I can still hear the quick crunch of his vertebrae cracking. That's the meddling of hindsight, of course — he was too far away, out in the middle of the night-dark field, and there were too many people around me and around him: the fans heckling, the grunts and dull thud of 16 men crashing together in the scrum, then an ominous silence. People breathing hard, whispering, yelling for help.
But whatever I heard or didn't hear, whatever tricks memory has since played, I knew as soon as the scrum collapsed in on itself that something was wrong. It was clear in the collective intake of breath from the crowd, in the way the other players shifted their feet and paced in circles while they waited for the stretcher to arrive. I was in my ninth year of competitive rugby and I had seen plenty of men and women carried off the field, but in all those other instances the spinal boards had been only precautionary. Everyone knew, this time, that something was different.
The inevitable Band-Aid: "He was doing what he loved."
By the next day, or the day after, the news was all over the rugby community in the small-town British university where I was a graduate student, and a member of a women's team. He'd been in the front row when the scrum caved in, and he'd been driven headfirst into the ground. His neck was broken, and apart from a twitching bicep, he was paralyzed from the shoulders down.
"He was so young," people said, defaulting to the past tense. "He was only 20 years old."
And then, the inevitable Band-Aid: "He was doing what he loved."
I thought about that phrase over and over again in the weeks after that night, and about its implication that paying a physical, or even fatal, price for the sports we love is worthwhile. At our next practice, the younger girls were deeply shaken — some contemplated quitting the team, calculating that it wasn't worth the risk. I reassured them that catastrophic spinal injuries were rare enough in men's rugby, and extraordinarily so in the women's game. But I wondered: How would I react, if my sport forced me to pay a price beyond the bruises, bone chips, blood and pulled muscles I'd already offered up?
If "doing what I loved" cost me the use of my legs and my arms, or the full use of my brain, would I say it was worth it? Could I measure the sport's rewards and stack them against the risks, and if I did, what would that balance sheet look like? What had the sport given me, and how much was I willing to pay in return?
In 1995, Nike released a 30-second TV spot that was as grimly poignant as anything I've ever seen. You can still watch it on YouTube — it features a sequence of shots of young girls playing on a playground or tossing a baseball or posing by a community pool, and taking turns speaking into the camera.
"If you let me play," the girls repeat, "if you let me play sports." Then:
"I will like myself more."
"I will have more self confidence."
"I will be 60 percent less likely to get breast cancer."
"I will suffer less depression."
"I will be more likely to leave a man who beats me."
"I'll be less likely to get pregnant before I want to."
"I will learn what it means to be strong."
"If you let me play."
"If you let me play sports."
I was 13 years old when it came out. There was a print version, too, featuring the youngest looking girl in the ad — the one who delivers the line about leaving a man who beats her, with a jarring youthful earnestness — sitting on a park swing and staring into the camera. I tore it out of a teen magazine and taped it to my bedroom wall, where it joined a sprawling collage of magazine and newspaper clippings and photos, a haphazard mixture of Hollywood celebrities, hockey players and Olympians.
I liked the idea of the ad, but I didn't really understand it yet. That understanding came later, in high school, when I first started playing rugby.
I'd always gravitated toward sports, though I'd never excelled at them. I'd been a mediocre little league softball player — my specialty was stealing bases, not a huge challenge in a league where very few girls could throw from home plate to second base with any accuracy — and a half-decent soccer player, relying on hustle and natural speed more than skill. I swam, and I ran track, and one summer I flirted with tennis. But none of those sports ever felt like they truly fit.
In junior high, I boasted to classmates that I would play rugby when I got to high school, despite knowing absolutely nothing about the sport. When I showed up at my first practice, I'd never even seen a rugby ball or watched a test on TV. All I knew is that it was a tough, violent game, and that, unlike football, girls were allowed to play it.
