Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Traumatic Brain Injury and the Consequences of Decaying Brain Matter

Over the last 27 years I've had 28 recorded traumatic brain injuries; concussions, as they're frequently referenced. Ranging from mild to very severe in damage, some I've been sent home with and others have landed me in the hospital overnight, or even in the ICU for a few days. They've been caused by a myriad of events including falls, slips, bonks and, my personal favorite, landing on my tailbone too hard. 

Research has shown us that some brains are more suceptible to damage because of a complicated genetic makeup, while others can miraculously survive horrific damage and emerge virtually unscathed. Luckily for me, I possess the latter. Unfortunately, even the strongest grey matter has a failure point, and mine is no exception. 

In the past two years, I've only sustained one head injury. But in the four years prior to that, I had fourteen concussions. Since I was 18, I've hurt my brain more than 20 times and in irreversible ways. Ways that I felt, even when I wasn't seeing a neurologist. Headaches, light and sound sensitivity, temperature bounces, forgetfulness and the worst: mood swings and emotional bursts.

The mood swings aren't just slightly inconvenient, either. They cripple relationships, confuse the hell out of me and crush my everyday productivity. Imagine being fine one moment and then, for no reason whatsoever, growing irritated and then angry... Without any provocation. Or having a great day, only to dissolve into heaving sobs in the parking lot because the world feels so dark. Spending sprees, uncontrollable rants, despair, drinking... The symptoms go on and on. The forgetfulness and emptymindedness spur frustration and a lot of the moods; for someone who has always been wordy and capable of communication, being unable to come up with a word or a thought is infinitely heartbreaking. Knowing I know something but having it elude my mental grasps... It is one of the most terrifying feelings in the world. It feels like being lost in my own brain.

There are ways to fight back. Once I decided to question and confront the problems, my neurologist and I came up with a plan. I started seeing a speech therapist, a psychologist and a behavior specialist, and we all work together to keep my mind from dropping off the edge. We moderate my ADHD medication depending on my activity and hormone levels, and I try to keep my diet and exercise regimen steady. I do brain exercises -- memory, attention, focus, mathematics, speed -- every morning. I read as much as possible and try to limit my screen time, and I regulate my sleeping patterns and water intake. However, all it takes is a few small missteps, and I'll careen off track. 

My point of all of this brutal honesty? 

Brain damage, right now, is irreversible. Do I hold out hope for stem cell research and neurological advancements? By Christ, I do. I hope and pray that one day science and medicine can correct what foolishness and ignorance created.

Why? Because I didn't wear a helmet. Because I wasn't aware of the consequences. Because we just didn't know. Because I was stubborn and proud and stupid. Why am I writing this? Because it's important to me to share the importance of helmet use and brain injury awareness. Because if my story strikes fear and curiosity into the hearts of parents and athletes alike, GOOD. Because if one person has a longer, stronger, better future because of helmet use, then it's worth it. And because even after a TBI, there's a life. 

I'm writing this because our limits don't define us. What we are capable of is far more important than what we aren't, and the only prisons we build are those we create for ourselves. 

My life, and my legacy, will not be one of fear or shame... I'm writing this because I'm tired of holding people at arms length to protect them. I'm tired of constantly worrying about when my mind will go, and I'm desperately afraid of losing control. I'm writing this because I can't continue to ignore the risks and consequences of being a professional athlete, and to not address my decision to pursue racing. 

Life is short and because of that, I'll keep racing. My mind isn't a lost cause, and it's not a death sentence... It's mine. And to the people I love, all I can say is this: 

Wear a helmet. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

A Tale of Romance: A Girl And Two Wheels

I love lots of stuff. I have many hobbies and interests too numerous to count. But bikes... I LOVE bikes. I mean, I LOVE bikes. Road bikes. Dirt jumpers. BMX, trail bikes and of course, my main squeeze -- the downhill bike. Everyone knows I love bikes. It's pretty apparent. 

But why? 

I'll tell you, but first, go crack open a cold one and put up your feet. This story goes back a ways. 

Like most love affairs, it began with  a serendipitous introduction. For me, it was being buckled into a child's seat on the back of my dad's bike as an infant. We lived in a mid-size suburban town and since before I can remember, my parents would strap me into the seat, load up my older brother and sister and we'd all pedal to the park for an afternoon of sunshine. 

I think I was born with wind on my face. 

As soon as I was old enough, my dad put me on a Big Wheel. After that, it was a big red metal tricycle, followed by a hand-me-down bike with training wheels from my sister. 

Weekends, afternoons, and whole days were spent ripping around on the tricycle, and I'd back it up next to my little sister's matching rig so we could color as buddies. 

