Finding strength

Nate Adams was riding high at X Games 17, but his world came crashing down in an August accident. Markus Paulsen/ESPN Images

In August 2011 Nate Adams was on top of the world, winning his second X Games Freestyle gold medal [along with Speed & Style] and on his way to an unprecedented third successive Red Bull X-Fighters championship.

Then, at a quiet afternoon training session at his house in Temecula, Calif., his world came crashing down. Adams walks us through the past eight painful months of his life.

ESPN.com: Let's go back to the day you actually crashed -- what happened?
I was at home in my back yard, riding my course. It was actually only the third or fourth time riding it since the county made me tear it all down and I got all the permits and rebuilt it.

Just doing a Rock Solid to no-hander lander since I pretty much knew what Dany [Torres] was going to bring. He has a lot of no hander landing tricks and turns it up or puts flair on an old trick. I was just kind of learning a few tricks to no hander, like the rock solid and the lazy boy flips to no hander lander. Just on one of those rock solids my front end kind of washed out on the landing. I just slid and it was basically one of those really easy crashes, I slid out and fell on my left side.

No crash is fun, but in the back of my head it was a crash that was going to slide me out and maybe leave a scratch on my forearm or something. I'm thinking I would pop up and get to my bike and it would probably stay running and I would get back to my session. I pretty much hit just right I guess and, man, my shoulder just blew out of socket and my shoulder was down to my ribs. I broke my humerus and shoulder blade and bicep tendon and severed the nerve, which was the main part of what has taken the healing process so long.

Did you know you had done that much damage to yourself when the crash happened?
The only thing I knew was that my shoulder was really out of socket and that I had dislocated my shoulder. About five seconds after I hit the ground I could just feel it. But no, I had no idea until my orthopedic surgeon told me it was the worst shoulder he's ever seen. That kind of blew my mind afterwards.

The X-rays showed that I had a dislocated shoulder and that the humerus was broken, but then when he opened me up the inside was just much worse than he expected. I got the first surgery and it was supposed to be a three-month healing time, but when three months came around I was thinking, "There's no way I can ride."

I just started looking for answers and a month and a half later I finally found a doctor who was familiar with what I was experiencing and found out the axillary nerve was severed and it was time to go under the knife again and get that repaired. This is about four months since that surgery, and here I am.

So the first time you got the surgery they didn't realize that the nerve was actually severed?
No, they just repaired the shoulder and repaired my arm and all that stuff. I really wish I would've had a doctor who was familiar with the chance of that happening. Apparently it's about a 1 percent chance that you can sever the axillary nerve if your shoulder comes out of the socket. It's not a great chance, but it's just how it goes and it went unnoticed for the first four months.

Can you explain what it is like when things are going wrong and your nerves stop working? Unless you have experienced this I don't think people can understand it.
I would not have either if I had not have gone through this! When the nerve is severed, your brain can no longer send signals to the muscle, so what happens is that the nerve supplies signals and life to the muscle and it basically dies and then the muscles follow suit soon afterwards.

All the deltoids are operated by the axillary nerve, which was severed. The deltoids basically lift your shoulder and lift your arm up and give you all of your shoulder strength. You lose probably 60 percent of the strength in your arm, maybe more and you lose the range of motion.

It is a very tough mental battle, especially before I knew the nerve was severed. You just don't know what's going on because it is paralysis basically, just not paralysis in the spinal cord. The nerve branches off the spinal cord and that nerve was severed so you basically have a minor case of paralysis.

The nerves die out and then my shoulder was -- and still is -- very skinny. For months it was a skeleton wrapped with skin over it, very thin and you could feel the bone. Just seeing that every day is very defeating too.

So you had the second operation done. What's the rehab you have been going through since that?
The first six weeks I was not allowed to move it and had it in a sling. The doctor was really careful about letting that nerve heal together and get strong again before using my arm, so that it didn't sever again. Since then it has been a lot of exercises, light weights, just building up you know?

Pretty much every week I can go up in weight and I increased the amount of pushups I can do. I'm doing a lot of road biking, running and swimming. Swimming has been great for my shoulders. Just trying to get back to the point where I can do the things that I would have done without even thinking before the injury. You don't think you take things for granted, but when you have a certain mobility or a certain part of your body taken away it definitely makes you realize what you have to be thankful for.

When you look at the sport of FMX you realize how important shoulder power is. Functionally it is really critical to what you do, right?
Well, you don't really realize how much you use any body part, but shoulders are part of anything you do. For a while I could not raise my hand above shoulder level and you don't realize those little things that you can't do. You can't put a glass away in the cupboard, you can't hold a tape measure up to measure the width of the sink [laughs] I couldn't get my left hand to reach up and hold the front of the tape measure. It's so aggravating and makes you understand you need your shoulders for everything. In freestyle motocross it's a central part of where your power and your stability come from.

