(TREAD issue 1 2009) Just over two years ago a serious crash broke my body – badly; and my career as a professional athlete looked over. But my spirit wasn’t broken and that was all I needed to fuel my recovery. – By Conrad Stoltz
It was September 25, 2006. Two days before XTERRA USA Championships at Lake Tahoe, Nevada. I was leading the XTERRA USA Series standings and was poised to clinch the XTERRA USA title. As final preparation I rode the long climb up Tunnel Creek. At the top of the 30-minute climb I turned around and started descending the sandy jeep road.
High-speed descents are one of my strong points, and I clearly remember thinking: “No need to blitz this one, save it for race day. Instead, enjoy the view because on race day you won’t be able to look at the scenery.”
So I casually rolled down the steep, sandy jeep track, standing on the pedals and taking glimpses at the view as the trail allowed it. Next thing I knew, I was in the air, sailing over the bars in slow motion – at 40kph. I didn’t see the small dip in the bright sand road. The bump deftly flicked my bodyweight slightly forward for an instant, I lost my grip and my wrists went over the front of the bars. I connected the ground head first, with my wrists hitting the ground still bent backwards.
When I came to I saw my hand lying at a crazy angle and I knew my race was over. The realisation of “the season is over” is usually the harshest moment following a crash. But this time it was just the start. My head and my back really, really hurt, I couldn’t breathe and I knew I was in serious trouble. In a panic I did the toe wiggle. Phew! Guess it could have been worse.
I got up and rode down the mountain with one good hand and a broken back (of course my bike didn’t get a scratch!). I remember thinking about missing USA Champs and World’s, but mostly the ‘wrong pain’ in my back and my other hand, which was flapping around in the wind. On that downhill, I lost my cool and shed a few tears.
In the ER they finally soaked me in morphine and I laughed at the crackling sound of bones as the doc pulled and pushed at the wrist to get the pieces to line up a bit better. Surgery shortly after that to attach a steel plate, 12 long screws and a long weird pin that stuck through the skin, all to hold my wrist together. It had broken in seven places inside the joint. My back had a 30% compression fracture at T12. I wore a solid back brace for three months, once on the mend I moved to Reno, Nevada.
The operation cost me US$12 000 cash. I had no choice. They won’t touch you until you cough up.
Back on my parents’ farm in Mpumalanga, I could recover and do some soul searching after the toughest season of my 15-year professional racing career.
However, I got a rude awakening when it came to renegotiating my sponsorship contracts. The ship was sinking and quite a number of sponsors were jumping off. With a broken back and shattered wrist, not knowing how (or if) I would come back, at 33. They lost faith. That was really hard.
Still burning from the $12k medical expenses, lost sponsorship, not being able to earn at USA Champs and World’s and being written off by everyone, I started seriously considering walking away. I’m not in the sport for money. I do it because it is my passion.
Then the phone rang (no one calls me on the farm). It was Bert Pictor from Falke socks in Stellenbosch. He said: “Conrad, we heard you needed help, if you are willing and able to race, we will stand by you and take over the biggest contract you lost.” Stunned but apprehensive, I sent him my freshly null and void Saucony contract, we deleted “Saucony” and put in “Balega.” I was still in a back brace and wearing a cast, but these guys came ON board, when other people were jumping OVER board!
Balega (Zulu for “to move with speed”) is a South African/American initiative with the most amazing core values. It is a high-quality sock brand made and packaged in the Falke factory in Cape Town, and sold to the specialist running market in the USA. They own about 35% of the US market share and command extreme respect through their charity work and ethics.
The XTERRA folks also stood by me like the family they are. Bert drummed up a few small product sponsors while I recovered on the farm with light, and later heavy farming. After three months off I started light training, and in the early season won XTERRA South Africa. My good form was surprising.
As per usual, I went to the USA in May, but this time I was incredibly determined. Usually I’m a laid back guy, not very competitive and without much of an ego. (You don’t need those to go fast.) I do this triathlon and mountain biking thing because I truly enjoy the process and the lifestyle. But such determination was a new experience to me.
Turns out 2007 was the best season of my career! I won all the XTERRAs I did, including my fifth USA Series title and third World Championship. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that comeback.
Considering what I had gone through in the previous 13 months, breaking that tape at World’s was probably the most profound moment of my life. Walking across the line I tried to think and silently share the moment with of all the people who had meant so much, who had gone beyond friendship, duty and business to believe. Truly believe. Belief is a big word.
In the dictionary of sport, Conrad Stoltz is another term for tough. Visit his website – www.conradstoltz.com for some highly entertaining tales of his life as The Caveman, a witty, ego-less professional athlete.
Originally published in TREAD Issue 1, 2009 – All rights reserved