From the pages of Velo: From the brink of death

The stories of Tara Llanes, Timmy Duggan, Craig Lewis, Scott Nydam and Saul Raisin give new meaning to the term 'success'

Editor’s Note: This profile on Saul Raisin is the first of five rider features that originally ran in the December 2012 issue of Velo, The Danger Issue. This week, we will run Matthew Beaudin’s “After the Fall” feature, which profiles five athletes and their paths back from injury, in five installments.

After the Fall

Tara Llanes smashed her chin into the top of the berm. Her lower half arched, folding her in half. She rolled down the hill, her legs seeming as if they were anchors. She was paralyzed, from the waist down.

Timmy Duggan can’t remember what happened. He’s been told the story: a hard crash, convulsions, blood.

The car pulled in front of Craig Lewis mid-descent on a time trial. The impact shattered the lithe Lewis to bits. Both his lungs collapsed, and more than 30 of his bones splintered. Both sides of his jaw busted. Had he not been hit on the front lawn of a hospital, he could have died right there.

They came one after the other for Scott Nydam. He smashed himself up in the Amgen Tour of California, took six weeks off the bike, but remained in a haze. He hit the pavement again at Redlands, and again at the Tour of the Gila. The fog never lifted, and he never recovered.

Saul Raisin crashed heavily in 2006 while racing at the Circuit de la Sarthe. When he came to, it was six days later. Doctors thought he was more likely to be an organ donor than ever ride a bike again.

Sometimes people make it back. Sometimes they don’t. This is a story of both. Sometimes it’s worth it. Sometimes it isn’t. After an injury, the idea of “success” is redefined. These are the stories of five elite American riders, of five crashes that altered careers and lives.

From the Brink of Death

In 2003, while racing his bike, Saul Raisin flew headfirst into a barrier. He busted half his teeth. The hit blanked him into darkness, and when he awoke, he realized he was lying in a pool of his own blood on the street. “Some people have told me I have more money in my mouth than my car,” Raisin says, offering a slight chuckle. He returned.

By 2006, Raisin was a promising American climber, riding for the French team Crédit Agricole alongside Thor Hushovd. At the Circuit de la Sarthe, Raisin hit a patch of gravel and slammed into the pavement at 30 miles per hour, just two kilometers from the finish. He compressed his helmet as he slammed his brain into his skull. He broke his clavicle and his hip.

A doctor called his parents at their home in Dalton, Georgia. If Raisin lived, it would likely be in a vegetative state. “It was every parent’s worst possible nightmare,” Raisin says, his metronomic voice see-sawing over the telephone.

His brain was bleeding, and he needed surgery to remove the mounting pressure. He faded into a coma and emerged six days later, weakened on his left side and his brain pawing around in the shapeless dark for memories, some of which would never again surface. He went back home to Georgia, where he had to relearn how to walk and eat. “Doctors tell me that of everyone in the world who has a brain injury as severe or similar to mine, fewer than one percent will make a recovery like me,” he says.

Raisin tried to come back some 18 months later, to make good on the potential that saw him finish 13th at the Tour of Austria and win the mountains jersey at the Tour de l’Avenir.

He was strong, but he lacked the ability to make split-second decisions that make up racing and training. He rode with his Crédit Agricole team in 2007 at a training camp, but teammates never told him he was doing things like running red lights on the bike. “They were scared to death the whole time,” Raisin says.

The team wouldn’t let him race, and that November he had no choice but to quit, to give up on his hope of competing at the Tour de France. Every day, Raisin says, he wonders what he could have amounted to. His last official result is a last place at the U.S. Professional Time Trial Championship in 2007. He didn’t give a damn where he finished.

“It was still one of the biggest victories of my life,” Raisin says. “You could almost say it was more proof to myself that I could come back from death and I could do it. I think retirement after that was really fitting. A year and a half earlier, there would have been an organ donation.”

He’s 29 now, six years out from his accident. The savage nature of bike racing is that if it breaks a body, it does it when the rider is still relatively young, more years in front than behind. In Raisin’s case, he walked into that future a different person. Not in the sense that he changed himself on purpose, but because the brain injury fundamentally altered who he was as a human being.

“The hardest part was learning to cope with the new person I am. I’m no longer the same person I used to be,” Raisin said. “It comes and goes. It’s a rollercoaster ride.”

Raisin is more gullible than he used to be. It takes him longer to do things than it used to, though he makes a point to note he still gets them done. “The things I’m telling you are things that people have told me, because I don’t know,” he says.

Raisin looks back now, and with the depth that only a near-death experience can provide. His is a perspective that is impossible to achieve when one is deep in the sport, where any second-guessing is only good for second place, or far worse.

“Sports are meant to be a part of our lives. They’re not our life,” Raisin says. “I have no question that if I were to go back to the sport of cycling I would be risking my life.”