A fractured skull, broken ribs and herniated discs are just three things that ended Mark Vukovich’s skiing career. The UNLV student suffered near-fatal injuries at a competition in 2006 and it was his fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE), that helped him recover.
Vukovich began skiing at age three in Reno. He remembers watching the 1992 Olympics and thinking to himself, “That looks awesome.” Then, he started competing.
In high school he was victorious. Vukovich is on Nevada’s “Most State Championships, Overall” list, with his championship win in 2005. His longtime coach and family friend, Rich Aprile, says it was due to his personality.
“Mark is a hard worker, [but] at times he overworks and can be too hard on himself,” he said.
His dedication landed him in the Federation Internationale de Ski race, Jan. 15, 2006, in Eldora, Colo. The race of the day for Vukovich was slalom.
Beginning at the top of a snowy hill, Vukovich began to ski down, weaving in and out of the gates when he struck a slalom gate.
The gate hit the left side of his neck and wrapped around him, hitting the right side of his helmet. He landed directly on his neck and head, crushing his spine and knocking him unconscious.
Hannah Wilson, Vukovich’s best friend, rushed down to help him and they headed to a Colorado hospital.
Vukovich does not remember the crash, but remembers waking up in the ambulance. He suffered a fractured temporal bone, an intracranial hemorrhage, two broken ribs and herniated discs.
“The helmet saved my life,” Vukovich said.
He spent three weeks in the hospital, arguing with the doctors to be released so he could go home. But he had lots of recovering to do. Vukovich had to relearn how to hold pencils, tear tape and accomplish many other simple tasks through occupational therapy. After recovering for a year and a half he went back to skiing, but not competing.
“I really have a passion [for the sport], it’s not just about racing anymore,” Vukovich said.
Vukovich was depressed after the accident but then met members of the TKE fraternity in the summer of 2006 in Reno. He wore a neck brace all summer, but still felt at home with TKE.
“None of them judged me. They kept me in school and kept me motivated,” he said.
Today Vukovich “lives and breathes TKE,” said Petar Momchev, Vukovich’s close friend in the fraternity. Momchev said Vukovich was the Hegemon leader of New Member Education.
“We need more quality members and we trust Vukovich with this job,” Momchev said.
Vukovich has a very diverse range of interests, according to Momchev.
“He’s connected to so many things: guns, cars, skiing, our fraternity … You can talk to him about anything,” he said.
Vukovich is seen as a leader by his fraternity, and his former coach still uses him as an example for the other students.
He does not regret the accident because he says it made him who he is today, and through TKE, has brought many friends into his life.
“I live my life to the fullest, and by doing that I honor the people that I love and have lost,” Vukovich said.