This story about downhill wheelchair racers was the first time I spent days and days with the subjects I was writing about — I stayed with one of them in Boulder for two days, then met the rest in Denver and drove with the whole team out to Big Bear, California, then hung out with them for several days at the race they were competing in. Hanging around so much, I ended up with the kind of sideways details that I love but that had always seemed beyond my grasp in reporting: the scene in Denny’s that opens the story, or the racer Sarah Will putting her leg out on the dash so the sun can warm it even though she can’t feel it. Somehow, that immersion led me to want to see how understated I could make what ordinarily should have been the big dramatic center of the story, so I summarized all of their paralysis-causing accidents in a single paragraph. I was able to keep the end quiet, too, which was a real struggle, and I think it’s one of the best last lines I’ve ever written. I still wonder about my use of the word “duplicity” in the final section, though. My editor at Mountain Bike spent about an hour trying to convince me that the word’s negative connotation overpowered its technically correct usage — that “duality” would be better because it would read smoother — but in all that stillness I was trying to create I wanted a word in that spot that hit the ear a bit ragged. I don’t know why. So far, I’m still glad I didn’t change it, although I admit I might have been wrong.
Five people who cannot use their legs roll into a Denny’s in Las Vegas.
“Alllllright!” exclaims the graveyard-shift waitress, stopping to clap one hand against an empty tray as the wheelchairs roll past her. “Good for you! Great! Fantastic! Really!”
Team Phoenix hit the road in Denver at 9 in the morning and they’ll be back out there until 5 the next morning, when their rented van and box truck will climb to Snow Summit, California, for the NORBA national mountain bike race at Big Bear. They just want to grab some breakfast and this waitress — a burnout who has landed at a Denny’s in a town where cocktail carriers in the lousiest slot joints take home triple the pay — is cheering as if they just crested Everest. They ignore her.
But they heard her. After the frazzled night manager personally oversees the removal of chairs from a table big enough to seat the team plus owner Michael Whiting and mechanic Steve Donovan, someone at the table turns to Darol Kubacz and, almost as if apropos of nothing, says, “I bet you heard a lot of shit living down South.”
Kubacz lives in Vail, Colorado, but he’s originally from South Carolina, where he was part of an Army tank crew. If you begin with the government-issue crew cut and stop at the waist, Kubacz is built the way a kid would imagine an Army tanker — ropy arms, thick chest and neck, a hard jaw line and a stare that can be even harder. “You don’t want to know,” he says. “I used to get asked all the time, ‘Was you born that way?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, and it liked to killed my momma when I came out wheels first.’ ”
A few people laugh. Others simply try to decide between the Grand Slam and the day’s special. By tomorrow none of them will remember the waitress. Later, while everyone else goes to the bathroom, Kubacz will roll into the casino section of Denny’s — it is Vegas — and blow a few minutes breaking even at a blackjack table. After his forearms lift him out of his wheelchair and into one of the blackjack stools like an Olympic gymnast mounts a pommel horse, the dealer and another player will begin to treat him as if his brain is the part of his body that does not function. “Do you know how to play honey? You count the numbers on your cards and try to get close to 21. If you can’t count, just flip your cards over and the dealer will tell you if you win.”
The moment is stupefyingly offensive, but it’s another one Kubacz might not even remember. When your spinal cord decides to rearrange your life, one of the things you mostly get used to is casual ignorance.
When ignorance erects barriers, however, disabled people pay attention. They’ve forced a nation to widen its bathroom doors. They’ve built ramps to stores, offices apartment buildings. And they’ve found ways to flame a downhill mountain bike race course at 45 mph.
It’s been almost two decades since paraplegic athletes have been able to tuck into relatively lightweight, three-wheeled machines and hurl themselves along pavement. They surf oceans. They ski lakes and slopes. They play basketball, golf, tennis, rugby and most other ball sports. But until pretty recently in the history of what’s become a kind of new generation of active disabled people, they did not live much in a world of dirt. The technology to get them there didn’t exist — and when it did, it wasn’t widely available. The real barrier, of course, is that only a few people really thought such a world was possible.
