Getting Back Into the Rotation

By Ryan Mink
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 24, 2008

The first time Paul Thacker tried a back flip while hanging on to a 500-pound snowmobile, in April 2006, the landing wasn't smooth. He hopped back on the snowmobile and tried the jump again, this time landing it and satisfying his curiosity for the time being.

A year later, attempting the same back flip for the making of a DVD near his home in Alaska, Thacker suffered a much worse crash. After his snowmobile twisted sideways, Thacker bailed out in midair but landed back on top of the machine. The handlebars rammed under his helmet and tore into his mouth, an injury that required 170 stitches and reconstructive surgery to repair. He also broke his front teeth, nose, right eye socket, cheek bone, left arm, lower right leg and ankle.

"It was a gnarly, gnarly crash," Thacker said.

Now Thacker is determined to flip again. He will attempt to do so today at Winter X Games 12 in Aspen, Colo., where Thacker and seven other riders will compete head-to-head in the newest event of the X Games-- snowmobile speed and style, an equal blend of snocross racing and freestyle jumping. The finals will air tonight at 9 on ESPN, kicking off this year's X Games.

It will be Thacker's first X Games appearance and first time doing a back flip in front of a crowd. Thacker, who at 33 will be the oldest snowmobile rider at the X Games, landed his first back flip since the crash just nine days ago in practice.

"The back flip has always been on my mind" since the crash, Thacker said. "It wasn't the back flip's fault I crashed. It was my mistake. I'm really looking forward to going out and doing what I recently just learned again to do."

Thacker isn't afraid to get airborne. He posted the second-longest ramp-to-ramp snowmobile jump in history last February, sailing 245 feet in Shakopee, Minn. He was attempting to reach 300 feet, but howling winds and snow made jumping difficult. The record still stands at 263 feet.

But the back flip is an entirely different trick to land. Not only is the end-over-end aspect scary, but there's a 70-foot gap that riders must clear and a small area with which to land on the other side to stay attached to the snowmobile.

"I wouldn't say it's the hardest trick in the book technically, but it's the hardest to get over mentally," said 23-year-old freestyler Heath Frisby. "Everybody's been hurt flipping. It's about getting over your fears."

Thacker had to prove that he still had some freestyling ability in his repertoire to qualify for today's event. Using basic moves, he placed sixth at a qualifier in Billings, Mont., on Dec. 15.

But in order to compete with the freestyle riders in the snowmobile speed and style event, Thacker and his racing peers knew they had to learn death-defying stunts, and specifically the back flip, on short notice. That was all the incentive Thacker needed to overcome his past.

"I'd done it before, so I knew what it felt like," he said. "I just had to get over the mind block that the last time I flipped it almost killed me."

Last Tuesday, Thacker flipped for the first time since his wreck into a friend's foam pit in Ellsworth, Wis. Getting upside down was difficult to manage, he said, despite the low risk of injury. He drove to Aspen early to practice on Friday and was faced with landing the back flip again, this time without the foam blocks to aid his fall.

"I said a little keep-the-faith prayer and let 'er rip," he said.

Thacker stuck the jump. He flipped twice more Friday, three more times on Sunday and about 25 times on Tuesday.

"Landing that first one was a huge monkey off my back," Thacker said. "I'm feeling pretty good about it. I'm actually feeling more comfortable getting upside down than doing my regular tricks, which is not what I expected."

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