"I Fully Believe I'll Walk Again"

The following is an extended version of the Stephen Murray feature that appears in the current issue of EXPN The Magazine, available on newsstands April 23. The whole issue is available for download here.

Stephen Murray knew he needed a huge jump to revive his stalled career. Six years earlier, after he landed the first double backflip in competition to win the BMX dirt jumping event at the 2001 X Games, he was one of the most popular athletes in action sports. But by June 22, 2007, when he arrived in Baltimore for the first stop on the Dew Tour, he had lost momentum—and sponsors. Murray hit his first jump and took the lead in the comp. On his second, he crashed hard. Then on his third run, Murray separated from his bike in midair, landed on his head and crushed three vertebrae in his neck. He was paralyzed from the shoulders down.

Since the accident, the 28-year-old British rider has undergone two seven-hour surgeries to stabilize his spinal cord and fuse his vertebrae using two titanium plates and 16 screws. He has suffered two cardiac arrests and numerous bouts of pneumonia. In a series of conversations, Murray spoke about the risks he took for his sport and why he believes he will someday be free of his wheelchair.

I got into BMX at 3. I had a little yellow bike with training wheels, and Dad would push me off wooden jumps. I was addicted. When I was 18, I turned semi-pro and moved to America to train for BMX racing. Jumping at the track over big gaps is what grabbed me—I loved the freedom of expression. In 2000, my first year as a sponsored pro, I broke seven bones in eight months and blacked out four times. But by 2002, I'd won three gold medals in two years. I was living the high life.

Going into the Dew contest last summer, the pressure was on. I had a wife and two kids and huge bills I couldn't pay. I knew I had to go big. I was going to prove everybody wrong. I got there and was so dialed. My first run I knocked out a 92—the top mark. The second run, I got a concussion. I shook it off. What's so crazy is that I had just gotten into God three months before. I crossed my heart right before my third run—I'd never done that before in my life. Everything felt perfect. I have no recollection of what happened next.

From watching the video, I know my left foot slipped off my pedal right after the lift and sling-shotted me 15 feet past the landing, 30 feet in the air. In the 3,000 or more double back flips I'd done, this had never happened. I got discombobulated and lost consciousness in the air. I didn't know which was up or down My head was flexed into my chest, and I never came out of a pike position; the impact snapped my neck. I stopped breathing instantly. The ambulance transported me to the trauma hospital in Baltimore and I had a cardiac arrest. I was dead for two and a half minutes before they brought me back to life.

I woke up five or six days after the accident with a tube down my throat; I couldn't breathe on my own. They'd pumped me full of drugs and fused my spine from the C2 vertebra to the C6. I felt like I was in a straightjacket. Then I saw my mom. When you wake up in a hospital and see your mom, you know it's serious. She said, "It's going to be OK. I'm here with you." I was hanging on my life by a thread. I could have just let it go. I told my wife I wanted to die. [Crying] I'm sorry—I get emotional. I'm a quad. I can't move.

After Christmas with his family in Riverside, Calif., Murray returned to Baltimore for seven weeks of rehabilitation at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, a leading spinal cord research facility. His treatment was overseen by Dr. John W. McDonald, best known for his work with Christopher Reeve. McDonald pioneered electronic stimulation to reverse muscle atrophy and reeducate the paths between nerves and muscles. He used these treatments with Murray, who suffered the same injury as Reeve.

I'm buzzing today! I sat on a mat with my feet on the ground and my trunk supported, and they stimulated my triceps and forearms. Then they wanted to see if I had any manual contraction in my triceps, so they leaned me over to one side and told me to push myself up with my arm. I envisioned being on my bike and pulling up on my handlebars, like you do when you're going off a jump, and I did it—ten times! It came out of nowhere! Everybody was flipping out! The doctor came in and was like "Yes, yes, yes! It's gonna happen. You're going to get to the end of the tunnel!"

Murray's insurance pays just $2,000 per year toward medical equipment; his wheelchair alone cost $35,000. To finance the bulk of his expenses, his family and friends established the Stephen Murray Family Fund to raise money for his medical costs.

