Words by Darren Roberts.
I’ve written about the ‘cost of doing business’ in extreme sports over and over – injuries. As I’ve repeated many times, these are a fact of action sports life and all sports…
However what sets extreme sports apart from their traditional counterparts is the very real life and death consequences when things go wrong, and sometimes they go very wrong. When you work with these athletes you soon realise you’re operating in a different performance world. This becomes painfully apparent when I start posting updates on social media stating ‘positive news, he’s off life support and breathing for himself’. Whilst my peers argue amongst themselves about loading, key performance indicators and pretty looking graphs, I simply worry if I’ll see my athletes in one piece again.
It’s not something that I talk about often, but I’ve been through two athlete fatalities, and now sadly that number is three. Si Andrews was a superbike racer who I’ve worked with for a while, and recently very closely and very intensely after a crash at Le Mans in September 2013, which almost claimed his life. Having broken everything except his wrists (which were previously broken anyway…), he had a long and intense rehab with me and the team to get him ready for the 2014 BSB season and road racing season. During his time with us at the rehab centre he stayed at my house and became part of the family. Not only that, there are many other athletes he came into contact with who he inspired during their own rehab. Martin Soderstrom and Taylor Vernon both spent a lot of time with Si during their rehab, where he would either berate them for ‘losing gains’ or applaud them for ‘making gains’, bearing in mind that he deemed ‘losing gains’ to be every moment not spent in the gym or doing ‘something’. From their perspective it was hard to complain about the training sessions they were doing with Si when he had broken both arms, legs and back.
When I received word that Si had crashed at the NW200 road race suffering severe injuries, it was both devastating and somehow strangely expected, a very confusing combination of emotions! The plethora of scenarios and outcomes charged through my head until finally I was told he’d succumbed to his injuries two days later. It was devastating news for my family, me personally and of course I’ve no way of comprehending how Si’s family felt. It’s at this point I can launch into a sombre narrative about loss, sadness and a life cut short, but this isn’t about that.
Extreme sports athletes are the last frontier of human expression, innovation, achievement and freedom in a world crippled by rules, regulations and obesity. We love to watch these athletes in these sports not because of some bloodthirsty voyeurism – it’s a gladiatorial battle between the athletes, gravity, weather, machines and possibly the whole world itself. They are the cliche bright light that burns twice as bright but only half as long – burning a path through life as they go and illuminating it for the rest of us. They do the things you wish you could, with people you’d love to hang out with, a middle finger firmly raised at all times to the rest of the world and the rules we live by. We live vicariously through them, and they remind us what it means to be alive. We should be inspired by their example, even if it’s just to get off the sofa and ride our own bikes, go for a run or simply get outside for a walk with the family. We need to celebrate action sport athletes and make sure they get the recognition they deserve.
My personal experience of these athletes is one of cool calculated professionalism, fully aware of the dangers they face – not the mainstream image of irresponsible adrenaline junkies, selfishly risking everything with no regard for consequences. They are the most single minded calculating athletes in the world, almost clinical. I’m extraordinarily lucky to work with these athletes, my life and everyone else’s life around them is much richer for it. I’m devastated at the loss of an athlete like Si, but I’m glad I was able to work with him and have him in our lives. I just wish it just could have been for a while longer…
Darren Roberts is the High Performance Manager at Harris & Ross in Manchester and was Head of High Performance at Red Bull UK working with the likes of the Atherton family, Danny MacAskill, MX enduro star David Knight and many, many others. He’s also worked with premiership rugby and football teams and individuals, and presents conferences on performance management of extreme sports athletes right through to more traditional sports. He’s a man with fingers in lots of pies!