‘Are we a ticking time bomb?’ BMX riders face up to dangers of CTE
On Tuesday, doctors confirmed Dave Mirra had CTE when he died. And in a sport where concussion is common, the threat of long-term damage is real and scary
The calls started coming.
Close friends of BMX racer Donny Robinson wanted him to know that if he noticed any changes in himself, if he got tired, or overly emotional, or simply didnt feel right, they would be there for him.
Because those in the BMX community know about Dave Mirra, and they fear Robinson could eventually travel the same path.
Mirra, a BMX Freestyle and X Games superstar, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in February. Earlier this week, he was diagnosed with CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
The degenerative brain disease that has primarily affected football players has, for the first time, entered the house of action sports athletes.
If theres any damage done (to me), its already done, said Robinson, who has had at least 25 concussions. Now its a waiting game, and thats really, really scary. People around us will be on higher alert. Are we a ticking time bomb?
No one knows. In an interview with ESPN, Mirras wife, Lauren, spoke of changes in Mirras behavior in the months leading up to his suicide. Depression, listlessness, just not acting like himself.
Concussions are common in BMX: riders like Mirra fly more than 20 feet in the air and often turn upside down doing their tricks, and racers like Robinson go faster and are in danger of colliding with other racers.
Diagnosis and treatment of concussions have improved the past couple of years, especially at the elite level. But for those riders whove retired or are at the tail end of their careers, when a knock on the head was considered just part of the competition, CTE remains a possible eventuality.
Thats a reality Jay Fraga lives every day. For the past six years, Fraga, who runs the website the Knockout Project, has suffered from PCS, or post concussion syndrome, the result of concussions while racing BMX. The symptoms of PCS are similar to those who had CTE.
In a video he posted to his Facebook page after Mirras diagnosis, Fraga said he doesnt like giving live interviews because he has a tough time keeping his train of thought (his interview for the Guardian was conducted via Facebook Messenger).
A good day feels like youre not quite hungover, but probably overdid it a little the night before, Fraga wrote. The bad days are like hell on earth You go with the ebb and flow between those two extremes while also dealing with vision problems, balance issues, depression, mood swings, memory lapses, etc. Some of those things seem to get better. But then they come roaring back out of nowhere and youre left with the realization that you might always be like this.
I go back and forth between wanting to know and not wanting to know (if he has CTE). I already feel lousy; whats it going to do to my emotional state to confirm the worst-case scenario?
Jason Richardson, a former BMX racer and current sports psychologist, breaks down why action sports athletes likely wont let Mirras diagnosis change what they do.
First, Richardson says, theres the it wont happen to me syndrome. And second, its difficult for people to put themselves in a place theyve never been. Its a present-day bias: how it is now, is how its going to be forever.
And it is tough to think about what could happen while performing gravity-defying tricks or in the thick of a race. Especially something that seems far in the future for others.
Or, as Fraga puts it: People in our sports who have any sort of longevity in it are programmed to excel. They dont want to hear this shit. They want to believe that theyre infallible and this was a fluke or that it doesnt apply to them.
Add to it the allure of fame, sponsorship, money, getting to the next trick or progression, the chase for perfection – for young riders, it makes what happened to Mirra seem an anomaly. Every rider who defies gravity knows theyre going to fall. Its just a matter of when and how.
How can you tell someone, Quit your livelihood. Stop doing what gives you life. Stop walking. Stop breathing. Its who you are as much as what you did, Richardson said. And thats the scary piece about it. CTE is insidious. Youll know its happening and you wont be able to do anything about it. And you dont know when or if its going to happen. Riders and psyche, theres a conversion of things that lead them to keep going. At 18 or 19 or 20, if you havent been hurt and people are paying you and telling you youre great, you are immortal. Its hard to let go.
Letting go. Thats what Robinson, who won an Olympic bronze medal in 2008, now faces in his final year of racing BMX.
After reading Lauren Mirras account of her husband searching and failing to find something he felt as passionate about as competing in BMX Vert, Robinson believes having a plan for after he hangs up his helmet could make a difference.
He fears if he has nothing to look forward to, then that could lead to depression, which might activate a chain of events that could end in suicide. He is involved in mentoring young racers and is excited about continuing that when hes done competing.
Its very important to do everything I possibly can, nutritionally and transitionally, Robinson said. These things with my head could be coming up, but Im okay now. Im still hyper-focused on some end goal, and if I dont continue to have that, and Im wandering, that cant help things.
The best thing I can do is try to look at what (Mirra and others diagnosed with CTE after suicide) had going on in their lives and where it led them, and try to protect myself the best I can, and not put myself in their shoes. I have to be equally passionate about what Im doing next, or what the heck is going to happen to me?