Now that Mirra — found dead Thursday of a gunshot wound in his truck at his home in Greenville, N.C. — has apparently killed himself, it’s easy to forget the great dangers he faced everyday in pursuit of his calling. BMX bikers are in peril every time they compete or practice, defying gravity as casually as the rest of us change toner in the copier.
Or, sometimes, not:
And, in his career, Mirra endured — and triumphed over — at least two terrible accidents that devastated his body and left him wondering whether he would ever compete again.
In the first, he was just a pedestrian. In 1993, at age 19, Mirra — who had just gotten out of high school and gone pro — was leaving a club in Syracuse when a drunk driver plowed into him, fracturing his skull and dislocating his shoulder.
“A car going 45 hurts a lot more than you falling from 15 feet and hitting the ground,” he later said. “But it all hurts.”
The accident left him with a blood clot in his brain.
“They said that if I was a football player, they’d never let me play again,” he said, “but I wasn’t going to let that control my destiny.” Besides, giving up riding wasn’t really an option — and there was no one to stop him.
“They couldn’t control what I did because it was an independent sport,” he said. “Maybe at first I was a little nervous, but I missed it so much.”
Mirra was riding again within a year.
“The blood clot went away real soon, and I was fine,” he said. “Basically, I just figured I’d been riding my whole life and I’m not going to stop now.”
Getting hit by a car wasn’t really that different than getting hassled by squares, he said.
“It was a setback, but something I overcame. It doesn’t even mess with me at all,” he said. “It’s no different than that teacher in sixth grade telling me I wasn’t going to go anywhere — a roadblock. In life there are obstacles you have to go through. Whatever it is, you overcome eventually. I’m fortunate not to be hurt physically so that I can move on. Back then it was a big deal, but it’s behind me.” He also once noted: There was “no brain damage that I know of.”
Although Mirra wasn’t really the type to preach, the crash that almost ended his career certainly made him a fan of designated drivers.
“I haven’t been involved in any public service announcements, but it is my stand that drunk driving is not safe, and I would urge people not to drink and drive,” he said. “It’s not worth it.”
In 2006, Mirra had another close call he later called his “worst crash ever.”
“It was the first day of BMX park practice before the Summer X Games,” he told Men’s Fitness — a publication impressed by “what extreme athletes put their bodies through” — in 2007. “I did a few practice runs and started to push it a little bit each time. The final hit was a mess. I missed the landing and came down flat. As I leaned back to suck it up, my ass hit the back tire, my bike instantly stopped, and I went straight over the bars to the ground. I basically fell 16 feet straight to my head. Just after I hit the ground, I thought for sure I broke all the ribs on the right side and my sternum was smashed. I couldn’t breathe, so a collapsed lung crossed my mind. I knew something was wrong.”
It turned out Mirra had almost destroyed his liver.
“I ended up with a Grade 4 laceration on my liver — Grade 5 is the worst you can get,” he said. “I spent two days in ICU and had to stay off my bike for close to four months. The biggest challenge is getting back to 100 percent mentally. But after four months off my bike, I was ready to take some chances again. I spent so much time preparing myself in my mind to ride that I was ready to go when the time came.”
For a guy used to pushing his body to the limits, recovery demanded patience.
“I realized there’s nothing you can do about an injury or having a bad day,” he said of the healing process. “My mind-set right now is all about having fun when I’m out riding and not putting too much pressure on myself. I’ve won enough; I’ve proved myself. Winning feels good — I’m still out there riding my best and keeping up the standard for riding, and I don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. I’m just focusing more on enjoying myself: staying positive and doing what I do best.”
If Mirra did take his own life, something tragic led him off of this positive path. But, when remembering the obstacles he did overcome, perhaps it’s also best to remember his nickname: “Miracle Man.”