Motion, progression and evolution
Written by Heidi Volpe
Photos by Michael Darter
Riders pooled at the bottom of the famed Kamikaze Downhill on Mammoth Mountain in California. Excitement and race anxiety lingered in the air as I made my way through the sea of pads, full-face helmets and DH rigs. My gaze dropped and I noticed one rider who was beaming, kicked back in his race machine looking 100-percent content and downright happy.
I moved closer. Aaron Baker has a way of drawing you in by simply being. You can’t help but feel inspiration, awe, gratitude, and of course you hear that inner whisper, “What if that were me?”
Just five months after he signed with Suzuki at the age of 20 Aaron broke his neck, specifically his C- 4, 5 and 6 vertebrae during motocross practice in Simi Valley, California. “The moment I hit the ground I understood what had happened. I was conscious and aware, able to instruct bystanders to call for a helicopter, and told them not to take off my helmet. I knew this chapter in my life had ended and I was onto the next phase. Nothing was going to be the same anymore,” Aaron says. Doctors told him that he had a one in a million chance of ever feeding himself again, let alone walking or riding a bike. In the first year of his injury, he suffered from pneumonia, his lungs filled with fluid causing him to suffocate and flat-line for a minute.
Even with all that, Aaron, now 36, has a way of making you feel like it’ll all be okay. Not easy, but everything will be all right. He shows you a window into what quite possibly may be a richer and fuller life than your own. In addition to his Zen-like aura, he’s incredibly articulate about his injury and personal motivations. “Before the accident I always thought that if I had ever experienced a career-ending injury that I would not want to live. It turns out that wasn’t the case. On the contrary I am more alive today than ever. I would not change a thing.” Aaron can now walk on his own for short periods of time, but keeps his cane nearby for certain stability. He considers himself a recovering quadriplegic–constantly progressing, regressing, consciously evolving.
Because of the lingering effects of the accident, everything in his day-to-day life is slowed down; there are no swift movements, everything is deliberate and calculated. His body is a constant reminder of how miraculous life is and how lucky he is to experience it with six senses. “My entire body below my neck has been affected by the spinal cord injury. Physically, my body is asymmetrical, with strength fluctuating from left to right, creating instability with gait, for which I use a cane and sometimes a wheelchair. I have an imbalance of grip in my hands and my sensation is sporadic and less than acute. Hot and cold are difficult to differentiate, as well as superficial pain, which is sometimes a good thing.”
I caught with up Aaron at C.O.R.E. (Center of Restorative Exercise), the gym in Northridge, California, he founded with his mother Laquita Dian. They are pioneering a niche fitness model to fill the gap between medical rehabilitation and health clubs. “Through this extensive process of recovery, we recognized a deficiency in the continuity of health and wellness post rehabilitation,” he says. “There is a tremendous need for our services. If not us, who? If not now, when? I believe I have always been a disruptor, never keen for authority and tremendously confident and driven. The injury seemed to amplify the outlaw spirit in me and my family.”
Much of the equipment at C.O.R.E is designed specifically for people in wheelchairs. There is left and right access to the seated machines and stabilizing bars lining the walls so clients can assist themselves in getting from one machine to the next. Aaron spun his wheelchair through the gym into his office. We looked at some videos of his epic walk across Death Valley while he was having his mid-morning snack of a small plate of fruit and some gluten-free toast. He can only handle very small meals of about 300-400 calories because his digestive system was compromised by the injury. In addition, he needs to stay strategically dehydrated to avoid constant trips to the restroom.
I asked Aaron to tell me about the hardest part of his day-to-day life and his hardest adventure. “Balance,” he replied, “balancing my natural instinct for intense action and the serene spring of peace within me. The struggle is real, relatable and a wonderful challenge I meet with every waking moment. To date, the most challenging endeavor I have pursued has to be the ‘walk.’ Last year, I walked 20 miles solo across Death Valley, California. It took me to a place both physically and mentally unlike anything I have ever experienced. The challenge was so great, that in the end, all I had left was heart.” Watching the video on the walk will silence any room. A documentary will be released this summer in conjunction with the World Run on May 3 in Santa Clarita, California. Aaron’s put together a team (CORE Centers) as an ambassador for the Red Bull non-profit organization
Wings For Life, which raises awareness and funds for spinal cord injury research. He walked 20 miles in one week with a modified baby jogger. Of course, all of Aaron’s bikes and gear are handcrafted to suit his needs.
