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Extreme Sports… Extreme Living… Extreme Dying

Posted Feb 15 2010 12:00am

I’ve been thinking a lot about extreme sports and TBI, of late. Just this past week, Nodar Kumaritashvili, a Georgian luger, died on the Whistler track in Vancouver during an Olympic training run. I watched a graphic video of it on CBSnews.com, and it’s pretty wrenching. He lost his sled in a turn, flew off, and went into a pole.

I have heard it said that he was relativley inexperienced. I have also read that he told his father he was terrified of the track. And I’ve read discussion and debates about how lugers and other winter athletes know the risks, but they choose to focus on the goals, the rewards, the prizes that come from winning. If they give into fear or they hesitate, all may be lost.

At the same time, I’ve been reading a bit about Kevin Pearce, the snowboarder who sustained a traumatic brain injury on a halfpipe during a training run. ESPN’s headline seemed to downplay the injury — Pearce hurts head training on halfpipe. Other news told a more sobering story — critical condition… moved to a brain injury hospital in Denver, where he’s making better progress than expected, actually walking and responding.

Only folks who understand the impact of TBI — more than what many folks think of as “just a concussion”… more than “just” a bump on the head — will fully appreciate how much progress Pearce actually is making. Most folks may very well wonder what the big deal is. If Pearce is doing that well, yes, he is making amazing progress. It probably helps that he’s an athlete.

Over the past holidays, one of my nephews had a fall from about 6 feet up. He landed hard and was addled afterwards. I wasn’t there to see it happen. And everyone else who was there just let it slide. According to my nephew, he’s had about 12 concussions. He’s into extreme sports. He skateboards and is an all-out outdoor enthusiast. He’s a great kid — kind and soft-spoken and quite polite. His mom has done a great job with him, I have to say.

But I worry about him. I wonder about him. He’s fine now, but what about in the future?

I look back on myself at his age — 13 and rarin’ to go. Immortal, as far as I was concerned. Untroubled by hard falls and spills and being knocked silly, every now and then. I played hard and fast, and I didn’t follow instructions about being careful. That was for sissies. Wusses. I had a game to play, a goal to reach, and nothing — no timidity, no fear, no trepidation, no namby-pamby wuss — was going to hold me back.

And I think about the concussion prevention/management legislation that’s been proposed in multiple states — some of it requiring medical clearance before kids who have head injuries are allowed to play agan. I wonder what kind of an impact that’s going to have at all — if it may in fact cause more dangerous cases to go unnoticed. I can tell you from personal experience that when I was a kid,  if I thought I was going to be told to sit out a game I wanted with all my might to play, I either lied through my teeth to convice my coach that I was okay. If, that is, I even realized that I was having problems. A lot of times, I didn’t. Or, if I did, I ignored it and played through.

It’s really, really hard to explain what it’s like to get your bell rung in a game, and not be able to think well enough to protect yourself from further injury. It’s like, you know there’s something up, but you keep going, keep playing, keep pressing on. You don’t want anything to stop you, and sometimes the more your bell is run, the harder you push through.

You should sit down. You should rest. Part of you knows that. But there’s this other part that’s very go-go-go that gets jammed in gear and you can’t disengage. Even when there’s this little voice in the back of your head telling you that you need to take a break… that something’s not right… your coordination is off… you don’t have the same control you did, just a few minutes ago… still, you’re jammed in gear, and like the jammed accelerators in pre-recall cars, accidents can happen as a result. More accidents. Just when you least need them.

It’s a tricky, tricky thing, trying to stay safe when you’re just trying to play and have a good time. The Olympic athletes who sustain injuries (or are killed) during training runs… some folks would consider them foolhardy and blind to do the things they do. But when you’ve been pushing the limits, going faster, farther, higher, for years on end, you sharpen your taste for breaking records, pushing past limits…. and with each successive broken record, the bar is set higher. And higher. And higher.

It’s a wonder anyone survives at all, quite frankly.

