Until the end of 1997 I’d spent my racing years believing that a spinal injury would be the worst thing that could happen to me. No walking and no sex? What could be worse in a young man’s imagination?
I experienced my first big concussion at 8 years old. Joining pieces of used Hay-bailing twine to make a ‘rope’ I abseiled from my tree house in a big Macrocarpa tree with my poor mother watching. It didn’t end well. An ‘epic fail’ as my kids would say.
Then at 10 while playing Rugby. I woke up in the back seat of my father’s car with his concerned face staring down at mine. “I don’t want to play Rugby Dad”. That concussion was worth it. That night my parents relented and brought me my first motorcycle, a second-hand Suzuki TM75.
Two years later they brought me a brand-new RM 80 so I could start racing Motocross. The budget was spent on the bike, none left for new boots or an expensive helmet so I chose a cheap copy and found some boots at the Army surplus store. It wasn’t anyone’s fault; we simply didn’t understand the importance of good safety equipment.
At thirteen I came up short on a double jump after hooking neutral (no gear) on take-off. The landing was hard but nothing compared to a bike landing on top of me a moment later. A right foot peg gouged into the left side of my helmet, engine cases on my shoulder. I woke up to the concerned face of a flag marshal.
When I made it to world championship money was tight and I had bills to pay. I took the helmet deal that included money and wore that European helmet for the next 5 years. I sustained three more concussions that left me wondering where I was, how I got there and not being able to see properly for hours after. Picture this: you open your eyes to a beautiful blue sky. You’re lying on your back wearing a helmet and you can hear 2-stroke race bikes passing close by. A big, bearded upside down face appears in front of yours “Are you alright man!?” He is obviously an American. Surprise mixes with fear because you’ve never been to America, you can’t remember the flight, customs, hotel, circuit….Nothing.
My last big concussion came in the final World Superbike race of 1997 at Sentul when John Kocinski and I collided. He was an incredibly talented rider and I have no bad feelings toward him. We were both going for the same piece of asphalt just two corners from the chequered flag and we both wanted to win. “Did I win, did I win?” was all I said in the helicopter en route to Jakarta hospital according to my wife Kirsten. They x-rayed my head and said there was a slight discrepancy in size of one side of the brain but that it could’ve been like that before. Over the next weeks it became apparent to Kirsten that I had done some sort of damage. The only way I can explain this period is that I felt insecure, confused and sometimes frustrated to the point of rage. Kirst says that my personality changed noticeably for approximately 3 months at which point things came right again. Needless to say, it really scared me.
Next, I was moving to 500 GP. Johno Macgillivray, who worked with Mick Doohan, said to me bluntly “Simon, there are risks doing what you and Mick do. What’s your biggest fear?” I told him that it had always been being paralysed. “Well then” he said, “I’d advise you to buy good insurance. Worst case, if your biggest fear comes true you are prepared, you can modify your house and live well’’. It was this conversation that got me thinking over the next days. The people I knew that were in a wheelchair for any reason (car and motorcycle accidents, horses, ball sports etc.) kept their businesses, lived with their wives and children and kept their friends. The guys I knew that had sustained very serious head injuries often went on to lose pretty much everything and then have to start again as the new person they’d become after the accident. I realised that a bad head injury was the worst thing that could happen to me and that it wouldn’t take a much bigger head injury than the one I was currently suffering for me to lose my wife, friends and myself (self-belief and confidence). From then on I chose to wear the very best helmet I could, no longer influenced by the money. I chose the helmet I trusted had been manufactured and tested to the high standards they claimed.
Years after retiring from racing I had the worst accident of my life. A head-on with a car (on a dirt-bike) while scouting trails for the RedBull Romaniacs Hard Enduro Rally. Before I went in for the 8.5 hour operation to fix two rods and eight screws to five of my vertebrae I had no feeling below the injury and no toilet functions. After the operation, my useless legs burned with nerve pain that was enough to make me feel I was going insane with lack of sleep two weeks later. A loyal friend worked tirelessly to secured a place for me in the ‘Guttman Clinic’ in Barcelona. They specialise in treatment for spinal and head injuries and were exactly what I needed. They sorted out my medication reducing the nerve pain enough or me to function and then taught me how to live with a wheelchair, manoeuvre myself in and out of cars, toilets, showers, baths and beds. It took me 11 months to ‘more or less’ walk again. I now have most feeling back, about 60% of the original strength in my left leg and about 40% in the right. Enough to do everything that is important to me. While in Guttman Clinic I got to experience what it’s like to live in a wheelchair while socialising with guys and girls who had sustained spinal injuries while drunk, diving into swimming pools and others who had head injuries from car and scooter accidents, etc. Spinal injuries are terrible, but most of us could spend our days in the pool swimming, building our arms in the gym, eating in the restaurant or talking about our families, friends, loves and future dreams. The guys and girls with serious head injuries misunderstood the rules of the games we were playing, lost their temper and it wasn’t easy to have a relationship with them. I remember stopping and crying when I saw one of the young guys lose his temper yet again during one of our much loved, hard fought wheelchair basketball matches (he was allowed to play without a wheelchair). It hit me that at 19 he didn’t have very much to look forward to.
I love our sport. Annually I ride more days on circuit now than I ever have. It’s very rewarding and I sincerely believe that it’s far safer than riding or driving fast on public roads. My hope is that this blog will encourage a few more riders to give the safety of their head priority it deserves. Without it we have nothing.