- Devon O'Neil, Writer, Action Sports
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The only place to start is where it nearly ended.
Madrid, Spain. July 18, 2009. Matched against Jeremy Stenberg in a Red Bull X-Fighters heat, Australian freestyle motocross pioneer Cam Sinclair under-rotated his borrowed bike on a climactic double backflip at the end of his run. The result was catastrophic.
No human face was built to hit the ground as hard as Sinclair's did. The force of a 250-pound dirtbike landing on top of him made it worse. His body went limp so fast it looked like someone turned off his power switch.
Brooke Abegg, a childhood friend whom Sinclair had asked to marry him six months prior, watched the crash from beside the jump. It remains "the scariest thing I've ever been through," she said. As Stenberg shouted, "Get up, Cam! Get up!" another Aussie, Robbie Maddison, held Abegg back.
Sinclair remained completely still, but they could hear a faint gurgle inside him. Not only had he severely damaged the left side of his brain, temporarily paralyzing his right side, but he'd lacerated his liver. He was bleeding to death.
Doctors at the arena induced a coma almost immediately. By the time Abegg saw him in the hospital that night, his body felt like an ice pack and tubes were everywhere. The next 48 hours were crucial.
Red Bull flew Sinclair's family from Melbourne to Madrid. For the first 10 hours, they didn't know whether Sinclair was dead or alive. Then they got a message from Abegg: He was off life support, breathing on his own.
Sinclair spent seven days in a coma, three weeks in a Madrid hospital and then a stint in an Australian hospital. His mind was erased like a chalkboard; he has no memory of being in Spain and still does not remember certain events from the past 10 years. As recently as two months ago, doctors told him his balance was just 50 percent of what it had been.
Yet on Friday in Los Angeles, Sinclair, 26, plans to attempt the same trick that nearly ended his life, this time with no hands on his bike during the dip between backflips. He will perform it at his long-awaited X Games debut, and if he sticks it, he could win the prize he's coveted since he ditched concrete construction to ride full time: a gold medal.
Best Trick at X Games is a backflipping man's game, but it wasn't always that way. "The Godfather," Mike Metzger, introduced the trick to the X Games audience in 2002, using it to sweep the Best Trick and FMX gold medals. The flip quickly became a stock maneuver as other riders followed.
Then, with rumors swirling in 2006, Travis Pastrana changed the game forever. Coming off a silver medal the year before, he landed the first double backflip in motocross history, winning gold. Terrified by its destructive potential, he vowed never to try another.
"If you go 5 feet longer than normal, you land flat on your back," he said earlier this summer. "Three feet shorter, and you land straight on your head."
Such dangers are nothing new to Sinclair, who has landed more double backflips than any other rider in history. "It's not like a normal trick, where if you crash you might walk away," he said.
Last July, everyone's worst-case scenario played out: Sinclair, the man known for never coming up short -- especially on the double flip -- did exactly that.
When he woke up in the hospital a week later, his face was blank. "He didn't know anything," said Abegg, who cried to him while he was in his coma. "He didn't know any of us. He asked me why I was there. I was devastated."
Sinclair had no memory of his brother Mick's wedding. He forgot that two close friends had recently died. But somehow his dream escaped the bleaching. "Will I be ready for X Games?" was one of his first questions.
As with many severe brain injuries, Sinclair first had to relearn how to walk. "I wasn't really in any pain, but just the patience -- that was the hardest part," he said in his thick Aussie accent.
Every day, Abegg, a daycare worker, drove Sinclair into Melbourne from their home in Botanic Ridge, an hour each way, so he could receive physical therapy. He attended rehab for five months, until he couldn't stand it anymore and quit.
"Before he got back on his bike, he was a miserable person to be around," Mick said. "He was just always angry, depressed. He'd snap back at you, things he never used to do. He was hating life."
When Sinclair began riding again, then expressed a desire to do the double flip again, the questions and doubts understandably followed. His mother and fiancée were strongly opposed. The Australian media joined in. Everyone wanted to know: Why?
His response: "I've been riding dirt bikes for a long time, so I know if I'm ready or not. And I knew I could do it again."
Abegg and his mother swallowed their feelings, realizing he would need every whiff of encouragement. Plus, they knew they weren't going to change his mind.
"Motorbikes are his life," Abegg said. "We had to support it, because if we hadn't, I don't know if we'd be able to be a part of his life."
Sinclair landed his first double backflip since the crash at a Crusty Demons tour stop in Australia on April 24. He did two or three a week for the next month, bringing his total to 39 since he taught himself the double flip in December 2008. Of his accident, he said simply: "It doesn't ruin my confidence if I don't have a memory of it."
Which begs the question: Is that how this story will end, with Sinclair accepting an X Games gold medal?
Kyle Loza has been the only rider to win Best Trick since 2007, using variations of the same trick each year -- from Volt to Electric Doom to Electric Death. Last year, amid talk of front flips and the rodeo 720 Pastrana calls the TP Roll, the hype far exceeded the show itself, as every rider struggled to land his trick.
Expect the front flips to be more refined this year, and with Pastrana having put off surgery to try the TP Roll again, Staples Center could play host to the greatest show in X Games history.
"It's going to be pretty hard to win Best Trick without doing a trick where you have a good chance at killing yourself," said Aussie Blake Williams, the defending freestyle gold medalist and Sinclair's best friend.
Such a prospect is precisely what makes Abegg and Sinclair's family dread this competition. Abegg still hasn't watched any of Sinclair's double flips since the crash, closing her eyes every time he tries one. She knows he's not at full strength -- he still drags his right leg sometimes when he walks, and his right hand is slow to grab the handlebars after he takes it off, a factor that could play into his no-handed double attempt at X.
Sinclair won't be the favorite, but suffice it to say he'll have as fair a shot as anyone -- not to mention an entire sport pulling for him.
"He's an inspiration on and off the bike," said Pastrana, a six-time freestyle gold medalist. "The more you get to know him, the more you respect him."
Said Sinclair: "I don't care if I win gold. I'll be happy with anything, as long as I come home safe. Just to be there is incredible as it is."
In just one year, Cam Sinclair has gone from a coma to Moto X Best Trick.