In 2006, researchers in the U.K. published a survey of 24 peer-reviewed studies examining people's motivations for playing sports. Echoing the Nike ad, the survey found that teenage girls increased their self-esteem and tapped into new social support networks when they joined a sports team. But those rewards came with a corresponding sacrifice. "While many girls wanted to be physically active," the researchers wrote, "a tension existed between wishing to appear feminine and attractive and the sweaty muscular image attached to active women ... A clear opposition can be seen between girls wanting to be physically active and at the same time feminine."
I remember seeing that tension play out on fields and hardwood gym floors throughout my school years: athletic girls catching themselves trying too hard to make a catch or swing a bat, visibly pulling themselves up short, then falling back on the safety of giggles and halfhearted efforts instead of striving for excellence, afraid of who might see. But I don't remember feeling all that torn about it, myself. I was awkward and inept when it came to "girl stuff" — slow to grasp the nuances of clothes, hair or makeup, flat-chested, and apparently incapable of anything resembling flirting. Rather than trying and failing to exist in that world, it seemed easier to me to embrace the tomboy cliché. When I joined the high school rugby team at age 15, it felt like I had completed a fumbling journey toward an identity that I could wrap myself in, and be shielded from the outside world.
I had completed a fumbling journey toward an identity that I could wrap myself in.
I loved the early morning practices, riding the city bus through the darkness and running laps around the school's hallways while we waited for the snow to melt off our field in spring. I played in the back line in my early seasons, the row of leaner, fleeter players who ran the ball after the burlier forwards had scrummed over it, and I loved learning set plays and then learning the secret code names to go with them. ("Jerry Springer!" We'd yell across the field. "Sally Jessy Raphael!") I was tentative in my first season, afraid of hitting people and afraid of being hit. But I soon learned that the fear itself, the anticipation of pain, was almost always worse than the reality. Soon I loved the sound of an opposing player's bones jangling together when I drove her into the ground, and I even learned to love the sickening, stomach-churning moments before an open field tackle, wondering if I would miss or make the hit.
I loved being yelled at by my last name. I loved the scrapes and lumps I racked up on shins, thighs, and shoulders, the line of yellowed fingerprint bruises running down my arms in my prom photo. I loved the belligerence of the T-shirts that were handed out at tournaments: "Give Blood, Play Rugby." "Suck It Up, Princess." "You Only Wish You Could Play Like a Girl."
Most of all, I loved my teammates. Though I'd started playing rugby in part because of my discomfort in Girl World, the team didn't just provide a refuge: It also drew me back out again. It was in the dressing room after practices and games that I learned to stop hiding in a bathroom stall to change, learned to be comfortable with and even proud of my body. Girls from the team dragged me to the mall, and to school dances, stuffing me into dresses and heels that gradually came to feel less foreign. When I graduated after four seasons of high school rugby, and prepared to head off for four more seasons in college, I felt transformed. I no longer called myself a tomboy, and rugby was no longer a crutch.
So much for the revenue side of the balance sheet. Rugby had, for a time, given me everything. But around the same time I'd begun to outgrow my need for it, I'd also begun to understand its potential cost. I racked up pulled muscles and strained ligaments, and chipped a bone in my ankle that still aches under pressure, more than 15 years later. I played with women sporting twin scars on their knees from ACL surgeries. I saw a man come off the pitch one afternoon with his ear torn half off. I helped concussed teammates stagger off the field, unable to remember their own names, and suffered one concussion myself — a minor one, but still an injury with the terrifying power to reach back in time and erase my memories from even before the hit. I had one friend, on my college's men's team, who swore he would quit after three concussions, but he only counted the big ones. Once, I saw him pick himself up after a collision and line up alongside the wrong team. And then, finally, I watched that young man break his neck under the floodlights on a cold night in northern England. I was haunted by the question of my own potential regrets.
