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The Dan Atherton Interview Part 1: Long Walks in the Mind's Cage

By Seb Kemp
On 6th July 2010 Dan Atherton fell directly onto his head, fracturing the C1 and C2 vertebrae. He was taken to the hospital where they told him he was lucky to be alive. Had his fractured vertebrae moved and damaged the nerves that run through them and control the operation of the lungs and heart, he would have been dead. However, three months locked into a Halo (a cage that supports, stabilizes and immobilizes the neck), unable to move, in excruciating pain, and feeling very vulnerable because of it, didn’t make Dan feel that lucky, but he really was.
Photograph: Sven MartinI caught up with Dan and Rachel Atherton on a cool, sunny November afternoon in Marina Del Ray, California. Dan had been in California for several weeks seeing medical specialists at the D.I.S.C. Sports and Spine Centre to regain some mobility and strength. Unfortunately, the doctors in California found his injuries were far more severe than the doctors in the UK had diagnosed. There were huge fractures in his skull which had gone totally undetected and were still very visible four months after the accident, and the fractured vertebrae had started to fuse together, as they had been left to heal of their own accord rather than been fixed in surgery at the time of the accident.

Sister Rachel had flown out several days earlier to provide moral support to Dan and to see specialists in the same clinic to rehab her own shoulders which have been a constant issue to her for several seasons now.

When I saw Dan that day, it was the first time I had seen him since the accident. I have known Dan for 12 years and I think this is the first time I could have beaten him at an arm wrestle. Dan was one of the strongest people I have ever known, in body and mind. So with his body withered from months of incapacitation, it has been an exercise purely for his mind. In this interview we talk about the immediate aftermath of the accident, his recovery, and how some of the weakest moments actually make for the strongest of times. Rachel provides her perspective on Dan’s accident and recovery, as well as some very illuminating and stunning revelations that may surprise you.

This is the first of several parts to this interview. The first two are from this meeting in California, and in March I will be catching up with the complete Atherton clan in New Zealand, where they will be training and preparing for the World Cup series.

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Late November, 2010
Seb: So what's this place called?
Dan: It’s called D.I.S.C. (discmdgroup.com). They were founded by Dr. Bray, whose background is in the Air Force. He used to work on fighter jet pilots and took this knowledge to his own kinda of sports clinic. They have links with U.S. olympic squad and all the U.S. olympic athletes come here to get treated. This whole rehab came about because of Red Bull, and without them I would be screwed. They look after their athletes for sure.
I remember everyday I would wake up and be surprised just how painful it was. Photo: Clay PorterRach: They have a gym and rehab zones and all sorts. Everything you need. You walk around and see the pictures of all the people who have been there. Guys from Korn, Fleetwood Mac, and Blink 182 [giggle].

Seb: What are they getting you to do?
Dan: Go in every morning, have an hour of deep tissue massage, force the movement of my neck and head to break up scar tissue in my neck. Then after that 2 hours of gym work on cable exercises and free weights.

Rach: I couldn’t believe it when I saw what he was doing. I was thinking, ‘Should you be doing that?’ Full-on cable weights working all the upper neck and shoulders and arms. Just so he can hold himself up properly.

Seb: Are you out here training with Dan in the gym too?
Rach: Yeah, I came out to give him support because it sucks being here alone, and also at the same time I had an operation on my shoulder eight weeks ago, right after Worlds. I came here to get that checked over and make sure I’m doing the right thing for both my shoulders, as they are pretty shit. As Dan said the soft tissue department is so good. The doctor has written so much literature on nerve damage and the kinda problems I have. It’s so good to have support of people who really have the knowledge to back up what they are saying.

Seb: How's your recovery coming along, Rach?
Rach: It’s getting there...It’s getting pretty good. I just have to be careful and not get carried away and jump in the deep end.

Dan: Rach has an ambition, she wants to be squatting 250 already.

Rach: And Dan is the most patient person I have ever met. Since he broke his neck he has been so patient it’s almost annoying.

