Long battle with concussions ends Farris' careerIntense aftereffects, including depression, force skater to stop competing
The words are hard for Joshua Farris to get out, but when he does, he adds a qualifier, just in case: "For right now, I have decided not to compete," he says, taking a deep breath before continuing: "I can always change my mind -- the doctors have told me that -- but it's not worth the risk right now. I want to go to school; I want to help other people."
To say that this has been the most challenging 12 months of Farris' life is a wild understatement. He won bronze at the 2015 U.S. Championships behind his beautiful, lyrical skating -- the first time he had finished in the top three at the event in his career. He would go on to place second at the 2015 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships and 11th at the 2015 World Championships, by far his best season to date.
And then? And then everything came crashing down -- literally.
Farris, now 21, suffered three concussions over a three-week period during the summer of 2015, and the injuries have sent his life into a tailspin and a dark place from which he's just now beginning to emerge . The first concussion came in practice on a quad toe attempt, then the second when he came back a little too soon, having not shown symptoms from the from the first. (His scan had been OK). The third was a total fluke, Farris bumping his head while getting into a car shortly after the second.
"No matter what, my skating career was going to come to an end," he told icenetwork in a phone interview last week. "I have officially decided it's too much of a risk, and I want to live my life without fear of the repercussions."
A fearful Farris
Life has been full of too much fear since Farris stepped away from the ice last July. His concussions brought along terrible, migraine-like headaches and he had to spend hours at a time in darkened rooms to avoid natural or artificial light.
"It's been a long and rough year," he explained on the phone while his father, Rod, listened along. "Up until three weeks ago, I didn't have a schedule, because I couldn't make one -- not because I didn't have the mental power, but because of my symptoms. I didn't know when they were going to happen. It was very inconsistent."
Farris tried, at first, to return to skating, but after withdrawing from his 2015 Grand Prix assignments, he spent a host of long days at home alone at his apartment at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. After living with fellow skater and ice dancer Joe Johnson for six months, he moved in with his mom in April.
The post-concussion symptoms led to frustration and eventually depression, something Farris has consciously worked his way through with help from friends, family, careful scheduling and his love for music.
"For the first few months, he was sitting in a dark room mostly," Rod said. "He couldn't do much at all. He would get headaches. He was having difficulties with anxiety even just going to the cafeteria [at the Olympic Training Center.] … It was quite the process."
There's more to this
While Farris worked his way through the aftereffects, the concussions brought to the forefront something he has long dealt with: dyslexia.
"I have known I was dyslexic since I was 8," he said, recalling a concussion he suffered when he was young that may or may not have contributed to said condition.
Farris deals with the condition on a daily basis. Reading and writing can be a challenge, and even before the 2015 concussions, socializing proved to be a daunting task at times. Farris would get nervous doing mixed-zone interviews or skating event meet-and-greets. The anxiety was compounded after last summer.
"It can all add up and then that can lead to anxiety, because you can't get your thoughts out the way that you want to," Farris explains. "But I've gotten a lot better. Music has helped my confidence with my learning disability."
A saving grace
Music, long an influence in Farris' life, has become all-encompassing for him in his year-long struggle. Just before his concussions last summer, Farris got a new guitar, which he considers his pride and joy. He has spent countless hours with it, singing, playing, writing and crying. It's been his blade to the ice when he's had to take his boots off.
"Music has been the biggest support. … Sorry, Dad," he said, his father laughing into the phone. "When you first get concussed, you can't do much: No reading, no TV, working out, video games -- you can't do anything. Music was the only thing that I could do without any pain or symptoms.
"Music was the only thing that got me through hopefully the darkest time I've been through in my life," he continued. "I still stand by it: Being able to play my guitar and singing and a little bit of piano has, in a way, helped the healing process."
Back on the ice
Farris has not spent the entirety of the last 12 months in a dark room, he'd like you to know. He's ventured outside in and around Colorado Springs, hanging out with skating friends like Johnson, Lukas Kaugars and others. And he's started to coach and choreograph, first from the boards and then more and more out on the ice, guiding his newfound pupils.
Farris has found, he thinks in part through his experience with dyslexia, that he is an expert at reading body language, something he believes has helped him in his coaching. For now, he'll work with younger students and those that he already knows. Eventually, he'd like to take his skills to the elite senior level, building up a network around the sport.
"I am starting to coach a lot more," he says of his growing schedule of commitments. "I am starting to get back in the skating world, but just in a different way."
'I still consider…'
Don't get him wrong: Farris misses competing -- greatly. He misses the spotlight and the nerves, his name being announced at center ice and the roar of a crowd. He misses representing his country on the ice, and fans miss him, too.
"Because of all the injuries and what I've been through, I still consider my competitive career a success," he said. "It could have been more successful, but it was a success. I've just missed a little bit of the competing spotlight."
It's then that we arrive at his admission of stepping away from the sport for now, and Farris, already speaking at a careful pace, encourages the words out of his mouth like a well-thought-out step sequence. He's speaking from his heart, because that's the only place he can trust at this point.
"[The doctors] told me it was my decision: 'If you want to live your dream, we're just telling you what might happen,'" he explains a few minutes later. "I could have permanent brain damage. … I don't want that. I don't think anyone wants that."
Farris saw a host of doctors, including two concussion specialists. They didn't recommend he quit competitive skating, they only gave him the information and let him make his own decision.
Moments of struggle
With coaching in his schedule most days and with his gaining more of an ability to function on a day-to-day basis, Farris feels like he has normalcy again -- sort of. He still has moments where he gets overstimulated at the rink, needing to step out to his car to find quiet. But then he needs friends; he needs support to help him in what has been a challenging time of loneliness.
"When I overstimulate myself, I have to be in silence, and then I have to talk to friends and stay busy, because," he thinks here for a minute, before continuing.
"You know how Superman has his 'Fortress of Solitude'? Well, I have found that my fortress of solitude is not the best way to get over my symptoms. This whole year, my depression has been awful. I have to find friends, find something to bring me out of that."
That is where the music has helped, along with hiking or talking with his mother or father. What we have all witnessed Josh Farris doing so beautifully on the ice, that sort of graceful and poetic dance of physicality and grit, that's how he has so fearlessly faced this situation. It's a short program and free skate thrown into one, and he's unfazed. He's skating through it.
"This has been beyond challenging," his dad said. "Number one is the fact that I wanted Josh to achieve his dreams; every parent wants that. He had the opportunity to achieve his dreams, and he was really good at it, too. Every parent that has a talented kid is proud of that. But at the same time, it's balanced with the fact that my son has to be balanced and safe. That's what we want now."
The next steps
Farris will attend Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs this fall to continue classes. He has interest in music therapy as a careerbut is also looking into connecting with a nonprofit organization that helps athletes who have battled similar concussion problems.
What he is certain of is this: His fans -- both those near and far -- have been unwavering.
"I have had a massive amount of support, which has helped so much," he said.
"What I want my fans to know is, that even though I'm not willing to risk competing at the level I was at, I'm doing choreography now, and I plan on doing that for the rest of my life. Hopefully, my artistry and what my fans loved about my skating will live on through other skaters. I'm working with high-level skaters, trying to make a name for myself. So, I'm starting somewhere, I guess."
And starting from a place that so many respect.