Injuries flip side of competition

June 22, 2008|By Stefen Lovelace | Stefen Lovelace,Sun reporter

It had been almost a year to the day since Stephen Murray's life was changed forever.

During the BMX Dirt final of the Dew Tour's Panasonic Open in Baltimore, Murray suffered injuries to his spinal cord and vertebrae in a horrific crash that left him in a wheelchair.

The BMX rider from England attempted a double back flip on the last hill. The missed trick sent chills through the action sports community.

But Friday night, Murray, 28, was on the sideline of this year's final, and the fans in Baltimore gave him a standing ovation. Fellow rider and friend T.J. Lavin had written a song for Murray called "Survivor," which debuted on the big screen next to the course.

Murray was in great spirits during the event, smiling as he sat with wife Melissa and kids Seth, 5, and Mason, 2 1/2 . Despite having to use a motorized wheelchair with head support, Murray is still hoping to walk again. It will be a lifelong fight, but he enjoyed taking a break from his rehabilitation to see the first stop of this year's Dew Tour.

"This is absolutely phenomenal," Murray said. "The amount of support that I've had from everybody, not just the riders and action sports athletes, but everybody all around the world. People supporting such a catastrophic injury, it means a lot to me."

Murray started a clothing line, "Stay Strong," to help raise money for his rehab. Many of the shirts and tank tops he created could be seen during this weekend's event. His presence didn't go unnoticed by the competitors.

"The crowd was amazing, and everything involved with Stephen being here and stuff, it was just crazy-like, weird mixed-emotion night," first-place finisher and reigning BMX Dirt Dew Cup holder Ryan Nyquist said. "It's awesome seeing how good he's doing and that he's in high spirits and everything."

Action sports athletes risk life and limb on a daily basis. It's part of the sport, and many have learned consciously not to think about the danger they put themselves in on every run.

"When you're riding every day, you try not to think about [getting hurt]. That's the last thing you want to think about," said Corey Bohan, who finished fifth in the BMX Dirt event. "You just do your tricks and don't come in here and ride over your head. You're just trying to bring confidence that you can perform all your tricks safely."

Safety becomes even more important when you consider that athletes have to pay for their own medical insurance. Murray's injury might change that.

Aaron Cooke, a friend of Murray's, is the executive director and president of the Athlete Recovery Fund. ARF provides medical and educational assistance to professional athletes who participate in action sports. Cooke started ARF three months ago after seeing the mounting medical costs athletes face after catastrophic injuries.

"When I started helping Stephen through the steps of the process, I found out a lot of interesting things about insurance companies and about where they fall off in coverage," Cooke said. "A person like Stephen is just expected to take that over, and there's a huge gap, and it's pretty important that we create this support system to try to help bridge that gap for these athletes."

ARF is trying to raise money and get donations from companies involved with action sports. The Action Sports Tour, the umbrella brand of the Dew Tour, was the first organization to pitch in.

"I think Stephen's injury raised awareness amongst the entire community and really motivated a lot of people to start putting an infrastructure in place," said Wade Martin, president of the AST Dew Tour. "We've been working directly with the Athlete Recovery Fund. It's something we believe in, and we think the industry needs it. We've been very supportive of it from the get-go, and we want to see it keep growing."

ARF is in the early stages. The organization is focusing on giving money to athletes with severe injuries while it gathers additional funds so it can provide insurance to professional action sports athletes. The hope is that one day it will have enough money to completely cover all professional action sports athletes.

Many athletes hadn't heard much about ARF, but Cooke is using the Panasonic Open as a means to get the word out.

"I've met with a couple athletes face-to-face, but for the most part, they just found out about it this weekend," Cooke said. "They're endorsing it and backing it so strongly that a lot of them are donating 5 percent of their prize purse earnings to help support this fund."

Cooke is in discussions with brands such as Nike 6.0, PlayStation and Verizon to get donations. As ARF grows, athletes believe it can only help action sports grow stronger.

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