followed by one big gigantic lesson. In the end, it all comes down to one word. Grace. It's how you accept winning and losing, good luck and bad luck, the darkness and the light."