Getting Back Up: The Kurt Yaeger Story
For amputee BMXer Kurt Yaeger, the word "impossible" doesn't exist
During the adaptive park event at X Games 16 in August, Kurt Yaeger pulled a backflip on a BMX bike. It certainly wasn't the first time Yaeger had ever done a backflip, but the moment held a special significance to the X Games athlete.
"I felt like the new guy again. I went in nervous, and I didn't want to get in anyone's way," says Yaeger. "That was the first backflip I pulled since my amputation," he adds.
33-year-old Yaeger's left leg was amputated following a motorcycle accident in 2006. On the early morning of March 30, Yaeger was exiting a freeway on his motorcycle in the San Francisco area, when a car two lanes over from him decided to exit last minute. Rather than hit the car, Kurt swerved towards the guardrail, clipping a light pole in the process. Kurt's leg caught the pole. He flipped over the bike, and fell almost 40-feet down to the cement below. By the time Kurt was air-lifted to San Francisco General Hospital, he was unconscious, and his injuries were severe.
"I tore off my most of my leg, broke my pelvis in half, tore my bladder in half, broke seven vertebrae, collapsed my lung, broke some ribs, concussion. I was in the hospital for almost four months, and lying in bed for almost another year," says Yaeger regarding the accident. Ten days after the accident, Yaeger developed an infection in his leg that required the amputation of his left leg below the knee.
Given the circumstances, one would think that getting back on a BMX bike was out of the question. But BMX riders, by and large, possess certain characteristics that prevent adversity from getting in the way of doing whatever they want to do. Call it stubbornness. Call it drive.
Or just take Kurt Yaeger as a perfect example.
Yaeger was born and raised in South San Francisco. He raced for a couple of years until he spotted a fellow rider doing 360s off of a loading dock. From there, he concentrated on dirt and skateparks alongside Nor Cal luminaries Chad Kagy, Cameron Birdwell and Joey Garcia. BMX magazines soon took notice of Yaeger, but because injuries were piling up, Yaeger decided to focus on schooling. Bouncing between California and Texas, Yaeger continued taking classes and switching majors, until he began pursuing a Masters Degree in hydrogeology.
"And then I got hurt." says Yaeger.
There were points where, in a completely logical and rational way, I tried, not in a physical way, but by asking friends to help me end it.
The trauma of his injuries, coupled alongside the loss of his leg, forced Yaeger into dark places. "There were points where, in a completely logical and rational way, I tried, not in a physical way, but by asking friends, to help me end it," says Yaeger. "It was very painful and very difficult, and in my mind, life was over."
Throughout his hospital stay, Yaeger saw an outpouring of support from friends and family, which Yaeger now perceives as a sort of therapy. "Nothing was going to be right again, everything was ruined, doctors were telling me that I would never walk right and that I would probably never be able to go to the bathroom right. But at the same time, I had family there every single day. I had motorcycle friends, BMX friends, college friends, everybody. Having all of those people there, almost forced me into more of a jovial position than I wanted to be in. They were making me have to talk to people, and work with people and tell everyone that I was okay. Eventually, I was going to have to be okay, cause everyone expected it."
And after almost two years of rehabilitation, Yaeger was okay.
The next step was riding a BMX bike. "I could barely roll around. After calling a few people, John Povah at etnies put me in contact with a guy that was developing magnetic pedals. We started hacking up shoes, putting metal plates and magnets together, and it started getting a little easier. With being able to grab onto the pedal, I was able to start doing bunnyhops again. The weight distribution from left to right was completely off. You have no ankle, so you can't pull up on the pedal. In fact, you have no idea if your foot is even on the pedal," he says.
But BMX wasn't enough for Yaeger. "I wanted to go back to school, but I didn't think that I could do the field geology that I wanted to do, and I didn't think I could sit in a chair and start over. At that point, I just needed to do something else for a while," he says.
So Kurt stuck a photo of himself on a Web site called "Amputees in Hollywood." And a few short weeks later, he got a call to play a part in the 2007 film "Charlie Wilson's War," starring Tom Hanks. "I was like, "Really?" I went and did it, and thought that I could do more," says Yaeger. "And I started getting more and more roles. Just a couple of months ago, I did a film with Cristina Ricci and Tom Berenger called "War Flowers." I did a feature film that I'm the lead in called "Tenderloin," and a couple of TV shows, including Without A Trace and NBC's Journeyman," he adds.
Ultimately, Yaeger hopes that his acting career will allow him the financial freedom to help other people in similar situations as himself. He's worked with the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit organization that helps injured service men and women after returning home from combat, and on a Screen Actors Guild committee known as "Performers With Disabilities," which recognizes actors with disabilities and promotes their talents to projects throughout Hollywood. "On TV, we're helping to portray disabilities in a more true light. Not everybody with a disability is miserable, and not everyone with a disability cares that they have a disability, and they do things like a normal person."
Normal person? Kurt Yaeger? Normal people don't aspire to jump the MegaRamp. Kurt Yaeger does.
"I think the next thing I wanna do is go to Woodward West, jump the Mega and see what happens. CTI is going to hook me up with a knee brace for my prosthetic side and my good knee. With the prosthetic, I have no ability to stop it from hyper extending or breaking my knee cap," says Yaeger.
"I'd like to be the first amputee to jump the MegaRamp," he continues.
If it sounds like the word "impossible" doesn't exist in Kurt Yaeger's vocabulary, that's because it doesn't. "I don't wanna say that it's gonna be impossible to get back to where I was. I just want to get back as much as I can," says Yaeger.
From my perspective, Kurt has gotten back more than he ever could. And if he has his way, we'll most likely see Kurt Yaeger on deck of the MegaRamp at X Games 17.
A note about Adaptive Action Sports, who made it possible for Kurt to ride in the X Games: AAS is the official Sports Organizer for the Skate Jam and a partner to the X Games. AAS has an educational booth in the Team ESPN tent and can be found on the sports organizer list. AAS is responsible for creating the Adaptive event and invite all of the athletes out. AAS also has additional action sports camps and events for adaptive athletes throughout the year.
Follow Brian Tunney on Twitter: @briantunney