Darryl Tait is hanging off the uphill side of his snowmobile, wedged in a chute at the top of a mountain and hoping against hope that the weight of his upper body is enough to keep the 500-pound machine from tumbling back down the slope and taking him with it. As he tries, unsuccessfully, to release the straps that hold his paralyzed legs to the vehicle, one thought keeps passing through his head: I’ve already been crushed by my own machine once; I really don’t want it to happen again.
That previous incident happened in 2011. Tait had been hustling for sponsorships at a snowmobile exposition in New Hampshire. He had all the skills needed to go professional, but because he grew up in Canada’s remote Yukon territory, nobody knew who the hell he was. He figured that landing a backflip — which back then had only been done by a handful of riders — was the best way to get people’s attention. He had already landed a few on a backcountry feature near his hometown of Whitehorse and was confident he could pull it off.
At the last session of the expo, Tait hammered the throttle wide open and hucked himself backwards off the lip of the jump. “As soon as I got upside down, my snow machine sputtered, quit and stalled on me,” he says. The centrifugal pull of the track stopped, which stalled his rotation. The tips of his snowmobile dug in on landing and “like a mousetrap going off, the snow machine bit me from behind.” The result was a T4-5 spinal cord injury.
Clinging to the side of the mountain, Tait is fully aware of the potential consequences should gravity exert its dominance again. “I was exposed to other types of spinal cord injuries and quadriplegics in rehab,” he says. “I realized that if I do break my neck, I’d be starting from square one all over again.”
After a few nerve-wracking minutes, one of Tait’s friends is able to get to him and pull him off the snowmobile without it rolling. He was about one degree of slope away from another really bad day but manages to make it out with his remaining function still intact. “If anything would have happened, it would have been a heli [evacuation] for sure,” he says looking back.
If your immediate reaction is, “What the F are you thinking Darryl? Didn’t you learn your lesson?” I get it. But bear with him. Tait did learn a lesson, just not the one you might expect him to.
“I stopped doing extreme sports after my accident for a little bit … just to play chess or fly a kite or try to do more chill activities, but I was so depressed,” he says. “I realized that it’s my identity and it’s who I am. I can’t stop doing it — I just need to do it within reason.”
Tait isn’t alone. Getting back to doing what they love is priority number one for many athletes who sustained spinal cord injuries in the pursuit of high-risk sports. In the process, they’re pushing extreme adaptive sports to an entirely new definition of “within reason.”
Getting Back to Normal
“I guess the feeling that I get out of it is just … joy,” says legendary motocross racer Doug Henry.
Henry started riding dirt bikes at age 5 and racing motocross at age 15. “I had a rough learning curve. I had my fair share of crashes, but with that I was maybe able to push it a little bit more than some of my competitors,” he says. That ability to push it led to three motocross national championships, an Eastern supercross championship, and induction to the Motocross Hall of Fame in 2005.
Being around dirt racing his entire life, Henry was well aware of the risks of his chosen vocation, but he never doubted they were worth taking. He says that he knew the kind of injury his actions could cause. In fact, he had already broken his back once while racing, though without any nerve damage, and after multiple surgeries and a long recovery process, had gone back to racing. “So I really felt like I couldn’t use the accident as an excuse to stop doing what I was doing,” he says.
Henry wound up in a wheelchair as a result of another racing accident — in 2007 he broke his back again, this time resulting in a complete SCI at T12. Shortly after his spinal cord injury, a friend showed him a video of Ricky James — another motocross rider who had been paralyzed a few years before — riding an adaptive motocross bike. “It looked to me like something that I could do, and something I wanted to do,” says Henry. He had family support and friends across all levels of motorsports, and not long after he got out of rehab, Henry began adapting equipment — from dirt bikes, to snowmobiles, to bulldozers and excavators — to make them usable for his new body. “I just kind of kept moving forward,” he says.
He had made a living racing motorcycles, but now he had the time to pursue other activities — everything from snowmobiling to mono-skiing, snow biking, dirt biking, mountain biking and road cycling. Henry already had X Games medals (a gold and a bronze in Supermoto, a hybrid dirt/road motorcycle competition) in his trophy collection, and he’s since added a host of others. “I go out and push myself in a certain area or a certain section and try to get a little bit more out of myself, and when I’m able to do that, that’s just an achievement that I can’t seem to fulfill anywhere else,” he says.
Different, But Awesome
Everything lined up for Henry to reintegrate into the sport he loved, but for many people a number of factors can make getting back to normal more complicated.