When I was finally ready to ditch the 'baby wheels' (as I called them), my parents fixed up a cousin's bike and painted it pink for me in the basement of our house, then gave it to me for my birthday. Dad gave me a push and WHOOOOOSH... That was only the beginning.

Barefoot and grinning, I'd tear around the neighborhood like a bat out of hell, offering rides to anyone who dared accept, boosting about with someone (usually my little sister) propped up on my handlebars and grinning like a fool.

After we moved to a small, quaint horse town in central Utah, bikes played an even larger role -- from summertime lake jump hucks to Popsicle trips to the convenience store about 2 miles down the road -- bikes meant freedom. It was more than a source of transportation... It was love. 

It was adventure and speed, as I'd learn years later as a teenager in an outdoors immersion class, after being repeatedly scolded about sticking with the group and not going so fast. 

I never did quite figure that particular lesson out. 

But larger than my drive for competition or my hunger for speeding down a trail was my need for exploration and discovery... Of the world and myself. I love bikes because they gave me the answer to both. 

Bikes (and mountain bikes in particular) touch a place inside all of us... The freedom of our own power, the courage to try anything once, the confidence to go at things again and fight through the uphills and the technicalities. Mountains don't move, and we can't just give up in the middle of a trail. We can't fake it, we can't force it, and the bike won't work without effort on our part. 

Riding bikes is beautiful because we're never too good to learn. There's always room to improve; a new challenge, a new obstacle. We never stop growing and changing and becoming

There's always a reason to climb on a bike and head out, like dry corners and dust in my teeth, or the wet squelch of my tires on a rainy day. It's the way the bike moves underneath me, ebbing and flowing and pulsing and dancing. It's a partnership. It's the flow, and the smile, and the wind in my hair. It's sunrises and sunsets and the sweaty exhaustion of a day spent in the sun and the dirt, or the wet and the mud. It's the heartbreak of a tough ride when nothing goes right and the glow of a good one when nothing can go wrong. It's high fives with my friends, and post-ride beers with the boys, and farts and road trips and laughs and inside jokes and heckles and cheers. It's LIFE. All wrapped up in the best adventure in the world. 

It's a give-give-give relationship, and nothing will take more from me than my love of riding... It's not a bad thing. Because for everything I give to ride, I gain twice as much.  

Obsession? Maybe. Love? Definitely. 

But it's a love affair that will never end. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

How To Save Downhill Mountain Biking

In the last 10 years, a lot of speculation has been tossed around about the so-called 'death of downhill'. With the emergence of 'Enduro' and the surge of popularity in style and freeride events such as RedBull Rampage, its impending death seems even more frequently mentioned, alongside words like 'outdated', 'expensive' and 'extreme'.

Every day, industry sponsors drop downhill-specific athletes over budgetary concerns; companies cut funding for races and downhill events; the entire mountain biking industry seems to greatly shift in consciousness towards being more of an 'every man' sport. With this overall shift, downhill becomes more and more scarce. Entire series are scrapped for more 'all mountain' or 'enduro' races, downhill events are cut back in time, funding, promotion and marketing, and more and more symptoms of an ever-decreasing audience appear. Even the downhill athletes themselves have opted to migrate towards more moderate styles of competition, citing jobs and families and injury-free weekends. 

It seems as though we've all forgotten one thing: downhill mountain biking never was and never will be an 'every man' sport. It's not an activity taken up by the masses in an effort to feel good and enjoy their lives. It will never, ever be that. Downhilling is dangerous. It's technical, it's scary, and it's wild and risky. Downhill bikes have 8 inches of full-suspension travel to mitigate the risk that such tomfoolery presents, and it's still dangerous. Now put that all on a timer, in a competition... You have downhill racing. And gravity racing is, with the exception of its deranged participants, a spectator sport. 

However, that isn't a bad thing. 

There are many extreme sports that garner billions of dollars a year on spectation alone. Snowboarding, skiing, motocross, surfing, skateboarding and even NASCAR are just a few of the ever-growing list. 

In the last 7 years, I've seen a distinct, noticeable change in what qualifies as a 'downhill race' event; not only have the trails changed to appeal to a wider, tamer demographic, but the promotional marketing and live or recorded broadcasts have been altered, too. In some cases, promotion has been a forgotten aspect, giving way to lackluster crowds and decreased profit.

So how do we save downhill, and create mountain biking as a mainstream sport? 

We monetize it. Monetize it? Yes. 