In the end, I quit the sport not by choice, but because I became an itinerant freelance writer, lived out of a suitcase for a year and a half, and eventually moved to the Yukon Territory in northern Canada, where there was no rugby to play. The question lingered, though. Here, people paddled whitewater rapids and tumbled off mountain bikes and ventured into the mountainous backcountry on skis and snowmobiles. Every year, boaters drowned or died of exposure, skiers were buried in avalanches, and hikers and mountaineers were rescued, or not reached in time. I bought a can of bear spray, learned to ice climb, capsized a canoe in an icy rapid for the first time. I faced a new set of rewards and a new set of risks. I wondered about the price my friends and I would be willing to pay to "do what we love."
The YouTube video is six minutes and four seconds long, and shaky. In the foreground are the backs of people's heads — spectators — and behind them you can see a tall dirt ramp. Amid the constant drone of engines and a tinny beat, a rotating cast of helmeted young men appear in the frame, riding snowmobiles, roaring up one side of the jump, launching themselves into the air to perform front flips and backflips and flying Superman moves, then landing their machines and buzzing down the far side before circling around to do it all over again.
The video is from a freestyle snowmobiling demonstration in New Hampshire, in October 2009. There's no snow on the ground yet, but the sport's season keeps expanding: the men ride over wood chips and dirt, running their machines through a pit of cold water off-screen to keep the engines from overheating. Fat gray clouds hover over the scene, and the white peaks of marquee tents are visible on the far side of the ramp. The song of the snowmobile engines makes serious thought impossible — it's like standing too close to a neighbor while he operates a weed-whacker. After each trick, the crowd hoots and whistles and claps; sometimes the young men launch their machines so high into the air that they vanish from the screen before falling back into view again, landing heavily and then speeding out of the right side of the frame. A boisterous announcer's voice is audible in snippets, mostly drowned out by the crowd and the engines and the music coming through the loudspeakers.
At the two-minute mark, the announcer breaks through clearly, singling out a rider with red sleeves for approval. "Huge!" He says. "Give it up for Darryl Tait, everybody!" The camera shakes and pans over the crowd: ball caps, hoodies, a brief detour to jeans, feet, dirt.
In the final minute, the red-sleeved rider reappears. He launches high into the air — almost out of the video's frame — and inverts himself for a backflip. But something goes wrong, and instead of completing the flip the machine plummets nose-first toward the earth. The red-sleeved rider tumbles off forwards, and his snowmobile rolls over him. The crowd gasps in unison, one woman's half-formed cheer rises to a shriek, and several people run out to the young man lying in a heap in the dirt.
The emcee urges the onlookers to cheer him back to his feet. "Everybody make some noise, Darryl Tait!" He says. Seconds pass, and he tries again, a little plaintive now. "Everybody, Darryl Tait! Make some noise!" He receives only a nervous, muted response from the crowd.
Now the announcer's bravado is crumbling, desperation creeping in. "Come on, Darryl, get up buddy! Get up!"
But Darryl Tait doesn't get up. Moments later, the crowd noise and the music are drowned out by sirens, and the video cuts out.
The video is closing in on 14,000 views. Tait doesn't know how many of them are his. "I've watched it over and over," he says.
Tait's snowmobile accident that day in New Hampshire was the result of an ugly confluence of circumstances. It was near the end of the day at the demo, and he had one thing left in his bag of tricks: the backflip. He hadn't told anyone whether he planned to attempt it, including his father, watching in the crowd. But privately, he'd decided it was an option. "I told myself, if it feels good, if it feels right, do it."
And on that last pass, he'd decided to go for it. The show included X Games medalists, people he aspired to emulate and wanted to impress. "I pulled for the flip to show everyone what I got," he says. As he came up the ramp he pinned the throttle down, launched into the air, and pulled back hard on his handlebars to force the heavy snowmobile into a full backwards rotation. But he hadn't noticed that his fuel was low, and as he and the machine spun through the air, his hand still clamped down hard on the throttle, the thirsty engine ran dry and stalled. One more splash of fuel might have seen them through. Instead, Tait and his snowmobile dropped out of the sky together and landed with the machine on top.