No one knows who first pointed a wheelchair down a mountain trail. The first to register with NORBA and grab national acclaim was John Davis. Now 25 and living in Vail, Davis began entering downhill races in ‘91 on a Cobra custom built by John Castellano — the engineering savant also responsible for the modern incarnation of the unified rear triangle mountain bike suspension.
On a four-wheeled, rigid frame softened only by suspension stems at the hand grips, Davis descended fast enough and consistently enough to earn a pro license, snag a sponsorship from Specialized that ran until this season, and attend three World Cups, two World Championships and a full roster of national championship events. A friend of famous pros and still probably the most accomplished disabled downhiller, Davis is as much of a legend as a gestating sport can boast.
In ‘92, a Colorado skier named Matt Feeney showed up at the first and only Offroad Wheelchair Championships in Kentucky and creamed a field that — the world being in short supply of experienced off-roaders — consisted mostly of disabled road racers, basketball players and other imports. Sponsored by Enduro, a company making a production off-road wheelchair, the two-day event had received almost no advance publicity. Davis didn’t show, and Feeney had heard about it only two weeks earlier. On an Enduro loaned to him by the company, he won all three events — the cross-country, dual-slalom and downhill — and scooped up a sponsorship that at one point paid for travel, entry fees and all related race expenses but now consists mostly of copping a few free parts.
What other history exists is scattershot. From ‘92 to ‘94, four or five other riders — none as talented as Davis or Feeney — blipped in and out of the scene on Enduros, homemade rigs, sometimes even another Cobra. No one knew who would show up where or when, or even if they could. Riders would call promoters to ask if anyone else had registered and — more important — if the course had too much uphill or narrow singletrack to accommodate their chairs. A good field was three people.
Davis was caught in athletic purgatory, a champion without a challenge. His most consistent competitor was a traveling sideshow known as H.D. Bailey, a gonzo personality who bills himself as “Red Pussy Racing” and hawks T-shirts imprinted with lewd logos, his outrageousness earning him enough attention to reel in five-figure sponsorships from companies such as Soloflex and Ticketmaster.
Bailey’s commercial success grates on Davis and other racers who routinely destroy his finish times, but he found a pulse they missed in their sincerity: Downhill wheelchair racing is still a novelty act, more likely to evoke inspiration than awe. Being there means more than being fast — or first — so the applause is for appearance instead of performance.
Michael Whiting and his Team Phoenix riders believe that their fully suspended rigs can blast right over that barrier. Last season there were only two Phoenix riders. This year by sheer numbers — eight riders in all, seven on the Western squad that travels together — they hope to accomplish what the superbly skilled but ultimately tokenized John Davis never could on his own: legitimize the sport.
There’s skepticism from NORBA (which, in the kindest view, bumbles not from antipathy but simply doesn’t know how to deal with wheelchairs), from disabled athletes in other sports (“They’re scared of us,” says Davis. “They only see us beating ourselves up and have no concept of how incredible downhilling is.”) and even from other downhill chair riders who enjoy life in a small pond.
But there are also hints that full-blown sport status may already be blooming. Last year at Mammoth’s dual slalom one of the two original Phoenix riders, Gretchen Schaper, forced everyone to reevaluate wheelchair racing when she took an unprecedented bronze medal in the women’s sport class — against bicycles, not other chairs. Perhaps a stronger sign is that Whiting, founding Phoenix rider David Noonan and Davis are squabbling over who deserves the unofficial title of world champion. Because wheelchair racing isn’t a NORBA category there’s no points system or championship race, so after Noonan beat Davis in downhill and dual-slalom events last year, Whiting proclaimed his racer the world champion.
“Dave never lost last season,” says Whiting. “He raced John Davis to a tie twice and beat him and all other racers any other time they met. In my mind that makes him the world champion, the fastest man in the world on a wheelchair.”
“He’s the world champ?” says Davis, who seems almost happy to finally be dishing some trash talk. “From where? Is that from the Worlds maybe? Because I’ve raced in two Worlds and I haven’t seen him there.”
