BMX rider Stephen Murray still loves sport that nearly killed him
Stephen Murray is surrounded by the sport that made him and broke him. Behind his one-story ranch house in Riverside, a dirt-jumping course is carved into a sloping hill before it gently weaves around to his frontyard, where more jumps await.
The whizzing of dozens of spinning BMX bike wheels moving through the course makes his property sound like an oversized beehive that’s been disturbed. But Murray likes it that way.
He had the course built in his yard, after all, so they would come, just like in a movie.
“I’m at a place in my life now where I can give back in my own way,” he says.
But Murray, 32, cannot ride with his friends, as he once did —– and did so well that among the BMX crowd he was considered perhaps the best of them all.
“He was kind of a superhero rider,” says BMX pioneer Mat Hoffman. “He was the guy that just went 25% bigger and 25% higher and 25% faster than anybody else.”
No, Murray can only watch them speed by from the seat of a specialized wheelchair that he controls with his head. Five years ago last Friday, Murray suffered one of the most catastrophic injuries in BMX history.
He was paralyzed from the shoulders down after crashing doing a double back flip at a Dew Tour event in Baltimore in 2007.
Murray’s once strong arms and legs have grown frail, but after years of therapy he is beginning to move fingers on his right hand and is able to slowly move his right leg. He goes to two-hour rehabilitation sessions once a week.
Murray is cared for by a nurse who visits daily, and by a longtime friend, Sean Tarrant, who, with his wife and son, lives with Murray. “Our whole concept is to make him as happy as he can be throughout the day,” Tarrant says.
His medical costs are high, but sponsors and fundraising campaigns, including efforts of the Athlete Recovery Fund, started in his honor, have helped him pay the bills. Looking back, Murray says he has no regrets about what happened and holds no ill will toward the sport.
“He doesn’t hate it, because it’s built around his house,” says BMX rider Adam Aloise, who constructed the course for free.
Murray, a Newcastle, England, native, said he plans to come to Los Angeles this week to watch the Summer X Games, which begin Thursday and run through Sunday.
It was at the X Games in Philadelphia, in 2001, that Murray landed the trick that ultimately undid him: the double back flip. He was the first rider to land the daredevil stunt, so risky that many riders — even professionals — don’t try it. It won him a gold medal in the BMX dirt competition that year.
But at the event in Baltimore in 2007, Murray tried the same trick again on the final hill of his third and final run in the competition.
As he tried to pull his body into the first flip, his left foot slipped off the pedal. He was about 30 feet in the air and upside down, facing the ground, when his bike separated from him.
His body hurtled toward the hard-packed dirt, his arms and legs flailing in midair. Murray landed on his head, crushing three vertebrae in his neck.
Another rider, Luke Parslow, grabbed Murray’s arm, but Murray couldn’t feel it.
Medical crews arrived and pushed a tube down his throat to open an airway, but Murray couldn’t feel his chest expand.
He flat-lined on his way to the hospital. EMTs in the ambulance revived him.
Murray spent a month at a hospital in Baltimore, then transferred to a hospital in Denver that specialized in spinal cord injury rehabilitation. Five months later he was able to breathe without a ventilator. About a year after that, he returned to Riverside.
After a while, some friends stopped coming by to see Murray, who represented an all-too-real example of how one misstep in action sports can end a career and threaten a life.
But two months ago the front part of his yard was converted into a dirt-jumping course. Riders started showing up and Murray’s morale improved. His daily medication has been cut down dramatically.
“To be honest, he looks so much better,” says his trainer, John Gomez.
“He came in the other day, he was all jazzed,” Gomez went on. “He said, ‘Dude, look what I can do!’ And he was pulling himself forward out of his chair. Of course, he could lean forward so far that he could fall, but he said, ‘Just catch me if I fall.’ ”
It is Murray’s goal to leave that chair, someday, even if doctors told him he never would.
“I know he’s never going to give up,” says another BMX rider, Cory Nastazio. “That’s his mentality through all these years. Now, he’s got a new challenge. He’s doing what he does, which is dropping everyone’s jaws, whether he’s on a chair or on a bike.
“People are in way worse places than I am,” Murray says. “I feel so grateful and lucky to even be here. I shouldn’t be here at all, but I am and I have a purpose to help get a message out.”
That message is simply to inspire others not to give up. “You don’t have any reason to complain about anything when you look at him,” says Chris Gentry, Murray’s roommate that fateful night in Baltimore.
One day after the five-year anniversary of his crash, cars lined up bumper to bumper on both sides of a quarter-mile stretch of road that led to Murray’s house. He had scheduled a “jam,” and a few dozen riders showed up that afternoon.
But Murray was awakened that morning by his 9-year-old son, Seth, who had just ridden the newest, more difficult section of the dirt course, which had been completed that week behind his house.
“Dad, I’ve already got through the section! Wake up! C’mon!” his son said.
Murray went around back and saw his son ride. “It was just great,” he says.
Murray doesn’t mind that his son rides the same sport that nearly killed him. “If he wants to do something, I’ll encourage him,” Murray says.
Nastazio says Seth is as talented as his father, and that he’ll one day be in the X Games.
As riders recently blazed through his frontyard and backyard, many came over to Murray, patted his back, snapped photos alongside him and carried on long conversations.
Murray smiled, chatted and watched Seth ride by. His other son, Mason, 6, was nearby.
He says it’s his dream to ride one day, with them.