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The Outsider: Falling with grace

Outsider crash
Crashing is a painful but inevitable part of action sports, but tolerance for risk is different for everyone.

As much as I hate to admit it, I’m a sucker for the crash reel. I prefer the videos that make me laugh without the victim getting themselves seriously injured (think @kookslams and our snowsport favourite @jerryoftheday) rather than seeing people in actual pain and suffering. That’s because—like many of you—I have crashed enough times to know that when you feel it, it’s not that funny at all.

Over the years I’ve crashed and fallen while biking, skiing, rock climbing, surfing, motorcycling and probably a handful of other sports. The majority of the crashes have been largely inconsequential, where I simply dust myself off and get back to the task at hand. But there have been more than a few where I haven’t been able to get up that quickly, when either my body or my equipment (or both) have experienced some trauma. Through luck, I’ve never broken a bone, but my stretched and scarred ligaments have had their share of abuse.

Learning to snowboard was probably one of the more painful experiences of my youth. My brother and I were already proud intermediate skiers and laughed off the idea of getting lessons. After a full day of battering from the hard-groomed slopes, and no visible improvement, we got the lessons. Falling is a part of the learning process, a prominent and occasionally painful hurdle while working one’s way up the steep part of the learning curve. But to get seriously injured at that early stage of low-speed and low-confidence in the sport, you kind of have to be unlucky. At this stage, it’s more the fear of crashing and hurting yourself that holds back the commitment to the line, corner, trail feature, jump etc., which itself can cause a crash of greater consequence.

Where crashes start to get really scary is when you get to the stage of high-speed and high-confidence—when seemingly small decisions can compound into devastating repercussions. Take, for example, when you’re having that killer run: you’re riding better than you have all year, corners feel smooth and lines are on point—you’re in the flow state. You no longer feel the fatigue in your forearms. Your body feels seamlessly engaged with your bike’s suspension and you’re braking just enough to maintain control. Bliss. The words that keep repeating themselves in your head are, “I’m really good at this.” 

Crack!

Then, it all comes to a high-energy, rapid deceleration. Still conscious? Good. Can you move your head, neck and all your limbs without massive pain shooting throughout your body? Phew. Get your bike off the trail, take your helmet off, take a minute. Breathe. Reflect. 

I’d like to think this ritual happens less than it did back when my body was able to take the hits. My body still takes the hits, but recovery takes longer and is more painful. An appointment with my physiotherapist never seems to be too far away. Foam rollers, lacrosse balls and other instruments of self-flagellation litter my living room. Painful post-crash rehabilitation is just another part of the experience.

I wish I had more talent. Not just so I could ride faster, jump higher and look cooler doing it, but so I would crash less. I wish I had a better handle on where the line is between maximizing the endorphin-fuelled fun and taking another week or two off the sport because I got too cocky. I’m not participating in competition, so why do I insist on pushing myself over that line? Sometimes it’s idle peer pressure (“Don’t feel like you have to do it, man”), sometimes it’s a misguided pursuit of self-validation (“I live here, so I have to be able to shred harder”), sometimes it’s a foolhardy quest for a personal milestone (“This season I’m going to ride Filthy Ape and Dwayne Johnson”). Sometimes, it’s just plain old running out of luck. 

With hindsight being 20/20, I can honestly say that many of my crashes were not worth the risk I was taking in the moment. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop taking all those risks, there’s just too much I still want to accomplish before I gear down and accept that my sports are in cruise control towards eventual retirement. I’ll dial it back one day. But not today.

Vince Shuley would like to thank his amazing physios at Back in Action for helping him get out there to crash again. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email vince.shuley@gmail.com or Instagram @whis_vince.