So speaking about measuring your sink: How else have you been passing the time?
Oh, man. For months there it was the normal therapy stuff and just believing I was going to ride again and then for a month after that all my time went into trying to figure this thing out. Honestly it has allowed me a lot of time to work on Deft Family, my glove company, the business is growing and that's all going great.

But I realized that a lot of the motivation I have for other parts of my life come from being able to ride and having that knowledge that I am strong and I am good at something, that I am good at what I love to do.

Just knowing that you are weak and that you might never be the same is kind of a big motivation and confidence robber. A lot of the time went into Deft Family, training, physical therapy and getting into my studio a little bit doing some rhyming. That was pretty much where all of my time went.

Did it make you think more about life after your riding career?
[Deep laugh] Absolutely. For 13 years it has been a constant schedule. My years are booked from January to November and then I take a month or two off to ride for fun. The money's consistent and always coming in if not the amount's going up because you are winning more or you have been with a sponsor for so long and renew a contract.

It was always there and through this time off I have lost two sponsors, one being Target who I have had for a decade. It made me think a lot about saving and spending wise and if I can't ride a dirtbike what else can I do?

It's hard to get across in words what that feels like, but when you have always done something and been good at it and relied on that. I was 14 or 15 when I started doing contests so I put all my eggs into this basket and it worked out. To have the threat of it being taken away is a big deal.

You lost the Target sponsorship after 10 years? Was that connected with the injury?
I think they were kind of changing directions. They kept some of their athletes like Shaun White and I know Ryan Dungey still rides for them, but they did fire a couple of us -- well, not really "fire," but they didn't renew our contracts. They said they were "changing direction," well, actually I didn't get a call from anyone and have not spoken with anyone from Target since my contract ran out, or actually a few months prior to that. [It's] kind of been a weird thing, and I definitely feel the injury had something to do with it, especially because a few months ago I was unsure if I would be the same or if I would ever ride again. It's a bummer that things ended like that, but it is just business and that's how it goes -- you can't take it personal.

Prior to this injury, you were a two-time X-Fighters champion and almost guaranteed a third championship in a row. You had just won an X Games gold freestyle medal for the first time since 2004 and you were literally on top of the world. It must have seemed like your entire world fell apart.
It did, yeah. I felt like the rug got swept out from underneath me. I went from the highest of highs to the lowest I have ever been in my life. One thing [manager] Jimmy Button and I talked about was that as an athlete you have this belief in yourself and you believe you can overcome any injury. Like all I have to do is work harder or try harder, figure it out and think harder and I can get over it, but you're not invincible and some things can take you out.

How you make a living -- that can all come to a screeching halt and it might be time to figure out how else I can make a living and how else I can provide for myself and if I want to start a family, how can I provide for them?

Nothing is guaranteed and it doesn't matter how hard you work for it or how good your intentions are, it can all stop at any time. Ten months ago I was in a completely different spot and I never thought I would be sitting how I am right now. It has given me a new perspective on a lot of things.

You have always been known as a man of faith. Did you feel that was really a helpful thing for you while going through all of this?
Oh, for sure. I know God's got a plan and we don't always understand it. Sometimes we fall into this place, and I fall into it too, where we pray for things hoping that God will get on our plan [laughs], but I learned to pray and just pray that I could adhere and be happy and get on God's plan. God's never late, never wrong, he's always on time, always right. So if this is what it is for me then I have just been learning to change the way I think and change the way I approach God.

It's been hard, it's hard to live life with an open hand and you know everything you have belongs to God and it's a gift and no matter how much you love it, God gives and he takes away and he can take it away any time he wants. Sometimes you don't always know the answer, but I trust that his plan is perfect and it is going to work out for the better for me. Not just in freestyle, but with riding dirtbikes in general it's tough to make the internal change to hold out with an open hand knowing it could never be the same, and for a while there I was thinking that I might never be able to ride again and I had to learn to accept that it might be the case. Without God in my life it might have been unbearable.

The question now is what is the prognosis? When can we expect to see you competing? What's the next step in the Nate Adams saga?

Well the nerve surgery was a success and I have already seen some muscle rebuilding. I have been on the bike for about six weeks now, riding freestyle and flipping and doing 3's again. I'm slowly building and every day I ride kind of getting back to feeling like the person and the rider that I used to be.

Been riding Speed & Style and a month ago I used to think, "Man, I really hope the whoops are small at Speed & Style in X Games this year," but now I am hitting the whoops and thinking, "No, I hope they're big!" [Laughs] I know from my Supercross experience and training in the past that everyone can go fast through small whoops, but I want them to be big because I know I can hit them better than the majority of guys out there. My shoulder is healing and getting stronger so X Games will be my first event back and depending on how that goes and where I sit after then I hopefully get back on the X-Fighters this year and pick up where I left off.

It would be a fantastic way for this all to play out.
Yes, yes it would, but X Games is what I am working for and working towards, I have thought a little bit past that, but right now the focus is X Games and just getting through that and being successful there.

Well thanks for this update and we all want to see you back and maybe you will earn your third gold in freestyle this year.
That would be amazing! Thanks.