Cycling almost took his life, but Raisin fights to return

Saul Raisin was out training on the roads around his Dalton, Ga., home recently when I caught up with him.

"I'm doing awesome!" he said into his cell phone, and then wind buffeted his voice and drowned out the rest.

"Saul, I'm having trouble hearing you," I shouted.

"Do you want me to slow down?" he asked. He did, but a few minutes later the rushing sound began again and I had to remind him.

Slow is not Saul Raisin's preferred speed right now. He thinks of himself as a professional cyclist, a potentially great one. He doesn't remember the crash that almost killed him in spring of 2006. He never saw himself the way his mother and father saw him, rigid and unresponsive in a hospital bed.

After that, who wouldn't want their child to step away from a dangerous sport and do something safe and sedentary? But Yvonne and Jim Raisin are supporting their 24-year-old son as he tries to return to that point on the road where he almost lost everything.

"When someone has a brain injury, they want to be who they were before," Yvonne Raisin told me. "Whether they're a doctor or a teacher or a police officer, they want their old life back. We can't deny him that chance."

Incredibly, there's a good possibility Saul Raisin can and will race again. His words spill over each other in torrents when he talks about it, as if he's still compensating for past silences.

Less than a year ago, speaking exhausted him. He had to think through the motions of lifting a spoon to his mouth. Now he's again measuring progress by the more standard markers of watts and power output and heartbeats per minute (he posts training data, and a lot more at www.saulraisin.com).

Raisin's Web site details the way he's channeling his gratitude into a parallel effort to help people who crashed and never got all the way back up. The campaign is called "Raisin Hope," and its beneficiaries are care and research facilities for people with brain and spinal cord injuries.

"People who are quad[riplegics], they are the angels of the world," he said in his soft Georgia drawl. "You can learn so much from those people. Now, when I see someone in a wheelchair, my heart truly falls to that person. Because I know what it's like to be them."

Raisin' Hope -- which started out as the more defiant Raisin' Hell -- began with modest sales of a green-and-white version of the ubiquitous rubber "cause" bracelet. Saul promoted the organization last month by riding every stage of the weeklong Tour of California a couple of hours ahead of the peloton with people who knew his story. Delighted fans ran alongside him, shouting encouragement. His parents drove behind him, watching him take descents at 40 mph with their hearts in their mouths.

"We're proud of him, but we were scared to death," Yvonne said.

Teddy Allen, a sales rep for one of Raisin's sponsors, GU energy gel, rode the entire route with him and saw his confidence bloom. "I was huffing and puffing up some of those hills, going 100 percent, and he was talking non-stop to people," Allen said. "He didn't care if he told the same story 50 times."

Saul is currently conducting an online auction of cycling memorabilia, and on March 31, he will lead a fundraising ride in Dalton. If he has his way, he'll provide the ultimate example of hope by competing in the time trial at the U.S. Pro Championships this fall, and he's approaching that task with stubborn, unswerving single-mindedness.

But, he added, "Quite frankly, if my life doesn't get any better, I can't ask for anything else."

If you follow cycling, you probably first heard of Saul Raisin as the baby-faced, burgeoning talent who earned Best Young Rider honors in the Tour de Georgia back in 2003. He signed with a French team, Credit Agricole, and made steady progress overseas. Raisin finished ninth in the 2005 Tour of Germany. In early 2006, he won a stage at the Tour of Langkawi in Malaysia, a traditional proving ground for young pros. He was slated to ride the Tour of Italy.

You also probably heard about what happened in April 2006, when Raisin crashed at high speed on a gravel-strewn stretch of road during the first stage of the Circuit de la Sarthe race in France. He broke a few bones, but that wasn't the worst of it.

Raisin had suffered a significant head trauma. Overnight in a hospital in Angers, the subdural hematoma between his skull and his brain burst, causing life-threatening cerebral edema, or bleeding into the brain. Doctors put him into a medically-induced coma as they worked feverishly to drain the blood and reduce the swelling.

His parents flew to France knowing their only child might not survive, or that he could emerge in a vegetative state. But Raisin pulled through. He spent several weeks in France before he was flown back to the Shepherd Center, a catastrophic care hospital in Atlanta, to start the arduous process of rehab.

"In a movie, people in comas wake up and they're awake," he said. "Even to this day, I'm still waking. My parents called it 'the fog.' If you looked in my eyes, I looked absent."