If that’s not the sound of modern sports, nothing is.
Race day. In the handicapped parking lot at Big Bear, Jody Kemp duct-tapes his legs together. Behind him, three pre-teens step out of the stream of people that flows to and from the expo area 50 feet uphill and point at the racing wheelchair he’s sitting in, one of seven scattered around the big, white moving van that dominates the blue-lined disabled parking section. They gesture toward the hydraulic brakes and independent suspension, and ask the paraplegic with heavy-metal hair a few questions about the equipment.
Kemp answers. He’s a 25-year-old psychology major at Colorado State University and his replies are direct, light. He has a habit of peppering his speech with bits of songs — rap, ’70s and ’80s, nostalgia, anything. The kids laugh. They watch him bite off then smooth down the duct tape banding his thighs, and you can see the questions stop at their eyes. It’s easier to ask about components than body parts.
In a practice run the previous week Kemp didn’t see his right leg flop against the rear tire. By the time he reached bottom, the friction had worn a spot like raw bacon into his unfeeling thigh. “I thought my brakes were dragging,” he told Whiting.
Like most of the team, Kemp is new to off-road racing. He converted from road racing, where the object is simpler: as fast as you can as straight as you can. “Razor sharp instead of rugged,” says Kemp. Not only is this his first real mountain bike race, but he can still count his lifetime total of downhill runs.
Only Noonan and Schaper have even a season of experience. Besides Kemp and the southerner Kubacz, the other men are converted California road racer Mark Evju and Greg Adcock, a former motocross racer and mountain biker who met Whiting at a Pearl Jam concert and — already completely comfortable railing corners with his chair slung up on two wheels and riding nose-wheelies at double-digit speeds — shows potential for becoming one of the fastest wheelchair racers ever.
Sarah Will is a five-time Paralympics gold medalist in skiing — a status that rang up instant credibility within the disabled sports world for Team Phoenix — who also operates Vail’s monoski camp and its new off-road wheelchair program, a pilot attempt to introduce disabled people to trails in a recreational setting. She carries herself with that easy but absolute confidence natural athletes possess from birth. On the trail, the quality translates into an intense smoothness that makes her such a threat to the men that besides Noonan she’s the only racer John Davis deems worthy of playing mind games with at start gates. (“You look like an Ewok in all that body armor. Why do you need all that anyway? You planning to crash?”)
All of them were into sports before their disabling accidents — everything from BMX to karate to rock climbing. Six of the seven were injured in what might be called active accidents — two motorcycle wrecks (one on pavement, one on dirt), two snow-skiing accidents, one fall from a tree and another in a Jeep that rolled off a 100-foot drop.
There’s never been a wheelchair presence like them at any mountain bike event. Since the van staked its spot yesterday morning it’s hosted more traffic than some of the expo tents. Whiting the businessman is delighted at the circle of spectators and ongoing Q&A session, but Whiting the race manager is worried that everyone’s getting too wired. Everything they do is a spectacle.
After they strap and tape themselves into their chairs and roll to the base of the dual-slalom course, a pickup truck arrives to provide lifts to the start gates. One chair and rider go in the truck bed, three more are loaded into a trailer pulled behind, and everyone else grabs tow ropes strung from the back. As the truck noses through the crowd lining the dual-slalom course, at least half the fans turn from the sport-class qualifier to watch the strange train chug up the mountain. “Oh wow, man,” says one guy as he tugs on the arm of his friend, who turns around and replies, “Shit.”
As the wheelchairs begin the first of their two qualifying runs, the crowd is similarly stunned, not sure of the proper reception. By mountain bike standards the applause and cheers are almost polite when Evju and Adcock come down in the first pairing. Then Kubacz and Kemp leave the gates, and Kubacz rolls his chair in a section of triple whoop-de-doos, hushing the sidelines into a respectful silence — until he heaves himself back onto his wheels and finishes his run, pumping a fist in the air. It’s permission to go ape-shit.