But here’s the thing — all those stress hormones pumping through the body, all that adrenaline running in your veins, all the hype and pump and competition… they literally change you. They change your brain, they change your body. Just ask people with PTSD — a super-extreme version of what happens to you over years and years of intense extreme sports experiences. Your brain gets used to the pump. It craves it, actually. And if you’ve been marinating in that hormonal soup long enough — and have gotten plenty of rewards from pushing past your limits — pushing through till you’re breaking through becomes very much a part of your person.

And without it, you’re lost.

Literally. It’s not just some psychological “addiction” to the thrill that’s at work. It’s a fundamental, integral part of who and what you are — a piece of your puzzle that has to be fitted into place, in order for you to feel even remotely human. Someone who is at their best when they are pushing the envelope is going to continue to seek out those situations where they can push through, because they want to be at their best. Especially when they are an athlete — and a world class one at that. We athletes want to be the best we can be. We want to perform well. We need it. We crave it. We must have it. If we can’t get it, then who are we? Just another schmoe sitting in a cubicle, answering phones, or wearing an apron and telling people where they can find the plumbing supplies.

It’s not that the athletes (and other high-performers) of the world can’t deal with regular life. We just operate at a different level. And to get to that level, you need an element of risk to sharpen the senses. You need a bit of an edge. And if you don’t have it… can’t get it… then it’s not just your performance that suffers. It’s your very self, your very core, your very interior person, that suffers, as well.

It’s not just thrills we seek. It’s not just mindless risk that we’re addicted to. Those of us who are peak performers — whether athletes or stock brokers or CEOs or award-winning writers, scientists… whatevers — need a little extra something to stay on top. We needed it to get there, and we continue to need it to stay there. To do anything less than push past our personal best, is to fail to be the persons we are. Some of us turn to drugs. Some of us turn to foolhardy decisions. Some of us turn to adultery with easily recognized flings. Some of us bungee jump. But the need and the drive is the same — seeking the edge, so we can find ourselves. So we can be ourselves. So we can be more of who we have become over time, over years of progressively more advanced tests, and progressively higher risks.

Deathwish? No.

Lifewish – yes.

Now, I know my psychotherapist friends would argue this point with me. BUt you know what, none of them are — or ever have been — athletes. They are not particularly active, to begin with. Understanding what would cause someone to lie down on a small sled and hurtle downhill at 95 mph with just a helmet to protect them… or what would induce someone to snowboard high in the air and do flips and twists… well, that takes a certain kind of experience. Physical experience. Physically extreme experience. Now, I’ve never been attracted to extreme sports that involved fast speeds and heights (my balance has never been good enough for me to go there), but I do know what it’s like to push myself as hard as I could go for 3.2 miles… or around a track 8 times… or down the final stretch of an 800 meter race… or down a runway with a javelin in my hand. I do know what it’s like to practice in all kinds of weather and push through, no matter what. I also know what it’s like to lay it all on the line, time and time again… to reap the rewards of success… and to suck up the dregs of failure and start all over again — next time working all the harder.

It’s not about some psychological death wish. It’s not about having no sense of imminent danger. It’s not about any conscious thought process, other than focus on the end-goal, the prize, the medal, the reward. On some level, it’s not even a mental process at all. It’s a physical, spiritual, metaphysical process to which the mind must be subservient. And as such, there will always — for some of us — be an element of terrible risk… risk of immediate death or eventual debilitation.

And until people figure out how to get that “high” (that insulting slight of a term for what is a complex process) from a safe and secure place, there will always be mortal danger for the best of the best. We don’t just like that pump; we need it. We must have that rush that gets you thinking better, cogitating more clearly, and feeling like you’re alive again. Until people acknowledge this as a valid human need and figure out how to help us get it without putting our necks on the line, the only way to get that will be through more risk, chancier actions, and increasingly dire danger.

After all, if you can’t live fully without that biochemical pump, and you can’t stand how you feel without it, the prospect of being hurt — or dying — while marinating in that soup of fully alert humanity, probably seems worth the risk.

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