This walk came on the heels of him missing his chance to race in London at the Paralympics, for which he trained on a trike for nearly four years. Unfortunately, he got sick and had to miss the Games. In true Aaron form he dropped this nugget of wisdom: “I use my passion for sport and competition to assist my evolution. By becoming highly aware of my physical body through training, and by experiencing the complex emotional roller coaster of competition, I ultimately pushed myself through once-thought-impossible psychological and physiological boundaries into a new place of endless possibilities. Truthfully, not making the Olympic Games is more relatable for most than if I had won Gold. This was a good thing. I desperately needed to switch up my training focus anyway: I had become an incredibly strong cyclist, but at the expense of my functional gait. I needed to learn how to walk again.”
After he finished his snack, Aaron carefully got up, grabbed his cane and made his way out to the gym floor much like a rock climber figuring out an ascent route. Aaron carefully picked his line using the desk, the door jam, and the doorknob to keeping moving forward. As our chat was wrapping up, he was standing between two bars around waist height that he used to rock back and forth. Stillness is not ideal for Aaron.
“I like to compare my body to a badass racecar. It performs best when tuned and in motion. If I stop moving, it’s like turning off the ignition. My fluids tend to pool in my lower extremities, which results in a deep, burning nerve pain. My muscles and joints begin to stiffen like a rusty linkage and my overall vitality is decreased by the inefficient flow of all things kinetic.”
Is the fear of not truly living greater than the possibility of being injured again, I asked? Standing tall between the grab bars, Aaron replied, “I honestly let any natural fear of falling, failure or further injury sharpen my calculated risks. My adventurous spirit must be cultivated and shared. To suppress this in me would be to extinguish my flame. I choose to stay lit!”
He says he races because he can: “I have the opportunity to express the strength I build in the gym, out on the mountain, road, or track. Competing against myself is my way of evolving and progressing.”
PROGRESS IS RELATIVE
For most riders, it’s all about shaving time off runs or honing better handling skills. It’s not remembering how to walk or patiently waiting for your brain to send the signals to your legs to stop muscle spasms after a hard effort. I rode with Aaron at Balboa Park, a small city park in Encino, California, with winding bike paths where he’s logged many miles. This is where he took his first tandem ride with his mom 12 years ago, after his accident. Since then, it has become his stomping ground for training where he would measure his progress back in the day.
We rode side by side and I watched him muscle his way up some small rises. Once we crested and took a break he said, “You see that? My brain is sending the message for my legs to stop firing, but it takes time.” He was clipped in, so the spasms in his legs caused the entire drivetrain to quiver, making the chain shake and rattle. His bike is actually a trike on steroids and is incredibly nimble. It’s called a Stinger but Baker likes to call it the Honey Badger, a much more worthy name if you see the way he rides it, often kicking up on one or two of the three wheels.
Once things settled down, he scanned the trails for the best opportunity to get on two wheels. “Let’s go head over here and then burn down this trail. I’ll thread the needle between those two rocks at the bottom of the line and then see how long I can balance my rig on two wheels.” I hesitated, took a deep breath, and said, “Okay, but this is the last one.” We had been ripping around the trails for almost 45 minutes and it was one of those warm days when you feel like you’re riding through a hair dryer. I was okay with being the fun-hater in the crowd, because truthfully I was getting concerned. In hindsight, though, I see this is how Aaron is: No matter what he does, he’s giving it. From charging down lines to simply putting on gloves, nothing is easy, yet he’s committed to it all of it. I peppered him with questions on our ride, like how does he stay so positive? And like a true master, he explained, “Awareness, gratitude, action, nature and nurture. My days begin with gratitude–a mantra I repeat for my body, my family and all that is. I like to take action by pursuing short-term, long-term and ultimate goals I set for myself. I prefer to take action in nature, live consciously and aware enjoying the connection to this life-giving earth. And by nurturing myself, I am strong enough to nurture others. I am alive and grateful with the ability to empower another with my service. My greatest gift is time and love.”