In 2017, Quinn Brett fell while speed climbing El Capitan in Yosemite. Brett was part of an elite subset of big wall climbers that ascend multi-thousand-foot rock faces as fast as humanly possible. In 2012, Brett and another woman had set the woman’s speed record on El Cap, climbing a route called The Nose — which usually takes teams two to three days — in only 10 hours and 19 minutes.
She still doesn’t know exactly what happened when she fell. She says she was distracted and probably not in the right frame of mind to be on the wall, and somehow, she came off. Whether she forgot to place protection or it failed, Brett fell 100 feet onto a ledge, bounced off the rocks and landed on another ledge 10 feet farther down — she had multiple broken bones and an incomplete SCI at T11.
Brett is still figuring out her new reality. After her SCI, she says, she didn’t really miss rock climbing as much as some other parts of her nondisabled life. “Yes, I love rock climbing, but mostly I was an endurance athlete,” she says. She missed the freedom and the mental and physical satisfaction of being able to move herself through wilderness and difficult terrain.
Post-injury, swimming gave her an outlet for cardiovascular activity, and a friend immediately ordered her a Reactive Adaptations off-road handcycle to get her back out into the wilderness. Her first trip was eye opening. “I was just so grumpy. Like, I used to speed-run up hills and kick everyone’s ass, and here I am barely moving forward,” she says.
Slowly though, her perspective started to shift. Part of it was realizing that handcycling was a new sport, requiring new muscles and new techniques. When she was climbing, she’d spent years working her way up harder and harder difficulty ratings. Understanding that same commitment was going to be required for adaptive sports helped get her over her initial grumpiness.
Another turning point was meeting other adaptive athletes and starting to plan rides with them. “The part that I miss about rock climbing isn’t necessarily the rock climbing, it’s scheming the big endeavors — like what kind of gear do we need and how can we be efficient and … where can we stash food so we don’t have to carry it, she says. “That really started spinning my head around, like, oh this is cool, I can plan adventures again.”
When you are really good at something before your accident, it can be hard to accept that you aren’t automatically going to start an adaptive sport in the same place you left off. Roy Tuscany was an aspiring pro skier when he broke his back at T12 and sustained partial paralysis. After the accident, he says, “I was always trying to find what would make the sensation most like what I remember, and actually, the best thing I’ve done is get into a sport that I didn’t do prior to my injury.”
He found a new outlet in adaptive surfing. One of the best things about surfing, he says, was that he didn’t have any idealized experience from before his injury to compare it to. He was free to enjoy the experience as is, instead of being bummed out that it wasn’t the same as before. He says that step number one for getting involved again is to let go of expectations.
When asked what advice he gives to newly injured athletes looking to get back out there after a spinal cord injury, he shares a phrase that has become a mantra, both for him and the foundation he started (see sidebar): “It will never be the same. But it will be awesome.”
The Progression is Real
You only need to spend a few minutes on Instagram to realize how far extreme adaptive sports have progressed in the past few years. Whether its Trevor Kennison airing into Corbet’s Couloir on a sit ski, adaptive surfers paddling into some of the gnarliest waves on the planet, Tait breeching 20 foot gaps on his Bowhead mountain bike, or any number of other stomach-clenching feats, today’s athletes are doing things that remained the domain of elite-level nondisabled athletes only a few years ago.
One key factor driving this progression is the growing availability of highly-engineered adaptive equipment. Unlike the gear of 20 years ago, today’s equipment can mimic some of the natural functions of the human body and withstand the extreme forces that come with such extreme pursuits. “Ten years ago, one of the best sit skis was the Freedom Factory. You weren’t jumping that into Corbet’s Couloir,” says Tuscany. “That thing would break upon impact and you’d end up with the shock somewhere between your thigh and your midsection.”
The advent of long-travel suspension and CNC-milled aluminum frames is helping today’s sit skiers launch the largest jumps in the terrain park, drop backcountry cliffs and charge just about any slope on the mountain. Similarly, with off-road bikes like the Bowhead Reach, adaptive surfboards shaped to respond to the unique weight shifts of seated and prone riders, and custom carbon-fiber seat buckets that can make snowmobiles, snow bikes, two-wheel mountain bikes and just about any other vehicle rideable by wheelchair users, today’s adaptive equipment is allowing athletes to push themselves and each other, instead of holding them back.
Henry has been a driving force behind many extreme adaptive sports — designing and fabricating new gear and pushing the limits of adaptive snowmobiling, motocross, snow-biking and bucket biking, among others. He says that in addition to the improved equipment, “extreme sports are more accessible to get into as an adaptive athlete these days. … There are a lot of resources now — just reach out through social media and you can find out pretty much everything you need to know.”
