For T.J. Lavin, this weekend’s Dew Tour Championships in his hometown Las Vegas will be surreal and bittersweet. The BMX star won’t win a Dew Cup, because he can no longer ride a bike, but he was the top story going into the event because of what happened at last year’s competition.
While trying a relatively easy trick during a jump between sections on the dirt course, he crashed hard and ended up comatose in a nearby hospital, with a severe brain injury.
“I can’t remember what happened the whole month, let alone that day,” he said Thursday.
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the accident and Lavin, during an interview, shed light upon what people who suffer brain injuries must endure while trying to reclaim the lives they had previously enjoyed.
The longtime BMX star feels as though he could still jump on his bike and ride the way he used to ride, but his motor skills remain so out of whack that he has a hard time even pedaling a bike.
Oddly, though, the mind itself is sharp. Lavin, in fact, designed the dirt course the BMX riders will use during the Dew Tour Championships, which run through Sunday.
Being back at the scene of his accident is more than surreal, he said, explaining that he has experienced flashbacks of last year, during which he has tried to caution himself not to ride in the event. It was the same feeling he experienced when he first saw slow-motion video of the accident; he wished he could warn himself off the course.
“It was just a fun trick, nothing crazy,” he recalled. “I was just trying to get through the section.”
Making it more painful, or frustrating, was the fact that he was going to retire from competitive riding after the event.
His story is not unique. Pro snowboarder Kevin Pearce has been waging the same kind of battle since suffering a brain injury in the halfpipe on Dec. 31, 2009. Pearce said recently that while he’s confident he can ride a snowboard at a high level, the motor skills just won’t come together.
Remarkably, a day before Lavin’s accident, his longtime friend, Ty Pinney, suffered a more severe brain injury while riding on Lavin’s backyard course. The next day, after Lavin’s crash at the Dew Tour, the two ended up side-by-side in the same hospital.
Pinney is still re-learning how to walk and talk.
Lavin, as the man of the hour at the Dew Tour, said a part of him cringes every time he hears about anyone suffering a brain injury. “I’m really bummed for them because those days are going to be tough,” he said. “It’s a really big battle but it’s not really that hard for you. It’s really hard for your friends and family. They’re having to deal with everything is way, way worse than what you have to deal with.”
Lavin, whose fiancee was holding his hand as he awoke in his hospital bed, considers himself fortunate to only have been comatose for only one week, and hospitalized for only a month.
Still, he faced Mt. Everest-sized challenges. He had to learn how to count, and for that task his therapists used money. He had to re-learn, basically from scratch, how to walk and talk. He experienced double vision for about six months. If he skips a therapy session, it sets him back weeks.
“It’s a long, hard process,” he said. “You have to really think about it. Every single day you have no breaks — you have to go to a therapy class or a rehab facility. You have to just put your head down and make it happen.”
Lavin had been a top-level BMX star, a multiple X Games gold medalist, an professional musician and host of MTV’s “The Challenge,” and he has made remarkable progress.
His speech is perfect and his piano skills are returning, and he just wrapped up another season of “The Challenge.”
As for the dirt course he designed, it’s bigger and more challenging and requires more technical skills than last year’s course, and the riders this week have said they love it. In fact, it’s similar in many ways to the course at Lavin’s nearby home.
“It’s really cool to be bringing some of my backyard into the Dew Tour,” he said. “It sucks, though, because I can’t ride. But I’ll swallow that medicine and sit back and enjoy the show.”
— Images showing T.J. Lavin in action at last year’s Dew Tour Championships prelims, and working on the course for this year’s event, are courtesy of Mark Losey / Alli Sports