The last thing he remembers is hitting the ground. He was in and out of consciousness in a Boston hospital for the next nine days, he's told, but he was heavily medicated — it's all hazy. The first clear memories don't begin again until after his surgery.
When he woke up in his hospital room, foggy with morphine, he learned that he was paralyzed.
The operation, they tell him later, had to wait for over a week because he had two collapsed lungs, a bruised heart, broken ribs and a broken shoulder blade to contend with: The doctors couldn't risk him lying for hours on his stomach on an operating table until he'd stabilized. When it was finally safe to proceed, they removed a piece of his pelvis and used it to fuse his vertebrae, from T3 to T10, paving over the spot at T4 and T5 — that hard-to-scratch place between the shoulder blades — where his spinal cord had been severed. They inserted two rods and 12 screws into his body to hold his spine in place.
When he woke up in his hospital room, foggy with morphine, he learned that he was paralyzed — that while he could still breathe on his own, and use his arms, he had no power over his legs, or over his core from the nipples on down. He remembers looking at the photos that lined the wall of his room, brought by his parents while he was fading in and out: each one was a shot of him in action, on a dirt bike or a snowboard or a snowmobile.
Forget riding. "This is it," he remembers thinking. "I'm not going to be able to walk again." He was 19.
There's another video on YouTube, this one just eight seconds long.
At just over 700 views, it lags far behind the crash video. It shows a plywood ramp curving up to the top of a tall, dirty snow bank, and another piece of plywood lying on top of a sagging mattress, both flat on top of the snow. A backdrop of low-rise apartment blocks, parked pickup trucks, tall evergreens, a flat gray-white sky. The long wooden shaft and red plastic handle of a shovel sticks straight up out of the bank. Three kids stand shivering off to the side — ball caps, skinny jeans, hoodies and sneakers — and watch something out of the frame.
Then there's the grumble of a truck engine, the sound of skateboard wheels meeting plywood, and a white-helmeted Darryl Tait flies into view, seated in a wheelchair, gloved hands hovering over the wheels. He rolls fast and straight up the center of the ramp and launches into the air, inverting himself for a backflip. Pause it at just the right moment and you can see him rearing back, leading with his head to force the chair all the way around, a mirror image of that other backflip years earlier. This time, though, he completes the rotation and sticks the landing, bouncing once on the plywood-covered mattress before coming to a stop. The invisible cameraman shouts, "Aw yeah!" and laughs like he can't believe it. The kids raise their arms and holler in triumph, and move in for high-fives. Tait straightens up in his chair and turns to meet them before the video ends.
There was never any question of leaving extreme sports behind.
It would almost be incorrect to say that Darryl Tait has made a comeback in the four and a half years since his accident. A comeback implies that he disappeared for a while, but for Tait, there was never any question of leaving extreme sports behind. He started pushing his limits again while he was still in a rehab center in the weeks and months after the crash, learning to live with his chair and to manage his newly paralyzed, vulnerable body.
After his surgery in Boston, Tait, a Canadian from the Yukon Territory, was flown to a second hospital in Vancouver, and from there he moved to a rehabilitation facility where he spent six months building up his strength and re-learning how to live in his body, how to take care of himself, how to manage the most basic daily tasks. "Bladder and bowel, sexual function," he says matter-of-factly. He met with dieticians, and a psychiatrist. He had physical therapy sessions, occupational therapy, recreational therapy. He learned wheelchair skills, played wheelchair sports. He learned how to dress himself. It was like going to school, he says, only every day of classes was focused on some aspect of living with paralysis. He was so focused on his recovery, he recalls, that he didn't stop to think too hard about his diagnosis. "None of the emotions really kicked in until I got home."
