HOW MANY TIMES have you banged your head over the years? I’m not sure I can count. A number of times playing rugby and football. I lost my memory for a month after getting my “bell rung” (the words my coach used when he sent me back out on the ice a little while later) at 15. Since then there were a few more hits on the rugby field and a few bike crashes, too.
All of which pales in comparison to the head injuries college or pro football and hockey players sustain during their careers. Last year the movie Concussion, which follows Dr. Bennet Omalu’s identification of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) that affects a number of football players thanks to the repeated head trauma they sustain, highlighted just how dangerous football can be for its players.
Earlier this year we learned that you don’t have to be in a contact sport to be in danger of getting CTE – an autopsy performed after he took his life in February showed that former X-games star and Ironman triathlete Dave Mirra had CTE.
BMX was Mirra’s ticket out of Chittenango, a small town in upstate New York. Even before he was 10 years old he used to ride 20 miles on his BMX bike, with all his equipment no less, just to be able to get to a ramp to train on in Syracuse. He was always the first kid to the ramp. If the ramp opened at noon, he’d be there at 7 getting ready. He had two VCRS and a camera so he could watch videos of his BMX heroes, and also of his own tricks, honing his technique. All that led to an X-games career that included 24 medals, 14 of them gold.
You don’t become the first person to land a double back flip (in competition) without falling a few times. And falling hard. Over the years he’d lost his spleen. There was a trip to the ICU and months of recovery after falling 16 feet off a ramp onto his head. When he was 19 he got hit by a drunk driver and fractured his skull, too.
According to a story posted on Outside Online, some of Mirra’s friends started to notice that he wasn’t himself after he finished Ironman Lake Placid last year. Despite having been offered a spot in Kona because of his celebrity status, Mirra had no interest in racing at the world championship unless he qualified. Just over six months after that he was dead.
I don’t think anything would have stopped Dave Mirra from competing the way he did. During an interview in March, 2015, he recognized the intensity that helped him achieve his sporting success and acknowledged that it scared him. In 2011, when he signed up for a boxing match, he spent six weeks living with his friend Laird Hamilton (and Hamilton’s wife Gabrielle Reese) in Los Angeles. He left his wife, Lauren, and two kids Mackenzie and Madison back home in North Carolina as he trained six days a week in a boxing gym on Sunset Boulevard.
“This is what scares me about the full distance,” Mirra said. “I just change as a person. It’s like a first relationship in high school, where not a second goes by in the day when you’re not thinking about the person. That’s how I am – with the boxing and with Placid. I keep living it in my head.”
Mirra became one of America’s most famous athletes, but it didn’t go to his head. He was surprised when I tracked him down for an interview at the worlds in Mont-tremblant two years ago. Humble to the extreme, he had nothing but great things to say about the triathlon community. It wasn’t hard to write great things about him, either.
Hopefully his death will bring at least one good thing – more awareness about CTE and, possibly, a cure for the disease at some point. We don’t need to lose any more of the Dave Mirras of the world.