What it takes to face near-death a second time…
Imagine you had a serious accident which could have easily turned into your last day. Now, imagine being permanently injured from the accident to the point it was almost impossible to do the things that you enjoyed. Now… imagine going back to the place where it all happened – the place which most logical people wouldn’t want to return to.
This is exactly what I did.
On November 30th 2013 (exactly 5 years after my mountain biking accident) I did what most people would simply describe as ‘stupid’. I went back to the off road trail where I had my accident to face some demons. Many people questioned my return and wondered why it was even an ‘issue’ to begin with. Considering I have a very healthy, successful life now, full of great people and moments – why would I need to revisit a bad place with bad memories?
It was quite simple. Everything was great – yes, I have a great job, a successful sporting career, many humble and loyal friends, and a loving family – but there was always a sense of defeat. The thing with mountain biking is that you set off on a ride to complete a trail. It has its challenges and spills, but you always finish the ride. On the day of my accident, I didn’t get to finish my ride. I ended up being stretchered out by paramedics, friends and strangers. With my body in shatters, my bike in a heap, and my riding friends in dismay, I was defeated – by a silly old fire trail.
“But Andrew, it’s just a stupid trail” some might say – still, that stupid trail was never completed. I needed closure. I needed to piece together exactly what happened so that I could finally let it rest and move on. I needed to show myself and my friends that despite what happened, it did not define who I was, nor did it define my happiness.
The lead up
A few months before arriving in Brisbane, Queensland, I managed to track down one of the paramedics who was first on the scene of my accident, Matthew. I tracked him down because I recalled him visiting me while I was in hospital on a couple of occasions. More importantly, I wanted to thank him and shake the hand of someone who made it his job to save peoples lives.
Matthew K: When you have a traumatic event where you are instantly immobilised, you pray, wait and pray again for the ambulance to arrive in time to save you. It’s a surreal feeling to describe, but the connection I had with Matt when he attended to me was instant (at least from my side for things). I know he doesn’t want to be called a hero, but that’s exactly what it felt like. Matt was one of several hero’s on the day day of my accident who I had to take with me returning to the scene of the accident.
November 28th – Arriving in Brisbane.
After a few months of planning and only recently finishing the Cape to Cape MTB Classic 2013, I was in Brisbane again. I travel to Brissy a fair few times each year to visit friends and for basketball, but this time… this time it was different. I was on a mission. I had one objective in mind – to get over the bloody trail and forget about it!
My photographer, Emily Dimozantos, and I landed in Brissy late at night and were picked up by Howard.
Howard: another friend I’ve made since the accident. He was one of the good Samaritans passing by on the day of the accident and helped stretcher me out. Funnily enough, Howard was also a friend of my flat mate, Justin, who I was riding with on the day. Not funnily enough, Howard ended up in the same hospital as me only a week after my accident due to a serious mountain biking accident at the same location (near by trail).
We were dropped off at Matt’s place to stay for a couple of nights with his lovely wife, two kids and newly adopted pet parrot. I cannot speak highly enough of their generosity and kind hearted hospitality – it must stem from Matt’s good nature.
Emily, being Emily, was busy snapping away anything and everything with her camera in a documentary, yet casual, manner. After dinner we reminisced over past events, work, and the days to follow. I learnt a lot about Matt’s past – it’s amazing how fascinating people are when you take the time to listen to them. Everyone has a great story to tell!
November 29th – 1 Day before the ride.
After some rest, it was rise and shine. The kids were off to school, and the parents were off to work. Emily and I were now care takers for the day. We went off on a crazy, hot and sweaty walk up and down typical Queensland roads (hilly as) to the local grocery store to stock up for the post-ride BBQ.
We eventually got back and Emily was straight in the kitchen preparing some fancy gluten-free, nut-free desert for dinner while I was wrapping up the kids some surprise Christmas presents (including the door to their bedroom).
With final preparations made for the morning ride, the day flew by and the family was back from school and work. As relaxed as the household was, I was somewhat anxious about the ride in the morning. I kept checking the weather forecast as it went from light and scattered showers to moderate showers in the morning and clearing – yeah, right – like I was going to let some rain stop me now!
To help with the anxiety, and something I sometimes do when I’m stressed, I wrote down a couple of pages of lines in the form of poetry before I went to sleep.
November 30th – Reunion Ride.
Early start. We had to be at the trails by 7:30pm. I had other people who I invited along for the ride – each of them playing a different part in my recovery and pre-accident life in Brisbane.
Howard rocked up with one of his son’s, Jonny, who was there on the day of the accident.
Jonny: I remember Howard’s kids while I was curled up in a foetal position, staring down the dirt trail and seeing the look of shock, confusion and fear in their innocent eyes. You can only imagine what thoughts could be running through a kids minds at ages younger than 10, let alone kids who are faced with helpless adults scuffling around while one lay on the ground bleeding.
I was glad to see Jonny, again. I wanted to show him that everything was OK and that the accident was only one small event in life which didn’t define my happiness.
The rain! I was worried and even more anxious. That so called ‘moderate showers’ has turned into heavy and constant downpour. We waited a while for it to ease off before jumping in the car… but no such luck. So we kitted up in Matt’s ambulance endorsed waterproof jackets and battled out the rain.
Of course, we arrived 30 minutes late! We sat in the car for about 10 minutes trying to figure out what the hell to do with all the bloody rain around. It eased off slightly but when it came back, it was twice as heavy.
