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What is the worst that could happen?

 

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.

17 comments

NIGEL TURTON (Angus Macoatup)

A sad story but a great message. Wear the best gear you can afford. If you can’t afford the best, save up. If you want to ride fast, go proper racing on a track, the dirt or a circuit where there is nothing coming the other way and medics are on hand.

Amazing Blog Simon
A real inspiration😘👍🏻
I had heard of you accident but did not realize how hard it was for you and Kirst.
Your a beautiful family. Thank you for sharing

Simon very interesting blog. I was run over by a truck when on my motorbike when I popped out for lunch at Fort Dunlop. In intensive care for 2 weeks, off work for 18 months, and told I would never walk again. Well I did and went on to run half marathons. Your blog touched home for me. I see life differently now, since the accident. Still love my track days, but no riding on the highway. Regards Mike

Excellent, brave, reflective.
I help a racer, and have seen to a lesser degree all of the symptons and cocsequences of concussion and back injuries that you detail.
I beleive that the highest levell of protctive equipement should be worn while racing.
I also and my racing friend think that 2nd impact syndrome is teal.
The head needs more time to heal than we presently allow.
Go Well. Bob Harper

My kid was’forced’ to wear certain helmet brands in some competitions. Completely lost it after each crash. Not ever again will he wear anything less then Arai when I’m around. Still feel guilty about not starting more discussions about it for not wanting to be a pain in the a$$.

Says it all!.
When I buy kit for riding my bike on track my wife will say “how much!!!?!”
I will show her your blog, it says it all.

Thank you Simon for this interesting story. I am a avid motorcycle racing fan and seen many occasions where a helmet made a serious difference in injury.
In other circumstances I’ve noticed that braindamage or any brain malfunction is considered less serious then something people can see (like being paralyzed or having a broken arm/leg etc). Hopefully your story will also bring awareness to that because when the brain doesn’t work properly it affects a lot more.
Thank you for being a inspiration, best wishes to you and your
family,
Love from Holland, Jo!

I can remember you telling me this same story when we were out dirt biking together, I wonder how many guys today would take less money to wear/use a superior product? You can repair, replace or even live without most limbs, not ya noggin though.

Nice blog Simon. I had no idea you were so badly injured after the clash with Kocinski

Thanks Simon that is an great blog , I had a collision on the road 27 years ago today and broke both legs and my arm . One leg plated ,wheel chairs for a few months but for awhile my attitude suffered , possibly due to pain and shock . I was one of the lucky ones who live to tell the tail , managed to race production bikes at club level for a while after choosing the track as it is far safer than roads . Also do a bit of green laning , I would always suggest to any one always use the best protection you can afford. Not many get a second chance.

I used to organise road racing @ Mallala Motorsports Park in South Australia .
I couldn’t believe that beginner class riders & one day licence didn’t require proof of ambulance cover yet a national licence did require proof ! I had a verbal fight with the previous race secretary as he disagreed with me & i informed him it was our duty of care to riders .
In 1998 a rider in another club i helped run got transported by helicopter ambulance to Royal Adelaide Hospital cost was if he didn’t have ambulance cover $8000 !!! This rider was ok .
There are still riders who do ride days without ambulance cover as it isn’t required to ride 1 guy about 8 years ago didn’t want to get in an ambulance when his thigh bone was nearly through his skin I said to him i knew why he didn’t want to get into the ambulance = no cover grr . Others would have broken hands or ankles & be waiting for someone in their car to drive them to hospital sometimes waiting several hours .
Ambulance cover is about $70 per year i heard a rumour it is over $2,0000 in helicopter & it is $800 just to get in ambulance before it moves then you pay per km on top of that . Yep they still don’t pay for cover knowing the costs .

As a father of a top racer, and a retired paramedic of 34 years service I fully concur with your blog Simon. It brings to reality the old Bell Helmets advertising line, “If you have a $10 head then wear a $10 helmet” or words to the same effect. There is just no substitute for the best safety gear, starting with the helmet and going further, almost as importantly for joints. Riding without a helmet, or with shorts and a T-shirt, irrespective of location, IS NOT COOL.

Any advice on helmets. Especially in the context of Snell and Dot safety ratings. It is my understanding that after a certain price point you are paying for additional comfort not additional safety specifically considering our current market safety standards and ratings.

Followed you for years and I remember that JK move (I was raging he took that risk and with it your 1st walk win).
But most of all I remember your serious run in with the car . I’ve a son who at 5 had a acute brain injury and the torment he’s had and will continue to have leaves me with utter pride. I’m sure your family & friends think the same of you . God loves a trier 🙂

Hi Simon
I rode and crashed Motorbikes on the road and race track and had multiple fractures e.g femur , ankles , wrists , shoulder , elbow , right hand , ribs and never really thought it was bad. Then I had a bicycle accident ( hit and run whilst not wearing a helmet) where I ended up with bleeding on the brain and nothing before prepared me for this. What a difference to your quality and understanding of life. My close relatives even commented on how it affected me more than the MC accidents. I still ride motorcycles and bicycles although I always wear a helmet on the bicycle now and have always worn full protective clothing on the motorbike. Breaking bones and open wounds are nothing compared to brain damage. Ride safe and fast but safety first. No brain means no life.
Cheers Ian

@William Hall.

Stay clear of Snell. Check out https://sharp.dft.gov.uk for independent British government tests using helmets bought in stores

Thanks for that link…. well worth a look

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