Motorcycle pro comes full circle in Hamilton
IMPOSSIBLE to understand why Bruce Cook’s return to Hamilton is a big deal if you don’t know the back story. So let’s get that out of the way. It’s a frigid night in January and a 26-year-old Cook rides onto the floor of then-Copps Coliseum, revs his engine and accelerates toward a ramp. He leans forward and tightens his grip on his handlebars as he and his motorcycle are catapulted into the air. They rotate in tandem — once, not quite twice.
He is still facing the arena ceiling when his back wheel slams into the landing strip and launches him from the machine. His body jackknifes backward and tumbles like a rag doll to the base of the incline. There, as he skids to a stop, something occurs to him. He can’t feel his legs.
“I definitely knew right off the bat,” he says in retrospect. “You’re hoping not. You’re hoping it’s a temporary thing, but we’re pretty good at self-diagnosis these days.”
It’s almost four years later and Cook, a freestyle motocross pro from Kelowna, is back for the first time since the gruesome accident that paralyzed him from the waist down. Everything has changed, and nothing. He’s still on tour with Nitro Circus Live —
“I definitely knew right off the bat. You’re hoping not. You’re hoping it’s a temporary thing.” BRUCE COOK MOTOCROSS PRO AFTER SUFFERING A CRASH THAT LEFT HIM PARALYZED
Travis Pastrana’s so-called action sports collective takes over Tim Hortons Field Friday — and he’s still risking his life in pursuit of the high that comes with pulling off a death-defying stunt.
He’s excited, he says, to be here and “kind of come full circle.” He’s also excited “to get it done.”
When he crashed, Cook was trying to land a double front flip — a dangerous manoeuvre that had been attempted just once before by rider Paris Rosen. Rosen didn’t pull it off, either, but he also wasn’t badly hurt. Not so for Cook. When his body ricocheted down that ramp, the impact cleaved his spinal cord and crushed his spinal column. He was rushed into surgery at the General, where doctors worked for three hours to repair a broken vertebra. They couldn’t fix his spinal cord. The damage was too severe.
A day after his accident, Cook posted a photo of himself on Facebook giving the thumbs-up in his hospital bed. Even then, he knew he wanted to get back on his bike as soon as possible.
The next nine months were a blur of rehabilitation and therapy, some at home in B.C., some at Project Walk in California and some at a buddy’s place in London, where he had his 450 Kawasaki, the same one he rode in Hamilton, reworked. It’s also where he went for his first post-crash ride.
His parents, understandably, were less than thrilled.
“I definitely gave it a little time before bringing it up with them,” he says. “They watched me grow up on two wheels and they know that’s what I’m extremely passionate about and that’s what makes me happy, so as apprehensive as they were, they were still supportive and want to see me doing what I love.
“At the same time, it still is dangerous and, yeah, it’s, umm, what? Hesitant support is what I’ll call it.”
Actually, it is more dangerous. Because now, when Cook attempts a trick, he is attached to his bike by a seatbelt — a necessity when you no longer have much control over your core. That means if it goes down, he goes down with it. Even worse, he could get injured in the process and not even know.
When asked if anything like that has happened since his accident, Cook hikes up his shorts to reveal a pair of red, pitted burn scars on the tops of his thighs. Is it from exhaust? A hot engine?
“No,” he smiles. “A leaf blower, of all things.”
In spite of the risks, Cook made his comeback official in October 2015 when, at a Nitro Circus show in Toronto, he became the first paraplegic rider to land a back flip — the same stunt he’ll attempt in Hamilton.
Less than two weeks later, he was introduced to a friend of Pastrana’s, Leah Bauer, at a stop in Minnesota. They’ve been together since.
Bauer, who eventually quit her fulltime job as graphic designer to go on the road with Cook, admits watching her boyfriend work is sometimes tough.
Still, she doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about the potential consequences. “I try to just push it away, but it does go through my mind — what if he crashes again or what if he gets hurt? What would happen? It’s just he’s very confident and I’m very confident in what he does and I just know that he’s got it.”
Cook, meanwhile, is pragmatic about his perilous choice of career. This is how he rationalizes returning to the sport that almost killed him:
“It’s just a calculated risk. Before, doing a back flip, you know, your worst case is you want to bail off and get away from the bike. I can’t do that now, so practice in the foam pit is a lot more serious and crucial than before ... It’s just getting that repetition and just focusing and taking it a lot more seriously because every one has got to be perfect.” And they have been — so far. As a consequence, Cook, now 30, has achieved a level of fame unusual for many extreme athletes. He has nearly 50,000 followers on Instagram and is the subject of an NBC documentary. The media flocks to tell his story pretty much wherever he goes.
It’s all a bit weird, he says, but if it means he has a platform he can use to inspire the masses — something he seems genuinely and unselfishly committed to doing — he’ll take it.
“I’m trying to, I don’t know, not inform people because they already know, but just kind of remind people how much we take for granted,” he adds.
“I think people are just hungry for inspiration and motivation in kind of a different way and that’s what I’m trying to do, turn this negative thing into something positive.”
That’s not to say there aren’t challenges.
Cook gets tired and burned out and frustrated with the barriers he bumps up against now that he can’t use his legs. He’s also still struggling with nerve pain — “that’s probably the toughest thing.”
But the agony reminds him he’s alive, and that’s better than the alternative.
It’s what allows Cook to get back on his bike and speed toward that ramp and risk it all, all over again.
They watched me grow up on two wheels and they know that’s what I’m extremely passionate about … BRUCE COOK STUNT MOTORCYCLIST SPEAKING OF HIS PARENTS’ SUPPORT
Nitro Circus motorcycle rider Bruce Cook broke his back during a show in Hamilton two years ago.
Bruce Cook became the first paraplegic rider to land a back flip in October 2015. He plans to try the same stunt in Hamilton.