Instead of relying on disappearing participant fees and sponsor dollars to bear the fruit that defines an event's success, we need to create appeal to the general market of adrenaline sports, and get them to show up. To watch. I know; it sounds rather obvious, doesn't it? You would think so... But it's not. Increasingly, the downhill race events are dry. With the exception to a few select events and festivals, downhill racing is relatively boring for your average American consumer. Which is saying a LOT. The American consumer is someone who will not only want to watch stock cars make 500 left-hand turns, but someone who will pay for the privilege. In fact, American consumers shell out billions of dollars a year for entertainment alone. In that multi-billion dollar category, a few standout sports exist: Adrenaline sports (like the ones I suggested above), WWE wrestling, NASCAR, Ultimate Fighting... Etc. And it pays big. REALLY big.

So what is downhill doing so wrong that we've missed the adrenaline sports market by so far? We have the intrigue. We have the adrenaline, the fear, the challenge, the death-defying and the timed-descent. We have crazy stunts and wild athletes. It's fun, it's easily broadcast (compared to other cycling disciplines [ahem, road cycling]), and it's something the entire family actually could watch. Every athlete is different. Every race course is different. It should be something that's widely accepted and loved across all of North America and the globe. But it isn't. Why? Because we've failed to engage the consumer. We've forgotten that while this may be a serious sport to most of us, to the spectator, it's ENTERTAINMENT. Can it be both? Absolutely. 

As a racer, I understand the hesitation to 'sell out'. Believe me... The last thing I want is to have downhilling be made some sort of mainstream farce. But we live in a world of adaptation and survival, and downhill is dying in the age of mass appeal. 

So how do we save downhill? We monetize it. We make it cool again. We look at its strengths, its weaknesses, and its uniqueness, and we market the shit out of it. We create something fun to WATCH, and we ENGAGE. We bring gravity racing and downhill and mountain biking into the homes of the everyday joe. We show them just why DH racing is so fun, and why they need to buy a ticket to come watch it live. 

When we can pull American audiences in because of the spectacle (and downhill is nothing if not a spectacle), then, and only then, will we have a financially sustainable sport. 

The world wasn't ready for downhill in 1998 or 2002; extreme sports hadn't become a 'lifestyle' at that point. Hell, snowboarding was still a joke in '98, not even close to resembling what it is now: a multi-billion-dollar, mainstream, Olympic sport. However, the world is ready for downhill racing. It has been for a while now, but there's only one way to make it successful: we have to stop relying on the athletes and sponsors to create a cycling economy. That business model doesn't work.

We have to create a healthy, spectator sport to save gravity racing... But we'll have to do it together, and we have to do it soon. 

It's time for a shift in another direction if we want to save downhill and downhill racing. 

Pre-sender Reflections

In the last few days as I've wound down my winter prep and have rounded up my gear in preparation for the three-week-long race season sender I'm about to begin, I've had the privilege to spend a good amount of time around or talking to people who have given me a bit of perspective. As I've been forced to dial in my mindset and walk away from the emotional and philosophical riddles that have plagued my off-season, a clarity has emerged, due in large part to these very people. 

Across the board, one thing has been made very blatantly clear: 

I am loved, I am supported and there are people out there who are rooting for me. 

Over and over and over and over again, my heart and mind and soul has been filled to overflowing with the unbelieveable amount of confidence and excitement of the people surrounding me. From long phone calls to simple texts to emails and comments and stop ins, I'm reminded so much of how full my life is... And how I can be such a jerk for not realizing it sooner.

In my demand to be loved only under my own terms, I've largely failed to recognize the level of genuine excitement and affection coming from my friends, my community and my family for what I'm doing and who I am... 

I'm so excited. I'm so ready for this, and so unbelievably ecstatic to finally be here, at this point, and have the world laid in front of me. 

There are so many emotions coursing through my heart and so many thoughts running through my mind, but in both places unanimously, I feel so much goddamn gratitude. No burden, no fear, just gratefulness for the people I have in my life. There is no expectation of me but to do my best and play my hardest, and the chips will fall where they may... And that's love.

From my friends who have quietly helped fund my race season or do favors I know they should not be doing to the people who push me and urge me and love me, even in all of my imperfection... The many, many encouraging, supportive, loving hugs and smiles and grins. The nods and the long looks and the forever understanding of how important this all is, and how unimportant it really is. My little world, encompassed by a grand belief from those around me, has grown... And with it, so have I. 

It hasn't been easy, and it likely won't be going forward. But it has been amazing because of every individually incredible soul in my brilliantly beautiful life... And no matter what, that means I've already won. Because I have you. 

And that's all that matters. 

Thank you. I love you.