And the crowd takes it. Suddenly they’re screaming for downhilling’s holy trinity of speed, air and wipe-outs. They get all three. On his second run, Noonan coaxes his speed into the low 30s so he can sky off a tabletop whose peak stands as tall as a roof, and a group of teens burst into a spontaneous mini-mosh. Never mind that he missed the next gate and blew off course — it looked cool. “That dude can’t even walk!” one of them exclaims, over and over. “He can’t even walk!”
It’s a messy race. Two riders scrub off so much momentum in sloppy corners that they don’t carry enough to the tabletop and have to be pushed over the approach by course marshals. Several miss turns, riding on the wrong side of the slalom poles for automatic DQs. Unlike the next day’s downhill race, where the wheelchairs race only against each other, in the dual slalom they were competing against bikes. None of them go fast enough to qualify for the final.
It is a world of duplicity, thinks Gretchen Schaper. A world where you can hear condemnation — limitation — in words of praise such as “courageous” and “inspiring.” It is a world where the pivotal event of your life sometimes seems nothing more than a nuisance that you require 30 seconds instead of three to get up off the living room floor, cross to the kitchen and get a drink of water. It is a world in which the soul you find through suffering and relearning to live can make the accidental come to seem so inevitable that you might not go back in time and erase it if given the chance.
But mostly, right at this second at the very top of Big Bear mountain on the day of the downhill final, it is a world of duplicity in which a race official is standing amid more wheelchairs than he’s ever seen in one place, and holding a crackling walkie-talkie that he wishes like hell would shut up.
“Yeah, check that,” the talkie relays a conversation from somewhere down on the course. “We’re like ten minutes late because of those wheelchair people. Good thing we put them last.”<
He’s not allowed to turn the thing off but he makes a tentative move to at least diminish the volume, then realizes that might be even more awkward. So he shoots for dignity — or at least detachment — by just standing there and letting the hissing voices babble. He won’t look at anything or anyone at all. If he did, he’d see that it’s okay. Schaper and Will are watching each other, waiting to see who might giggle first.
A life without workable legs is a life of patience. It’s no secret. The guys running the lift lines found that out. They had to shut down the lift for nearly a minute every time they loaded a disabled racer, putting what they kept calling the “buggy” in one gondola and the racer in another. It’s not a lot of time to lose until you load 11 racers — Team Phoenix plus Davis, Bailey, 40-year-old Gerard Moreno and 47-year-old Tom Ell in the biggest wheelchair field ever — then undo the process at the top of the mountain.
“Most people don’t have their secrets tattooed on their foreheads,” says Schaper. “You see us and you know something important about us right away. Your mother dies when you’re ten, your best friend has cancer, but nobody knows your trauma unless you tell them. They can’t see it. Because people can know something important about us they think they know everything about us.”
Schaper is 20. She’s an art student at Colorado University in Boulder. She rides an ’88 softtail Harley Heritage Classic with a sidecar. After she heard that Napoleon owned a pet tortoise that outlived him by 145 years, she fell in love with the idea and bought a Solcotta tortoise that sleeps on a heating pad in her living room. Her friends bug her to put more chairs in her apartment. Her legs cannot move but have complete feeling. She does not race to race. She does it to be on a mountain.
By the time she is wheeled onto the start ramp the first rider will already have reached bottom — John Davis with a winning wheelchair time of 7:04.68, which would have put him nearly two minutes behind the winner in the sport class, but only 23 seconds behind the last-place finisher, and 21st out of 22 as a beginner. Noonan will have flown off course, busting his seat belt and at least for one day ceding his disputed title. Kubacz will already have wrecked, stacking up in a berm after his rear end rebounds off a waterbar, then pacifying the worried medics bending over him by saying, “Listen, trust me. I’m one guy who knows when he’s been hurt.”
By the time the electronic beeper counts off the final seconds and the gate opens and Schaper begins her descent late in this dry day not many spectators will be left. The few that remain will cheer for her. Passing them in billows of dust, she will know nothing at all about them.
Originally published in Mountain Bike, November, 1996