By Steve Medcroft
Seven weeks before U.S. National Championships in Mammoth Mountain, California, pro downhill racer and Turner/Honda team manager Sven Martin crashed during a training ride in Whistler, British Columbia.
The South African and his wife, Anka, were negotiating a moderately technical trail at "cruising" speed. Martin's front wheel caught a rock and he went over the bars so quick he says he didn't have a chance to correct his position and landed on his head. He says he knew right away that he had broken his neck. X-Rays confirmed that he had broken his C3 through C5 vertebrae, crushing C4. It was a miracle he wasn't paralysed from the injury and has taken surgery and careful therapy to get him to the point where he was walking the Mammoth pits; albeit wearing with a neck-immobilizing brace.
The accident left Martin financially vulnerable and looking at a six-month recovery. Although he had purchased an international catastrophic medical policy, he travelled to Whistler two days earlier than planned and the provider refused to pay the claim. Leaving the now out work Martin with tens of thousands of dollars in medical expenses.
But the downhill scene has a way of taking care of its own; at Nationals, Jeremiah Dean (of Dylan/Dean Designs - a custom helmet designer), was busy organizing donations of sponsor products for a raffle to raise funds to help with Martin's bills.
"A lot of people donated product and cash," said Dean. "Pretty much everyone in the industry is helping out." The fundraiser was one of many. "We did some fund raising at the Mount Snow NORBA finals. We're having another raffle in Southern California at Dana Point (Break Neck Speed Fundraiser, September 22nd)."
Martin says all the attention has been humbling. "I've been blown away by it. I've been on the circuit for a couple of years and the downhill scene is sort of a small, travelling family but the fact that they wanted to raise money for us not once or twice but over and over, has been amazing to me."
The relief has allowed Martin to focus more on recovery than money. "Not being able to work has been stressful," he said. "But I have a long-term payment plan for much of my medical bills. With the help these guys are providing, we'll make it through."
The experience of having a catastrophic injury while uninsured has made Martin reflective about the lack of medical coverage for professional mountain bikers. "This whole thing has made me want to work to create some form of insurance coverage for us," he said. "NORBA has something that helps and some of the pro teams have contracts which include medical coverage but a lot of other riders are not covered by anything. We all understand that there are risks involved with this sport but there has to be a solution; even it's a policy where you pay a certain amount out of pocket but are covered for a catastrophic injury like mine."
Beyond becoming an advocate for medical coverage for athletes, Martin says he is focused on recovery. "I'm doing good now," he says. "It's been six weeks since the accident and I'm starting to feel more normal; I can get out of the house and walk around, I don't have to take so many pain killers and I don't have to lay down every couple of hours. It's going to be twelve weeks before I can get on a mountain bike again." A moment he says he is looking forward to.
Martin expects to recovery in time to rejoin his Turner/Honda team for the 2006 mountain bike season.