That changed when he came back to Whitehorse. He did his best to stay positive around friends and family, but it was at night, when he was alone in bed, his lower half inert, that the "dark times" kicked in. "I'd be lying in bed, just mad and frustrated. Thinking, ‘Oh man, why did I pull that day? I shouldn't have pulled.'" He remembers nights spent slamming his head into his pillow over and over again, haunted by whys and what-ifs.
But two new sports soon occupied his time. In early 2010, while he was still in rehab, the X Games introduced Adaptive Snocross for the first time, a racing event for disabled snowmobilers. Tait skipped out of the facility to fly to Aspen and meet its first competitors, his new role models. He also embraced the nascent sport of WCMX — like a combination of skateboarding and BMX, but in a wheelchair — immediately. "I took my wheelchair and went to the skate park right away after I saw it on YouTube," he says. When he eventually got home to Whitehorse, he started working on the modifications that would be needed to let him ride his snowmobile again. By 2013, he was back at the X Games — this time as a competitor.
I first meet Darryl Tait at the small, scruffy skate park that sits next to the Yukon River in Whitehorse, where we both live. It's a hot — by Yukon standards — sunny day in early May, and Tait, who is self-sufficient and lives by himself nearby, is just reemerging to enjoy the weather after being laid out by a urinary tract infection, a common hazard for people with spinal cord injuries. When I arrive, a handful of skateboarders are making lazy loops around the park, and Tait, now 24, is sitting in his wheelchair talking to a couple of the other guys. The faint smell of marijuana hangs over the park, and the mountains, still etched with snow, are visible around us on all sides.
As I get closer, I realize Tait's explaining to the other guys the circumstances of an accident that took place just across the river a few days earlier: a local dirt-biker, 23-year-old Eric Bonneteau, had a bad crash over the weekend and died of his injuries.
Tait wears Vans, skinny jeans and a brand-name hoodie. He's a regular at the park, and not just to sit on the sideline and reminisce about old times. His wheelchair is designed for WCMX; it has built-in suspension and skateboard wheels in front. "I've gotta be cautious that I don't bend it up too bad. I still have to get groceries in it," he says.
"I've gotta be cautious that I don't bend it up too bad. I still have to get groceries in it."
While I watch, he straps on a full-face helmet, elbow pads and kneepads — actually a second set of elbow pads, since his knees are so much smaller now — and rolls out into the concrete of the park. He'd warned me before we met that since he'd been so recently bed-bound, he wouldn't be able to show me anything "too gnarly."
He pulls up next to the quarter-pipe, reaches above his head and hauls himself up the side of the structure, hand over hand, settling himself onto the platform up top before getting another skater to pass his chair to him. Then he maneuvers back into it and straps himself in — "I'm safer in my chair than outside of it," he tells me — before dropping in for my camera.
Tait's fearlessness is a lifelong habit. He rode a snowmobile for the first time at age 3, started dirt-biking at 4, and also devoted himself to skateboarding, snowboarding, BMX and mountain biking. He tackled "pretty much all of the extreme sports I could do all through the seasons," he says.
His parents had always supported his involvement in extreme sports. "They worried, being parents," he says. "But they trusted my decision-making." Since he's thrown himself back into everything after his accident, though, things are different. His father's support is more cautious now, more heavily laced with fear — the elder Tait, after all, went through his own traumatic event that day in New Hampshire. He watched his son crash and was the first person to reach his side.
Tait, too, approaches his sports slightly differently now. "I was scared," he says of his re-entry to extreme sports, this time without the use of his legs. His paralyzed lower half is particularly vulnerable to injury: the bone density is weaker, and healing is slow. And if he hurt himself in an area he can't feel, the injury could fester, unnoticed and untreated. "There was a whole new calculated risk factor. ‘Is it really worth it?' I don't take the same risks I used to."
