James Machon is a fearless thrill seeker hooked on the adrenaline of travelling at breakneck speeds through icy wilderness.
But it wasn’t a spectacular high-speed fall that nearly did for half-pipe skier Machon.
The 23-year-old British winter Olympian faced his biggest battle after an infection in his knee turned into an abscess and only the skill and intervention of Sheffield-based surgeon Paul Sutton saved Machon’s career – and his life.
Machon, who has won the British championship an unprecedented four times, had an operation to repair a knee injury. That’s when things started to go seriously wrong.
“I tore my anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus at the start of the season in Austria,” said Machon, who is from the Hope Valley.
“After the surgery, I was admitted to hospital again three times before finding out I had a life-threatening infection and needed yet another operation to wash it away.”
“I was very unlucky, but in some ways very lucky I am still here. Paul Sutton, a Sheffield-based knee surgeon, really saved my career.”
Sutton, who graduated as a bachelor of medicine and surgery from Sheffield University in 1990, recalled the first time he met a frail and ‘very ill’ Machon in March 2012 and said it had became quickly apparent that something further was wrong with Machon’s knee.
Machon had undergone an initial operation before visiting the 47-year-old specialist knee surgeon who works from Sheffield’s Northern General, Claremont and Thornbury hospitals.
Sutton, who has been a consultant in Sheffield for 13 years, says he developed a rare complication from his initial surgery.
“When I first met him, he was very unwell,” said surgeon Paul Sutton, who is also from the Hope Valley in the Peak District.
“His injury to the anterior cruciate was fairly serious considering he was aiming to make the Winter Olympics.
“He had had an operation elsewhere and had a complication following that. There was a serious infection in his knee, which had developed into a big abscess; this needed surgery and a long course of antibiotics.”
How serious could things have been? “Well, it was a bacterial infection and if these are left untreated over a long period of time they can be very serious, it has been known for people to die.
“These types of injuries can also cause a septic arthritis, which can lead to a badly damaged joint that is very painful and stiff.
“If we had not caught it when we did, his knee joint could have been really badly damaged and there was the potential that he may have never skied again. I think the infection had been there for a while but fortunately it was diagnosed before it caused too much damage. It needed cleaning out with an operation and the wound had to be left open in order to let it heal from the bottom up.”
After a strenuous, nine-month rehabilitation programme, Machon completed an incredible journey that will result in him appearing for Team GB at his first Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, which begins today with the traditional opening ceremony.
Machon has been training in America at Copper Mountain, Colorado, since the start of November rebuilding his skiing ability to a level, which will allow him to compete for a medal in the southern Russian city between the Black Sea Coast and the Caucasus Mountains.
The ski halfpipe is making its first appearance on the Winter Olympics schedule, and it means Machon will be tackling a 600ft drop with 22ft high walls to give himself the chance to pull off some of the most spectacular stunts and tricks in a bid to pick up as many points as possible.
“It’s impressive to watch,” Machon said. “It is much like skateboarding or snowboarding, you have to do as many different tricks down the Halfpipe as possible.
“You can invent or create your own tricks too – 900’s, 1080’s, taking off backwards, landing backwards and grabbing the skis for extra points.
“It is judged on amplitude, style, difficulty of trick, execution of grabs, and overall impression.”
In the build up to the tournament, Machon has produced his best performances when he has been under pressure – most notably as he looked to achieve a World Top 30 ranking only a month before the Sochi Games.
Due to his injuries and the infection, Machon only competed in three of the nine Olympic qualifiers, the last of which took place in Breckenridge, Colorado, early in the new year, where Machon pulled out all the stops in what he describes as the ‘most important competition’ of his career to date.
“It was the last Olympic qualifier in Breckenridge in January.
“I was ranked 32nd so the pressure was on. I added a new trick in my run, the unnatural 1080, which scored a personal best and I moved into 29th in the World standings. That was a massive day for me. The hard work has been done now and I can go to Sochi and just enjoy it. That’s when I ski my best.”