Cheers to Life

There is something radically philosophical, and beautiful, about taking part in a sport that reminds you (daily) of the fragility of life.

I have spent the entirety of my life pursuing what it means to be an athlete. I grew up kicking a soccer ball, dabbling in volleyball, swimming, and gymnastics. My childhood years all the way up through college were filled to the brim with miles and miles of cross-country and track, finally drifting into the cycling world in mid-2021.

In all my wonderful years doing sport, I never feared a bad injury. It was always worst-case scenario stress fractures as a runner, or low anemia, or bad performance as the key anxiety-inducers. And in my 22 years of life, I’ve never had a trip to the hospital or a close brush with death. Death was not something I often thought about, and I was okay with that.

Yet, things changed when I became a cyclist. Perhaps this is the case with any classic “extreme” sport. I had a lot of anxiety about crashing. I feared the what-if scenarios. I would hop on phone calls and hear stories from my closest friends about getting hit by cars, and the wake-up calls that ensued. The near-misses became a normal. I began catching the word TBI floating around the peloton a few too many times. It became casual to see women flying off bridges in races, bikes hitting light poles, screams echoing through the peloton as you continue on your merry way. Because what else do you do? This is your sport. As in life, you often push the fears away and learn to deal with them.

It just so happened that one day, my fears turned to reality. It was a calm March morning in Belgium. We were on our way to get coffee. I hit a hidden cable cover while descending, hitting the ground at 35 mph directly on the left side of my head.

My journal, written a week later, reads:

“The final frame. frozen. speed bump below. suspended in air. then cut. nothing. empty. black. but not black because you experience blackness. void. woke up. flashing. people. red. road. bikes. noise. gloves. gloves and blood. people. I’m scared. I’m scared for my brain. arm hurts. deep breaths. loaded into stretcher. in ambulance. oh, the lights aren’t on, that’s good. oh. no they are. maybe it’s serious. cut clothing. arm throbbing. deep breaths. is my brain okay?”

I got knocked out for about 5 minutes. Amnesia stole about 40 minutes of my life and I woke up just as the ambulance arrived. One of the thoughts I most remember, as I sat staring at the ambulance ceiling, the siren swirling outside in a strange detached screech: “I have to confront death. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.”

Given the fact that I got extremely lucky, I was hesitant to allow myself to really dwell in any life-altering or philosophical aspects of the crash. I kept telling myself that so many others had crashed far worse, that it was my first bad crash and that I was just being dramatic. I wanted to write something, but for many weeks, I couldn’t. The following days, weeks, months were a blur. In all honesty, I’m still recovering. I have dealt with over 2 months of headaches, brain fog, fatigue, anxiety, everything, and I still am. All of the symptoms. It feels never ending, it feels unimaginably lonely. You can’t see it, you can’t explain it in its full capacity. I seem normal to most around me. But it has profoundly changed the way I see life and sport, and I have slowly come to accept that there is no level of “bad” that must be reached before it is reasonable to feel this deep perspective shift.

In order to do this sport (or any extreme sport, for that matter) you have to, in a certain sense, accept death. You have to accept injury and TBI and all the various things that could happen. And the question is, why? Why is it worth it? For what? This is the question I keep asking myself after my turn crashing, and being slammed with the closest approximation of death I have yet experienced. And what I came up with is that the real reason I can do this, even with such innate risks- is because it’s not actually about sport at all. If it were, nobody would be doing this. No medal is worth this shit, not to me. But if it’s not about that, then what is it?

For me, it’s a way of living. A mode of expression. A way of (in a very abstract, yet simple sense) accepting life. I accept the dumb luck, fate, chance. I accept the risks, the injuries, the pain. I let go, because it’s damn near roulette out there, elbow to elbow with 160 girls, going 45 mph down a mountain. You can’t do shit about shit. You can prepare, trust your gear, invest in a good helmet, work on your skills all you want. But you can’t control it all. But isn’t that life? The illusion of control we have procures a sense of safety. But sports like this, they strip it all away. It’s quite a conundrum, and in many ways I still really struggle to justify it. Lying in the ambulance wondering If death is coming for me- Is it worth that?

But I think the beauty in this whole thing is that it’s not static. Some days it is worth it. I feel alive, accepting, at peace with the risk and the choices. And other days, this stupid sport makes no sense to me. There is no right or wrong way to approach the risk. There may come a day when I grow tired of the seesaw, but for now, the way I accept it is to see it in this abstract philosophical way. The risks we take in cycling are the risks we take in life. It’s all of the greatest parts; the joy & the suffering, the dreaming & doing, magnified and examined, under a little thing we call sport. It has pushed me towards acceptance of death and therefore enabled me to live a more full life. Because man, we never know what will happen. Cyclist or not. It just so happens that my job brings a bit more constant of a reminder of that fragility. And I can’t say that’s the worst thing.

So cheers. To accepting life and death. To my wonderful, terrifyingly honest sport. It reveals the raw structure of this wild, wild life like few other things do.

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