But the rewards remain the same. Individual sports typically offer a different set of psychological and social benefits than team sports, and while I sought out a sense of identity and community, for Tait, it's always been more about a sense of accomplishment: You work and you work to land a new trick, building up your skill sets and pushing yourself further and further, and then when you land that trick you move on to the next challenge. "Not doing it because people think it's cool or anything," he says, "but just doing it for yourself."
He's come a long way from those dark nights after he first came home from rehab. A couple of years ago, he tells me, he noticed a transition: He'd wake up in the morning and just go about his routine without thinking about how things used to be. He'd stopped thinking, "I wish I could just stand up in the shower," or "I wish I could stand up to dress myself." Somewhere along the way, he'd become liberated from why and what-if.
Before his accident, he'd experienced concussions, broken bones and road rash, but he'd never really considered the possibility of paralysis. "I wasn't aware of spinal cord injury," he says. "I had heard of it, but I was thinking, what are the chances of that happening to me? I always thought, the sports I'm doing, if I die doing it, I'd be happy doing what I love. But I didn't really think of, man, it could take away my legs."
People ask him sometimes if he would want an operation, if one existed, to fix his spine. His answer? "I don't know," he says. "Maybe it would bring me more pain than I need."
I've told Tait about that night in England, and my questions about whether I'd be content to live with my choices. I think he can tell that I'm looking to him for something like reassurance. He's met a lot of people with serious spinal cord injuries, and for what it's worth, he tells me, in his experience the only ones still mired in anger and regret are the ones who had their mobility taken from them by an outside force, a drunk driver, for instance.
He looks around the skate park. "I feel good every time I come out here," he tells me. "If I have any anger or frustration in my head, this just takes me away from that."
Then he shrugs, thinking back to that day in New Hampshire. "It was my decision. I accept it for myself."
In the time that I spent working on this story, I was reminded three times over of the price we pay for the sports we love. Eric Bonneteau, the local dirt-biker, died while I was lining up my interview with Darryl Tait. While I wrestled with a first draft, a hiker's bones and backpack were discovered on a challenging multi-day hiking trail three hours north of Whitehorse; it's not yet known whether he died of exposure, drowned in a creek crossing, was killed by a bear, or succumbed to some other cause. Then, as I finalized my revisions, one of my closest friends was hit with high-altitude pulmonary edema, HAPE, as he neared the summit of nearby Mount Logan, Canada's highest peak. He was able to retreat to a safer elevation, and is already planning next year's attempt on the mountain.
Last fall, I had my own close call, standing on the bank of a wild river in Alaska and watching, helpless, as another hiker lost his footing in the crossing and was swept downstream, coming terrifyingly close to drowning or dying of hypothermia. I'd only planned a day hike and the river had been my turnaround point for the outing, but when I'd met the other hiker and his friends I'd been eager to tag along — only the fact that I'd promised an editor that I'd be back within cell phone range that evening prevented me from walking into that river, too. On the long, lonely hike home, after I'd left the others thawing out around a campfire, I kept wondering: Would I have stayed on my feet in the current? And if I hadn't, would I have made it out alive?
It's cruel to picture the sports we love ultimately leaving us with a legacy of unhappiness and regret.
It's impossible to say how I would have reacted to a serious rugby injury, when I played, or how I'd handle one now, in my new sports. I'd like to believe that, like Tait, I could learn to own my choices, and live with them, whatever the consequences: It's cruel to picture the sports we love, and that give us so much, ultimately leaving us with a legacy of unhappiness and regret. But my doubts keep hanging around.
In the end, there's no knowing for sure. Despite all my talk of costs and rewards, the sports we love don't come with a disclaimer or a warrantee, any more than the people, places or professions we love do. There are always consequences we can't control: when we climb a mountain, fall in love, cross the street without looking both ways.
The only sure-thing we can reach for, and hold tight to, and remember as we make choices and take risks every day, might be that lesson I learned when I first started playing: that the fear, the anticipation, of hurting someone, or of being hurt, turned out to be worse than the pain itself.
So drop your shoulder, and go in for the hit.