Bugger it. I got out of the car and went to speak with the others about what we should do. On the way around I met the other Matthew. I hadn’t seen Matt C since the first week of hospital.
Matthew C: While Justin (flat mate at the time) was off calling the ambulance, on the day of the accident, Matt C was there holding my head still, comforting me, shading me from the relentless Queensland sun and listening to all the nonsense babble coming out of my mouth while I waited to be rescued. It was the first time I met Matt. What do you do when someone you’ve just met has a serious accident right in front of you? What Matt did; remain calm and composed.
I was relieved to see Matt C with the rest of us – I was afraid the accident scared him away from myself and mountain biking. We greeted each other with a big smile and a solid hand shake to reinforce that despite our lack of communication over the years, there was no hard feelings and there was an upmost respect for each other.
It was still pouring. We ‘umm-ed’ and ‘ahh-ed’ for a while as to whether or not we wait it out, go for a coffee and come back, or just go for glory. A couple of my friends had a triathlon later no in the day which they needed to get to, so I figured “It’s now or never – let’s go!”. I managed to convince everyone (minus two) to gear up in the rain and head off.
It was chaotic in a beautiful way. We were scurrying around trying to figure out what to do. Emily was stressing about her water-proofed camera gear (which didn’t end up so water-proof) while Andy was fitting her out with his spare bike. I was trying to figure out which waterproof jacket to ride with and how to wear it properly – helmet under or over – sleaves up or down?
OK! We’re good – let’s go.
Emily gunned it ahead of the group with Howard to get a good position for some photos. I didn’t think the weather was conductive to good photography, but she seems to have a snazz for working in shit conditions!
Emily: For someone that lives in Tasmania, she does a damn good job of carrying two large cameras, while grinding away through mud, dirt, and rain on a second-hand bike not fit to her short stature and with a buggered set of brakes. All this while managing to get a perfect shot! Emily continues to support me throughout my wild adventures and at her own expense.
Through puddles of clay contaminated rain water which resembled a protein shake slurry, we pedalled through. Over the rock bed at the top of the hill we went – big, sharp and slimy rocks. It was mostly down hill from now.
We reached the fence line. The barbed wired fence line which I remember vividly from the day of the accident. It hadn’t changed in 5 years – still the same rusty fence extending up a slow incline and to the trail where life had changed.
Towards the end of the climb, a couple went ahead of me to locate and make sure we had the right trail – all on track. We got to the top of the hill. I looked around trying to figure out if ‘this was it’. I slowly descended down the fire trail. Steep, slippery, uneven, loose gravelled and overgrown with thick flora, I didn’t want to pass the place I landed.
The group hopped off their bikes, scattered them around while I manoeuvred my hand cycle so that I could rest without gravity taking me down. Everyone had something to say. We revisited the events of the day in detail: who came from where, how I landed, where the ambulance parked, and what a crazy journey it’s been for everyone.
I let everyone have a couple minutes to let it all soak in; the rain and the aerie reminiscence of a time passed in a place that shouldn’t be what decides the future. I mustered up the courage to pull out the poem I wrote the night before. It was tucked inside a small plastic sandwich bag to keep it from the rain. No one knew I wrote this down because I wanted it to be raw and honest.
It took a moment for me to start reading, and when I did, my voice trembled – with what, I don’t know. Half way through I had to remove the paper and turn it over. The rain started soaking the paper and smudging the ink. My words, my emotions, my grief and pain was slowly washing away with the ink. I came to the end of what I had to share. It ended almost abruptly and unexpectedly. There wasn’t much more to say and a small part of me wanted to sit around a bit longer and reminisce, but I told myself that there was nothing more to reminisce about.
In an almost commanding-like manner, I told the group to pick up their bikes and continue riding on with me. I placed the piece of paper with my poem on the ground, the place which I no longer dread, fear or despise, and turned my hand cycle to ride on. The words will never be repeated. They were left there to be part of mother nature. Left there with what broke me and the made me. Left there, in the past, where they belong.
While I led the group out of the trail, I wondered if I had forgotten something. No. I came here to finish the trail – my friends where behind me and a new trail was ahead of me. I peddled on.
In a disgustingly ironic and cliché-ridden symbolic way, the rain started to ease off once we left the scene. As we came closer to the car park the rain came to a drizzle and the sun was prying it’s way through the clouds. After some photo-shoot opportunities, we packed up and drove off back to Matt’s place to dry down and eat.
Despite the torrential rains and having every centimetre of the body soaked in thinned out mud and sweat, the ride was a success.
Check out the story in Men’s Fitness Magazine Australia.
A special thanks
There are almost hundreds of people to thank for getting me this far, but for the sake of this blog I’d like to give a belting and humble thanks to those who literally made my day:
Matt K, Chrissy, Danny and Connor, Justin, Matt C, Andy, Howard, Jonny, Steve and Nemo, Barney and Sigrid, and Emily.
When I think about the trail now, I don’t wallow over it – it’s simply become a place where I’ve ridden (one of many). Of course, I will remember it and of course it will be a small part of who I am, but I always shift my attention to the next trail to be conquered with a hand cycle. What event’s are coming up, what fresh dirt can I eat, who will I meet along the way and how many more people can I motivate to get up and challenge themselves?!
These are the things I look forward to in life. These are the things that excite me and give me meaning. I put them in front of me like a carrot on a stick and chase them down, and there will always be something that is slightly out of reach… but never impossible!