The men are sweet when they talk to me, like boys eager to please the teacher. These are BMX riders—current and former, amateur and pro— mourning Dave Mirra, the Michael Jordan of their sport, who committed suicide in February. He sat in the cab of his truck near his home in Greenville, North Carolina, and shot himself with his own gun. He was 41 years old, with two young daughters and a wife. Mirra had recently been feeling lonely and lost, his friends tell me, but it never occurred to them, or most of them, to worry for his life.
“These are grown men on little bikes, hucking themselves 40 feet in the air,” says Jason Richardson, a pro BMX racer turned sports psychologist. The chance of death is a fact of life for all extreme athletes, but the whole point, the job description, is to defy or outwit it—certainly not to just surrender. “At some point in every rider’s career,” says Richardson, “the only way to get better is to accept the real risk that you’ll get bleep-bleep-bleeped up. That’s the choice. To me, it’s a special choice.”
BMX riders have a word for this choice, which also denotes their highest value: passion. In the idiom of BMX, passion is the degree to which an athlete’s desire to pull a never-seen-or-done-before trick (or string of tricks) outweighs any conventional calculation of risk. This is, in part, why it’s a young man’s sport, undertaken by those with underdeveloped frontal lobes. “When I first started, I couldn’t even imagine getting hurt for real. I broke my legs real bad, and I was like, Damn, I didn’t know we could slam like that,” says T.J. Lavin, who retired from BMX in 2010 after a crash required him to be put into a medically induced coma. And among the most competitive riders, the explicit aim is to maintain that adolescent mind-set, that intensity and daring, long past the age when other men cede to their limitations. But even within this adrenalized world, Mirra’s brain chemistry was special; his genius was to be able to stay, consistently and for 20 years, just at the razor’s edge of what he might not be able to do. Dennis McCoy, one of the elders of BMX, called Mirra “trick horny.” Mark Eaton, a friend from adolescence, said his mind was “so trigger.” His nickname was Miracle Boy.
Like all warriors and macho-sports superheroes, extreme athletes are expected to be unfazed by danger. “If you crash, it’s probably because you’re going for something you want to learn and, whatever, accidents happen,” Mirra told a filmmaker in 2001. He’d been in hundreds of crashes himself, and his hunger for the abyss remained persistent and real. Throughout his short life, Mirra talked about his passion for BMX directly in terms of wanting to die, which makes him not so unusual among danger hunters, for whom the relentless pursuit of heights, speeds, and hazards is a kind of addiction and the daily activity of teasing death becomes the material of life itself. Better, even: a more vivid, enhanced reality—functioning as a salve, an opiate to numb the agonies of encounters with the ordinary world.
“If something happens, oh well,” explains Kevin Robinson, a retired BMXer who knew Mirra well. “You get that little bit of a pit in your stomach, and that tingle. You turn that fear into fire. That’s the feeling I love. It’s not something you can turn off and on like a switch.” For all of these men, retirement is a critical test. Mirra left BMX in 2011 after a competition in Ocean City, Maryland, when he saw that the younger men with whom he was competing were hungrier than he was. “I could see it in their eyes, man, they’ll do whatever it takes to win,” he told Fat Tony, a podcaster and former BMX rider, in an interview last year. “They’ll die. Just like I would when I was younger. I would have died to win.” But approaching middle age, he found he had lost the will to die—to shoot down a two-story vertical ramp at 25 mph, then straight up the other side, then up, out, above, dismounting from his bike, cradling it even, flipping and night, in parking lots—just ride and ride and ride.”
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