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Forced Vacation: Getting Back to Life After the Crash of a Lifetime

On that fateful day, adrenaline was coursing through my veins, the announcer was on pointe, and I was winding up for a Madison-style kilo. I’d like to say that’s all I remember, but I’d be lying. In fact, it was the slowest three seconds of my life. I think you know right away when something is amiss. I knew instinctively that the way I had somersaulted into the balustrade wall, coupled with the fact that my helmet wasn’t on my head when I landed face first on the concrete, meant that I was not going to be getting up and finishing the race. I’ll save you from most of the gory details, but suffice it to say, I didn’t ask the obligatory, “how’s my bike?” Apparently, once they gave me enough morphine, I muttered repeatedly about them “putting my nose back on my face.”

“Forced Vacation” is an oxymoron. “Force” implies that it’s been pressured upon you. But why would you ever “force” a vacation upon yourself? Sometimes, you’re not given a choice. Ironically, force is also a measurement in physics. Force equals mass times acceleration. And as a cyclist who’s felt the devastating effects of this equation, the force integer sometimes results in more than just a measurement of how many watts that your quads eek out. Instead, think impact.

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There’s nothing worse than an abrupt end to your season. And for many, it seems like it always occurs while you’re at your fittest. I don’t know if it’s fate or another power that exists in the universe, but at some point, you won’t have any say in which way the wind blows.

There’s something so breathtaking about change, though. Not breathtaking in the “in awe” kind of way, rather it’s more of an “I can’t breathe, what’s happening to me” sort of thing. Sometimes, change knocks the wind right out of you. It gives you time to sit and contemplate what it is that you were chasing in the first place. Even the newest riders among us are chasing something. Sometimes, I believe that I’ve been chasing blindly for quite some time, and the more that I’ve chased, the harder it’s become to slow down.

There are at least a few people who remarked that I went through all of the stages of grieving after about eight minutes in the trauma room—possibly a record, but who’s counting? After the crash, I tried to have an amazing athlete comeback, but rebuilding my body, while trying to go back to work, left me wondering how I had made it so far in the first place. More than that, it left me pondering what I had been missing while I was holed up training. I started to ride just to ride. I started to trail run without training for a race. I bought a mountain bike to go to Fruita and play. It’s that last word that defines what I hadn’t felt in years. Play. The training and the wins were indeed fun, but it wasn’t playing, even if my parents thought so.

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I rediscovered a love of riding in the desert and mountains that I hadn’t felt for 10 years. And yes, I have zero proprioceptive memory as to how to actually ride across slick rock and scree on knobby tires. In fact, I’ve already had one bloody crash that I think scared my riding partner more than me. I’m tenacious, however, and I do know when to say when.

Being forced to take time off of the bike afforded me the permission to relax, smile, and realize that competition wasn’t the only thing that defined me. And although I’ve come within a millimeter of not being able to walk, I’m less scared of living now more than ever.

I don’t wish an accident on anyone, but I do hope that if you’re faced with a “forced vacation,” you embrace it. I’ve seen far too many people crumble when faced with injury. Take your recovery process to heart. In the end, you may be driven to do exactly what you were doing before, but realize that it’s just sport. I’ve competed for 22 years in everything from speed skating to track cycling, and I haven’t changed the world. I’m not saying that sport isn’t necessary. After all, it does bring the world together every four years. But there’s no shame in rediscovering yourself and a life that you haven’t lived yet.

So, take a deep breath of fresh air and exhale. It’s vacation and time for renewal.