Last Mother's Day, Yvonne's son took his first steps for the second time in his life, wobbling across the room into her arms. The partial paralysis on his left side gradually faded. He had to relearn to feed himself, to read and comprehend a simple text.

Raisin was still at Shepherd when he decided to log on to the Internet and try to piece together his own story. He opened his e-mail account and found 1,200 new messages. Unable to cope with the backlog, he deleted them. Then he put his name into a search engine and stared, alarmed, at tens of thousands of hits, most with grim headlines.

"I broke down crying on my computer, because I finally realized what happened to me," he said. "Most of all I realized what I did to my parents."

The whole family, thankful as they were, came up against the reality of readjusting to old roles. After living on his own in France for three years, Saul had to move back in with his parents. They had to be vigilant with him 24 hours a day. It took patience on all sides, and that wasn't always the easiest thing to master for a young, gifted athlete anxious to heal.

Riding was a way of growing up again, fast-forwarding back to adulthood, asserting his independence. Raisin spent hours on a stationary bike and then on an indoor trainer. He rode at odd hours. He rode compulsively.

"I would push myself so hard that I would limp, I would drool and I would slur my words," he said.

His longtime coach Jim Lehman of Carmichael Training Systems found himself treading the fine line between encouraging Raisin and reining him in for his own good.

"I tried not to fight him too much," said Lehman, who has worked with Raisin since the rider was 17. "But I'd say, 'Let's not let your enthusiasm get the best of you. Don't ride three five-hour days in a row and then not be able to ride.' I tried to make sure he was getting what he needed hydration and nutrition-wise."

In those early days of Raisin's recovery, he didn't always remember what Lehman had told him, but his concentration improved as the weeks and months went on. He was able to get back on the road -- with his parents alongside him -- in late July, right around the end of the Tour de France.

"I would push myself so hard that I would limp, I would drool and I would slur my words."
-- Saul Raisin on his grueling rehab program

Raisin's teammate Thor Hushovd called him after winning the final sprint on the Champs-Elysees. "I carried you across the line on my wrist," the muscular Norwegian said. Photographs clearly show the green bracelet on Hushovd's right arm, lifted triumphantly skyward.

Credit Agricole stood by Raisin. The team honored his contract, invited him and his parents to training camp in France this past winter and issued him official clothing. Team director Roger Legeay stays in close touch. When Raisin rode ahead of the race in California, generating stories and attention along the way. Legeay told him, "Tu fais ton métier:" You're doing your job.

Raisin's hoped-for return to the pro peloton later this year is by no means guaranteed. He's riding alone now and physically strong enough to reach his former conditioning level, but still working to regain the knife-edge balance, reflexes and mental focus so critical for cyclists. He is taking medication similar to what's dispensed to children with attention deficit disorder and doesn't care for the side effects, but hopes he'll be weaned off it relatively soon.

He began serious, targeted training earlier this month. Lehman is optimistic about Raisin's prospects. "The more structure he has in his day, the easier it is for him to stay on task," the coach said. "He's getting back to being a bike racer again instead of just 'I'm riding my bike.'

"The physical gifts are still there, and the motivation and drive is stronger than ever. Most people would have said, 'That's enough. I'm alive.'"

Raisin will visit Lehman in Colorado Springs next month for a week of riding and testing. Then two different sets of doctors, in the United States and France, will have to clear Raisin before he's good to go.

No book could be as wide open as Saul Raisin is now. When we had dinner recently in California, he waxed eloquent about his feelings in English and French, recited poetry he'd written, laughed as he described his propensity to "talk dirty" during a phase of his recovery when his impulse control was switched off, freely described his mood swings.

He pulled out his cell phone and showed me a photograph his parents took of him when he was in a coma. It's gruesome, but he's not about to delete it. Enough has been erased from his memory banks.

"I'm not afraid," Raisin said repeatedly. "I'll tell you anything."

One question stumped him momentarily. I asked how he felt he'd changed inside. "If I knew what I was missing, I'd be back to normal," he said finally. "I'm a more emotional person. I'm more passionate. That's what's changed the most."

His mother vouched for that. "He's always been a very loving, outgoing person, and now, it's like double," Yvonne said.

That generosity springs from a simple source. Saul Raisin dwells on how much he's gotten back rather than what he might have lost. It makes him feel lucky, and it encourages him to speed up, accompanied by his favorite soundtrack: the wind rushing past his ears.

Bonnie DeSimone is a freelancer who contributes frequently to ESPN.com.