Whether through Instagram and Google searches, or through foundations (see below), would-be adventurers are able to find out what equipment is available, see what others with similar levels of function are able to do, connect with like-minded individuals and receive quality instruction more quickly and more easily than ever before.
Anatomy of Risk
Those who get to the highest levels of extreme sports tend to have a slightly different brain chemistry than most humans, and they tend to view risk in different terms. As “This Is Your Brain on Adventure,” an article in Outside Magazine that looked at the brain chemistry behind thrill-seeking, explained it: “Thrill seekers tend to be open-minded, intelligent, and curious. They invent new sports, run for office, work on Wall Street, and perform high-stakes surgery. They’re also more likely to bust their skulls open or get hooked on crack.” As it happens, Tait gave himself a pretty nasty concussion last summer when he smacked his head while trying to drift his Bowhead under a steel gate in a Calgary parking lot.
When those without the risk-taking genes see a video of someone riding a monster wave or clinging to the side of a cliff, they tend to focus on the potential consequences, whereas when risk-takers see the same footage, they remember the rush that those activities deliver. A traumatic accident can give a first-hand lesson in consequences, but adventurous types still often view risk as something to be managed rather than avoided.
Even though the inherent risks of speed climbing a 3,000-foot rock wall may be obvious, Brett says she didn’t view her climbing as particularly risky. “For me, risky things are like doing backflips or climbing certain routes that have shitty protection or a really high fall consequence,” she says. “People can diminish risk physically, by preparing and physically getting better, but also by mentally doing things over and over and getting more comfortable.” After her injury, Brett says she doesn’t feel like she’s taking risks as big as “people in wheelchairs who are doing backflips in skateparks.” But still, she was recently out riding Moab’s famous slick rock with Tait and a few other Bowhead riders, and she almost tipped over backwards on one section. “That would have been a pretty high consequence,” she says.
You Are What You Love
It’s safe to say that while spinal cord injury may alter your physical function instantly, it does little to alter the brain chemistry that led you to take risks in the first place. After Jesse Billauer was thrown from his surfboard into a sandbar and sustained a C6 SCI, he wanted nothing more than to get back out into the water. It was 1996 and there weren’t many paralyzed surfers, especially quads. He’d been months away from going pro before his injury, but it took years of riding smaller, manageable waves to grow his skills and dial in his gear. Eventually, though, he progressed onto bigger and bigger waves. “After my accident, I didn’t stop. It didn’t matter whether I was paralyzed or not — I was going to surf what I wanted to surf.”
With the help of friends pushing him into the waves, he was soon back riding waves — like Cloudbreak in Fiji and Sunset Beach on Oahu’s North Shore — that were bigger and more dangerous than anything he’d ridden before his injury. In 2015, he won his first world championship as an adaptive surfer. When asked about any particularly close calls or sketchy situations he’s found himself in since his injury, Billauer laughs. “Too many,” he says. “I wouldn’t call them close calls, I’d call them bad calls.” Billauer says he’s broken leg and hip bones multiple times riding big waves, each with a six-month recovery period, and is now a lot more selective about when and what he surfs. “Through injury and age and growing up, that’s when I started dialing back a little more.”
Henry has had a similar experience. It wasn’t the accident, but experience and maturation that caused his mindset to shift. “As I get older, I’m more precise with a lot of the decisions that I make, and I try to be safer. I try to constantly improve my equipment to make it safe. And I still have so much fun with it,” he says.
For all of these athletes, risk is a part of their sports, but adrenaline isn’t the only goal. The experiences — whether it’s the sensation of being completely present and focused, the pleasure communing with the natural world, the satisfaction of rising to a challenge or the simple joy of connecting with your friends — are what keep bringing them back.
High Fives Foundation
Roy Tuscany started the High Fives Foundation to support athletes who’ve sustained life-changing injuries. Their Empowerment Fund provides funding to help with everything from physical therapy to living expenses, bodywork, travel, adaptive lessons and equipment for athletes pursuing a dream in the outdoor sports community. They also run B.A.S.I.C.S., which teaches injury prevention and smart decision-making strategies in the mountains. For more info, visit highfivesfoundation.org.
Life Rolls On
Jesse Billauer started Life Rolls On in 2001 to provide opportunities for people with a variety of disabilities to try adaptive surfing and skating. The organization currently hosts WCMX and surfing events in 12 cities across the country, from California to Texas, New Jersey, Georgia and more, each with an army of volunteers ready to make your experience as safe and enjoyable as possible. Check out the website at liferollson.org for a full event list and info on how to get started.