About two weeks after I woke up, I said to my mom. "Am I disabled?" And she started crying. "You're paralyzed. It's gonna be OK. You might never be able to walk again or use your hands, but you're gonna live."

My doctors told me I'd be a C2 complete, which means you're paralyzed from your C2 vertebra in your neck on down—that's what Christopher Reeves was, and it's pretty much life-or-death every 15 minutes because the paralysis affects how your organs function.

Everybody was trying to hold it together for me. My parents told me, "Your life's like a book. It comes in chapters. You have to go through these chapters to get to the next one. Eventually if you keep going, you'll get to the end of the tunnel and it'll be a better life." I didn't break down. I was happy to be alive.

I'm the first action sports professional that this has happened to. People want to see gnarly accidents; it's part of what we do. BMX has been my passion since Day One, and I always knew I would take risks. But how do you draw the line? You have to push the boundaries all the time. You're so stressed at having to pull tricks in front of crowds and TV cameras for money. If you don't win, your sponsors are going to kick you to the curb.

Something has to change. I see it as my job to create awareness among up-and-coming riders. The sport needs to create an athlete recovery program, where event organizers put money into a fund in case something happens. A rider's union should set rules for competitions and demand event insurance, so when riders get hurt, they're covered.

One of Murray's mentors is Patrick Rummerfield, the world's first fully recovered quadriplegic. Rummerfield, who works with McDonald's patients at Kennedy Krieger, had his spinal cord severed in a 1974 car crash. It took him 17 years to recover and Rummerfield has since competed in an Ironman triathlon and is one of just 82 people to ever complete the Antarctic Marathon. Murray and Rummerfield are in constant touch and the BMXer says he focuses on his mentor's success for inspiration.

The key to recovery is the connection between the mind and the body. You have to remain so mentally strong because you're rewiring your body and reconnecting to your muscles. To create movement, you have a dream or a thought, that thought gets turned into an impulse in the mind and the signal is passed to the spinal cord. When the cord is severed, it's like a traffic jam. Sometimes you can't move in a traffic jam—but sometimes you can.

From the beginning, I tried to connect my brain to my toes. After about five months, my big toe on my right leg started to move from side to side. I was tripping out! Tears came to me eyes. After a while, I had slight movement in my toes on the other foot. Toward the end of the day, I had a slight twitch on my toe on my left foot. Now I can wiggle them, a full up-and-down wiggle. On Christmas Day, my wrist started cocking to the side. It was the best Christmas present I could get. Now I have slight ankle movement, and I can flex my fingers inward a couple centimeters with my right hand.

In late February, Murray returned to his family—wife Melissa and kids Seth, 5, and
Mason, 2-and-a-half—in California. For physical therapy, he rides a functional electronic stimulation bicycle daily. Stimulation contracts his glutes, abs, calves and hamstrings so that he can pedal. This May, Murray heads back to Kennedy Krieger for another month of rehab. He hopes to develop enough movement in his fingers to upgrade to a hand-controlled wheelchair. He operates his current chair by turning his head.

Today they attached my arms to a little skateboard devices and then attached a stimulator to my biceps. The stimulation moved my arm on the skateboard back and forth. Then they wanted to see if I could move the skateboard forward with my deltoid. My therapist said if I could do it 50 times, then I could get measured for a hand-controlled wheelchair (right now I'm moving it with my head). I got 30 before I got tired. Then I did 40. I was exhaling, focusing, and all of a sudden I banged 'em out. I did 51!

My body is rewiring itself. It's connecting again. It's going to be the longest road of my life and the hardest thing I'm ever going to go through. But I have patience. My doctors are blown away, but they know the mindset of an action sports athlete. First I was a C2 complete, then all of a sudden I was a C3 incomplete, and then an Asia A, which is no feeling below point of injury. Now I'm an Asia C. I can feel touch everywhere on my body. It's huge progress, absolutely awesome. They're massive steps yet, but I fully believe that I'll walk again. I'm not going to stop until I do. And if I don't, well, then I'm going to die from old age. It's a long path. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

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