Dan: Try lying around for three months with metal pins in your neck. It will make you patient.
Photograph: Sven MartinSeb: How was the three months?
Dan: I remember saying to Rach one night whilst I was up, I couldn’t sleep, and I just sat there, I said, ‘Rach don’t ever let me forget this moment, I don’t ever want to forget this moment.’ It was so bad and so traumatic and I don’t ever want to got through it again. And now I have forgotten already, forgotten how bad it was. I took videos of those times because I didn’t want to forget but I don’t want to watch them yet. I want to get better.

Seb: What was the worst? Pain, physical or emotional and mental?
Dan: Ermmm...just so unable to do anything. Like I just couldn’t move in bed, having to have an electric bed to lift you up and down and get you out of bed. And then you are laying down on the pins in the back of your head, so there was never ever ever a moment were I was comfortable. There’s always something sticking in your head. I felt like I wanted to put myself in a big suit and jump in the water to take the weight off because there was never ever ever any respite. No moment where you could relax.

Seb: How long did this go on?
Dan: Three months. I remember everyday I would wake up and be surprised just how painful it was. And I’d be like ‘F*** this really hurts today,’ then I would remember, ‘No it’s the same as every other day.’ Pretty intense.

Seb: Could you sleep?
Dan: Not really. I could sleep for three hours at a time, wake up, watch a movie, then go back to sleep. Night and day didn’t exist. I just slept when I was tired and when I was uncomfortable I tried moving around.

Seb: So what mental steps did you use to make yourself physically better?
Dan: Toby Forte [UK BMX rider and brother to Kye Forte, a fellow Red Bull athlete] was in a coma for while and had major brain damage. He came and visited me pretty early on. He said to me, ‘You are gonna get better, just take baby steps and make little goals,' and that's what got me through. Making realistic goals each day.
     I remember when I was in hospital and setting myself the goal of being able to get up and go to the toilet myself. That was the goal. The big thing. Then after that all I wanted to do was get up and sit at a table to eat dinner, not just lie in bed eating mush.

Seb: How was your mental state at the time? Were you clear headed enough to focus and see that this really was what you needed to do?
Dan: I think it was harder seeing people like Gee and Rach and the family dealing with it. For me, I found I didn’t want people visiting me or seeing me. I just wanted to retreat into my head and shut off. Pretend I was in this world where nothing mattered. As soon as people asked me about it, I had to talk about it, see their reactions and their emotions and actually make them feel better as they were the ones feeling bad about it all. It was way easier to deal with it myself. If I am ever paralyzed then I just want to be left alone, because you can shut off and disappear into another weird world. Which is selfish because it makes everyone else hurt.

Seb: Did you vocalize this to family and friends and make it known that this was how you felt?
Dan: Yes, the only ones I wanted to come in and see me were Rach, Gee and Mum. I couldn’t really keep them away.

Rach: HA! You couldn’t if you had tried. It wasn’t like we were crying at your bedside or anything.

Dan: Yes you were!

Rach: Yeah, ok to start with we did.
Photograph: Sven MartinSeb: How did this affect you, Rach?
Rach: It was probably the worse thing I had ever experienced when I walked in to the hospital the first morning. Not prepared and not knowing what to expect. Not thinking I’d see him in that situation. Seeing him taped to the bed. Not knowing what was happening. Going from the buffest and strongest person I have ever known.
     For me and Gee it has been so rad watching him deal with it. I wouldn’t have been able to deal with it, but to see him deal with it so well, and it sounds cliche, but to be so strong. He is always so dedicated and one-track-minded to everything, so to see it was pretty rad. You learn a lot about yourself. So rad to have someone be an example, which is what Dan is.
     If it had happened to anyone else, like me or someone, it would have been different. Watching him, it seemed like he didn’t have to ‘deal’ with it, he just seemed to be getting on with it. Like when it first happened it was so scary, he couldn’t move and he was unstable. He was Velcro'd to the bed so he couldn’t cry or be upset about it. He just went from strength to strength. He is like a rock.
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In part two we have more insight into the mindset of athletes whose primary goal is to be the best and fastest racer on the planet, whether this accident has changed their outlook on racing, and what are Dan’s ultimate plans..
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