The countdown is nearing for what was supposed to be Levi LaVallee’s big night. He had planned to ring in the new year by soaring more than 300 feet through the air on a 450-pound snowmobile, under bright lights in San Diego as part of a major ESPN spectacle.
Instead, LaVallee will spend New Year’s Eve at his parents’ house in Minnesota, recovering from injuries sustained two weeks ago during a practice run, still puzzled about what went wrong but feeling fortunate to be alive and able to walk.
“I definitely took a pretty good shot,” he said of a crash that occurred at 102 mph, during which he spilled over the bars while in flight and tumbled down the landing ramp, enduring lung, pelvis and rib injuries.
But this is not a story about failure. It’s a tale of a top-level athlete’s quest to excel; to push himself and his high-powered sled to an extreme level, and to showcase the obscure sport of freestyle snowmobiling before a global audience.
It’s also a story about success. LaVallee, earlier on the same day of his accident, jumped 361 feet to shatter the world distance record of 301 feet, set by Paul Thacker in March 2009. To put that into perspective, LaVallee’s jump would have cleared the length of a football field, including both end zones.
On Thursday he agreed to be interviewed about the incident for the first time. “It felt like a plane,” he said of the record-setting jump, during which he guided the sled by shifting his weight and with power controls. “It was like I was flying back and forth. I’m like, ‘No way, dude, are you kidding me?’ “
LaVallee, a perennial Winter X Games star, did not plunge into this mission carelessly. It was intended to keep alive, for a fourth year, an string of daredevil events staged annually by Red Bull and its premier athletes under a “New Year. No Limits” theme.
Meticulous planning was involved. Red Bull hired experts in athlete performance, engineers and aerodynamics to help with all aspects of testing and the final performance, which was scheduled for midnight Friday at San Diego’s Embarcadero Marina Park.
Last year Travis Pastrana, an action sports legend, set a record by jumping a rally car 269 feet onto a floating ramp in Long Beach Harbor. A year earlier, Robbie Maddison jumped a motorcycle onto and off of the 96-foot Arc De Triomphe at the Paris Las Vegas hotel. The year before that Maddison jumped a motorcycle 322 feet over a Las Vegas football field.
Of missing his opportunity LaVallee said, “It’s a little disappointing because obviously the ‘Red Bull: New Year. No Limits’ is the biggest stage that you can put yourself and your sport onto. Just to be chosen is a huge honor. But it was kind of neat to achieve that record jump in practice.”
LaVallee, 28, a veteran snocross racer (essentially motocross on a snowmobile) before becoming a freestyle star, does not know what went wrong during the ill-fated jump. He has not yet watched video footage and does not remember the the jump because he had been knocked unconscious.
He does know, based on what others have told him, that the sled suddenly dipped forward as he was descending a bit ahead of where he wanted to be over the landing ramp. He leaped clear of the sled, landed hard on his chest, tumbled head-over-head briefly before turning and rolling “like a log.”
Fortunately, he was dressed in body armor and wore a helmet and neck brace, all of which probably saved his life. After the holiday, he said, he’ll sit down with his supporters, watch the video and try to figure out what happened.
“What I really want to do is button down exactly why I crashed and what went wrong, and whether it was a mechanical issue,” he said. “So if we ever do this again, the same thing doesn’t happen.”
— Sequence of Levi LaVallee’s record-setting jump and image of the athlete are courtesy of Red Bull