Landing in hot water

Extreme: Motocross rider Travis Pastrana's idea of fun is not for the fainthearted, but nobody but himself was hurt until he touched a nerve in San Francisco.

July 13, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Travis Pastrana sits on his living room sofa. At 15, he looks fresh-faced and happy. He radiates a kind of calm sweetness. But don't be deceived. Pastrana, of Annapolis, is not your normal 15-year-old.

A couple of weeks ago, in fact, he was so far over the edge that he was even judged too extreme for ESPN's X Games. The X stands for Extreme, but when Pastrana took off on his 125cc yellow Suzuki and landed in San Francisco Bay, it was too much for ESPN producers.

"I was just happy," Pastrana said of his plunge after winning the gold medal in the first freestyle Moto X competition. "I didn't know it was going to be such a big deal."

ESPN allowed Pastrana to keep his medal, but refused to show the footage of his jump into the bay and would not pay him the $10,000 first prize.

About $2,500 of the money has gone to pay for fishing his motorbike from the bay. Another $2,500 is being donated to a Save the Bay charity and the rest is being held, indefinitely, until it is determined what other fines may be incurred from the jump that is also against EPA rules, port rules and San Francisco laws.

ESPN president George Bodenheimer said through a spokesman that he didn't want to incite others to imitate Pastrana in future events and pointed to safety issues outside the competition area.

But in its efforts to downplay the incident, ESPN has inadvertently placed the spotlight squarely on Pastrana and his flight.

Since returning home to Annapolis, he has been interviewed widely by the media and last week was invited to appear on Jay Leno's "Tonight Show." He declined for the time being.

All of which could result in a soaring ego. But Pastrana laughs. "My hat size is still small," he says.

That, too, seems extreme, because he has a load of reasons to feel pretty good about himself:

He is a home-schooled student who met the high school graduation requirements three years early. He is now a University of Maryland freshman working toward a degree in speech communications through the Internet and, his parents say, maintaining an A average.

He has defended his amateur national Motocross championship 12 times, won one world freestyle title and the X Games title. He has been riding motorcycles since age 4, when he was given a 50cc bike.

He has been described as "the next great rider" in Motocross, the events of which are contested on an undulating track with elevations as high as 80 to 90 feet. By the time he goes pro this fall, his family expects him to sign a six-figure contract, which would be the largest rookie Motocross contract in American Motorcycle Association history.

He has invented four freestyle jumps -- the Cliffhanger, in which his feet are under the handle bars and his arms are in the air over his head while his cycle soars; the Lazy Boy, in which he puts his feet under the handlebars and reclines, his arms behind his head; the Rodeo, in which he holds the handlebar with one hand, swings his legs straight out front and clicks his heels while waving his other hand in the air, just like he's bull riding, and then lands with no hands; and the Indian Air, in which he does the Superman fender grab (one hand grabs the fender, while the rest of his body is stretched out behind him) and with both legs back as far as they can go, he crosses his feet.

"Getting there is easy," he said, with a grin. "It's getting back on that's hard."

Right now, he is still the only person ever to perform the Indian Air or the Rodeo.

The risky maneuvers come with a price. In the last three years, he has had 18 broken bones and eight operations. Ask him what bones he has broken and he starts at the bottom and works his way up: "My foot, ankle, tibia, knee cap (actually the growth plate in the knee), pelvis, multiple hip fractures, dislocated spine, multiple wrists fractures -- about five times each -- thumb, knuckles, fingers and elbow."

The worst of those, he said, was when his femur came right through his knee, broke his tibia and tore major ligaments. It took nine months for him to heal.

But in the minds of others, his most severe injury came last October in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., when he landed short on a 120-foot jump and separated his pelvis from his spine.

"This is in all the crash tapes," Pastrana said, as he shows the video of the disaster. "My head actually touched my stomach there was so much force."

He seems pleased that his wreck was ugly enough to make the crash videos, and said, he actually likes watching them.

"The crash videos are probably the best videos on the market," he said. "Crashing isn't something I want to do, but you can learn from them. You're scared to a point. But if you have to second-guess yourself, you shouldn't be out there.

"I'm very sure every day that I'm not getting hurt today."

But on that October day, he did get hurt. Landing short, he dislocated his sacroiliac joints by two centimeters, in effect tearing apart the connection between the upper and lower parts of his body.

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