When you talk to Mike Aitken, he seems totally normal. When he rides over the tough jumps at Rad Canyon BMX track, he doesn't look to have a problem.
But less than a year ago, Aitken lay in a Pennsylvania hospital bed, in a coma and partially paralyzed. Doctors weren't sure he would live. Medical staff warned his family that if he did survive, the Murray rider would probably never be able to walk again or live a functional life. Aitken's story is one of how a beloved local action star whipsawed from the unbelievable heights to the bottomless depths, and then pulled off what some say is a miracle.
It was Sept. 12 of 2008, the BMX Dirt Finals of the Dew Tour. The parking lot of the Triad Center had been covered with tons of dirt, formed into high pointed jumps like vicious brown teeth. The course was a challenge to the world's best riders, each of whom had qualified to be there. "Mikey" Aitken, a famous freestyle rider known more for his widely viewed BMX videos than for contests, was one of them.
From the moment his name was announced, a deafening roar filled the balmy night air. When he started down the steep ramp to the first dirt jump, the screams grew even louder. As he whirled the bike around, doing trick after trick in the moonlight, it was if the cheers from the crowd kept him buoyant in air, as if gravity didn't apply to him.
"It was the best ride of my life. I never expected it. It was like magic," he said last week, smiling at the memory while he waited for his practice run behind the start gate at South Jordan's Rad Canyon.
Then, nearly one month after that stunning Dew Tour victory, everything in Aitken's life changed. On Oct. 5, he was filming a video at the notoriously difficult Posh Trails in Pennsylvania. He'd been having problems with instability in his shoulder for weeks, and the shoulder had been worked hard during the hours of riding. As was his habit then, Aitken was not wearing a helmet. It was his final trick of the day, a high '360 can can tire grab,' where the rider quickly turns the bike horizontally in a circle, while kicking both legs up on one side of the bike and reaching forward to grab the front tire. But while getting everything back on the bike, Aitken over-rotated, going further than a full circle. He crashed on his head, which took the weight of his body and bike.
He broke his eye socket, cheek and both sides of his jaw. His brain stem was injured and there was bleeding and bruising in his brain. He was in a coma for three weeks. "Everything came back really, really slow. I remember bits and pieces of waking up, but that's it. I couldn't move my right side at all," he said. When he was aware enough to learn from his wife, Trista, what had happened, he began sobbing and apologizing to his family.
Like most action sports athletes, Aitken had no insurance. A nationwide nonprofit group, Athlete Recovery Fund, paid the $26,000 cost of an air ambulance to fly him back to Salt Lake City. Medical bills are now over $300,000. His physical therapy alone was $5,000 monthly, a cost he couldn't pay, "So once I learned how to do it, I started to do it on my own."
"I was determined to come back. To me, your body follows your mind, it's all in your head. If I concentrate on being hurt, that's what will stay, but if I focus on being back to normal, I will be. It's all in your head," Aitken said firmly.
To the amazement of his doctors, he walked out of the hospital under his own power on Nov. 13, just six weeks after the accident. By December, he was back on his bike, wobbly, but upright.
He began seeing Layton chiropractor Craig Buhler, known as 'Doctor to the athletes' by many of those he has helped stay in competition shape, including Olympic gold medalist Picabo Street and Jazz player John Stockton, as well as many other Jazz players. Buhler treats Aitken for free.
"When he came to see me, he had a pretty serious brain injury, no insurance and couldn't work. He couldn't afford to pay, so I told him not to worry about it," said Buhler.
For his part, Aitken said, "I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for Dr. Buhler. He has really helped me." As for ongoing therapy, Aitken said, "I do a lot of stretching, and I spend two hours a day in a hyperbaric chamber, because that helps get oxygen to injured areas. I spend two hours in the gym, and a lot of time on my bike. My right side is still weak, and the brain injury still affects my short term memory, so I can't remember things as much. But they said I will keep recovering for 18 months to two years."
"I've been riding 17 years, and this was the first time anything like this remotely ever happened. It only takes once," he said. And knowing that much of his injuries were due to not wearing a helmet, that has now become Mikey Aitken's cause.
He has produced a wrenching short video, which can be found online, with that title. 'It Only Takes Once' begins with the victorious Dew Tour run, showing the tricks and the glory as Aitken accepts the winner's trophy while holding his two-year-old son Owen. In the background, a gravel-voiced Johnny Cash sings "You can run on for a long time, Run on for a long time, Sooner or later God'll cut you down..." Then it shows Aitken in the hospital, on a ventilator, convulsing in bed, trying to stand, working heartbreakingly hard to move one arm. He hopes it will convince other bike riders to wear helmets.
He hopes to be back riding the way he once did within a year. But emotionally, things will never be the same.
"I look at things a lot different now. I've gained a lot of perspective. I still love riding, but some things don't matter as much any more. I actually think this accident was meant to happen to further me along in life. So in a way, I'm glad it happened."