Pro snowmobiler racer remains on NDSU academic track despite obstacles of the sport
FARGO—It was more than three years ago when a young freshman from Hutchinson, Minn., went to Shelly Swandal, his academic advisor, and told her he wanted to attend North Dakota State—all while continuing his professional snowmobile racing career.
It's not a combination you hear about every day.
But Blaine Stephenson was determined to not let racing interrupt his quest for a agriculture economics major and crop and wheat science minor. Not even a severe accident on the track got in the way.
Last week, with a May graduation in full sight, Stephenson gave Swandal, a student services and academic advisor in agribusiness and applied economics, a framed photo from the 55th annual World Championship Snowmobile Derby in Eagle River, Wis. It was an event that he unexpectedly won two weekends ago.
"I was pretty blown away by it," Swandal said.
Stephenson was blown away by his victory when, while riding no higher than fourth most of the way, he came from behind after a couple of sleds had faltered. At 21 years old, he was a world champ.
Making it more dramatic was the timing: This all came more than a year after Stephenson endured a head injury when he was thrown from his sled during a crash. It happened at a race in Ironwood, Mich., located in the Upper Peninsula just across the border from Wisconsin.
He was transported by helicopter to a hospital in Wausau, Wis., and then later by ambulance to the University of Minnesota Medical Center. Doctors addressed facial fractures by inserting three titanium plates around his eye all the while he was beginning to recover from bleeding on the brain.
Technically he suffered a traumatic brain injury, which Stephenson called one step worse than a concussion. He spent five days in the hospital.
Three weeks later, he was back in class at NDSU.
"All my professors were just awesome," Stephenson said. "They all helped me through it. Maybe I was a little bit behind to begin with but they were all helpful in letting me come back and that was huge in letting me graduate on time."
Swandal called it a joint effort by everybody involved. She remembers the accident being hard on Stephenson's memory for a bit and just the look of the injury to his face had her worried.
"But he was determined, determined to not let this interrupt his schooling," she said.
Getting back into the racing game, however, didn't happen as fast as his return to school. It wasn't until April 1, 2017, when Stephenson sat down with his parents, Chris and Andrea Stephenson, and his girlfriend, Alexis Kerslake.
Stephenson's parents are a major part of his racing team and it took the family longer to warm to the idea of racing again than it took him.
"Putting your family through that kind of an emotional event is not fun," he said. "I didn't realize that for a while, so I had to cool my ego, take a step back and look at it."
The return to racing didn't come without a few promises, Stephenson said. For instance, the racing team put more of an emphasis on safety testing.
Moreover, Stephenson spent a lot of time on the on his mountain bike riding the trails along the Red River to get into better physical shape.
Reaction time and fitness are paramount in a sport where the sleds travel between 85 and 100 mph, depending on the track. The reward came last week with the World Championship title.
Two days later, he was back in school. Most of his classmates probably have no idea of his weekend hobby. He often leaves Thursday night for an event and returns Sunday. It's not something that can be a full-time job, either.
"I don't think anybody quite understands it but that's OK, I don't expect anybody to,"
But understand this: The Bison football players aren't the only ones walking around campus with a major championship this month.