There aren’t too many athletes who can use a bike like Danny MacAskill. At 27, the Scottish-born Red Bull BMX rider has spent years trying to perfect the most intricate of tricks. Like a surgeon, MacAskill meticulously pulls off his moves, using the most technical of combinations and maneuvers, as though the environment around him was specifically designed as his skatepark.
It has taken 12 years for MacAskill to become one of the sport’s best technical riders and has lead to numerous video appearances recently, including Industrial Revolutions and Concrete Circus, which combined his thrill of pushing the boundaries with his comfortability in front of the camera.
So when the folks at Red Bull – a company that has sponsored him for years – approached MacAskill to create his own film, he jumped at the opportunity. The concept was simple: create a movie that took the level of his tricks to the extreme, with all the creative freedom that was necessary. After agreeing to the proposal, MacAskill was excited and eager to begin one of the biggest projects of his career.
But the excitement wouldn’t last too long, as prior to production on the project – titled MacAskill’s Imaginate: Enter Danny’s Mind – he suffered a flare up of a previous injury. Without any idea of the severity, MacAskill decided to get looked at – and it turned out to be serious.
Suddenly, not only was his new, career-defining project in jeopardy, but so was his career.
The injury, which he believed was to his lower back, had plagued him for years and it was time for MacAskill to seek professional medical attention. It was then that he visited with the team from DISC Sports and Spine Center headed by Dr. Robert S. Bray Jr., one of the west coast’s top neurological spine surgeons. Dr. Bray and his team recently began working with Red Bull through its High Performance program, thus allowing the company’s athletes to test their body’s boundaries.
MacAskill was certainly in good hands, as Dr. Bray has a lengthy résumé working with some of the world’s top athletes, spending a portion of his career assisting Olympians for Vancouver and London, while the last 20 years were spent performing minimally evasive surgeries for such professional teams as the Oakland Raiders and Los Angeles Kings. Red Bull’s relationship with Dr. Bray and the staff at DISC began about four or five years ago, almost entirely thanks to word of mouth.
“Because of the cross between Olympians and Red Bull athletes, the company [Red Bull] had just seen our name again and again,” Dr. Bray admitted. “It started on a handshake. After taking care of a number of [athletes], we hammered out a formal arrangement, because Red Bull was very happy and the athletes were very happy,”
For MacAskill, he was still able to perform the sport he loved even with the injury, but not at the level he had pushed his body for so many years. As a result, he lost much of the technical aspect to his riding, thanks to the inability to rely on his core strength. The pain became simply too much.
“The biggest thing my back affected was actually my leg, so I had lots of other injuries with it,” MacAskill said. “I was able to ride 60 to 70 percent, but when I’m filming I’m trying to ride 100-percent, so it was really holding me back.”
Dr. Bray knew his client was nervous about surgery and the recovery process that was involved with it.
The BMX star had long been performing while battling injuries, but Dr. Bray discovered that because of MacAskill’s years of performance, the lowest disc in his back compressed and ruptured, causing the joint on the side to rotate. It was as though the injury was causing an acceleration to the wear-and-tear that BMX had created. According to Dr. Bray, the constant force to MacAskill’s body was worse than if he was getting laid out by a hockey player or a football player on a regular basis.
“He came to me and said: ‘I can’t ride the way I want. What I want to accomplish, I can’t do it – my body can’t do it. I don’t have power. I can’t push off, I can’t gain balance and I keep falling,’” Dr. Bray added.
After receiving the diagnosis from Dr. Bray, he knew something would have to be done.
“I was kind of given a choice,” MacAskill admitted. “I tried various things like steroid injections in my back and physical therapy. He [Dr. Bray] kind of told me it could clear up by itself over a certain amount of time, over like 10 months, with lots of physical therapy and lots of work – or they could go in and do the surgery, which had a more guaranteed success rate, you know.”
MacAskill elected to have it done, getting microsurgery on his back, at which point Dr. Bray shaved off the piece of disc that was ruptured and then removed the bone spur, enlarging the pathway for his nerves. He also scoped and cleaned up his knee. The time it takes for a normal patient to feel better is typically six weeks, and three months later they’re fine. But those numbers aren’t the same for someone like MacAskill, who pushes their body to the limit. Their recovery process can be 12 to 14 months.
His hope was to be able to hop back on his bike as quickly as possible, he even did a demo ride for Red Bull just three or four weeks after the surgery and while his back felt better, there was still pain – still a ways to go in the recovery process. Plenty of days were spent in the gym, before he could get back on the bike and MacAskill received several shots to help with the pain and inflammation along the way.
There were limitations that Dr. Bray gave MacAskill on what he could do in the beginning.
“He said he couldn’t work as hard as he wanted if he can’t do specific tricks, but we told him that we didn’t want him to reinjure it and he agreed,” Dr. Bray said. “So we kept limits on him, which no athlete likes.”
MacAskill is still recovering as he aims to get his body back to 100-percent. It’s taken plenty of time not only in the gym but riding his bike in the simplest of fashion. He started riding to just reacquaint his body with the motions as well as the pressure and impact it put on his body.
“It’s been a very long process and I’m still filling in that process now,” he claims. “I still have a ways to get back to full percent, but I can ride day after day.”
His first real venture back on the bike was when he got the opportunity to ride the Olympic torch through Glasgow in preparation for last year’s summer games in London. The ride was only a few miles, but it was introspective. It’s been a gradual process and with each day MacAskill pushes himself a little further on his bike – and it has paid off. Now he’ back to doing what he loves but there are prerequisites that need to be done from time to time to ensure his well-being.
“I just kind of have to manage my body – make sure I’m stretching and make sure I’m doing extra training and riding,” said MacAskill. “I’m happy I did the surgery but it’s definitely been a long road to recovery and several operations but I’m pleased I’ve done it.”
Well over a year later, MacAskill is nearly back to where he was before the flare up, with just a small amount of recovery time remaining. His Red Bull project is now completed and even opens explaining his back issues and the experience he had with DISC to be able to get back to pushing his body to the limits. As the video progresses, it’s nearly impossible to notice that just months before, he was sidelined with perhaps the worst injury of his career. Yet the tricks he pulls off throughout are among his best.
And he’s quite happy with how Imaginate has turned out.
“I’m definitely happy with the results,” MacAskill laughed. “It’s been quite nice to have a documentary out there as well, to show about the process. It was really fun for me to kind of get into the space and to work on such a big project and come out with all these ideas and stuff.