Landon McGauley is a mountain biker and skier whose mountain biking and skiing path has had some serious twists and turns, and yet he’s still working his way forward.
First a standard two-wheeled teenage mountain biker, Landon crashed in a downhill race and was paralyzed at age 15. He worked through his recovery, returning soon to his sports by learning how to sit ski and ride an adaptive bike. Those sports helped him to keep progressing, both physically and in life, and he also formed a partnership with the foundation that helped him learn to sit ski, eventually starting to work for them.
Then, he crashed again, breaking his spine once more, higher, and becoming a quadriplegic. His recovery from that second injury is ongoing and definitely doesn’t sound easy, but there are a few highlights: for one thing, feel free to ‘CTRL+F’ for words like ‘fortunate’ and ‘friends.’ Landon can clearly see the ways luck was on his side, even in a horrific context.
This is the latest article in my interview series ‘Rebuilt,’ in which I talk with people who have gone through severe injuries, trying to understand what happens next. Part of my interest is because I’m recovering from my own head injury - find my latest update on that here. But part of my interest is all about the stories themselves and the people who manage to keep moving forward, even if that forward motion looks different than it did before.
Landon is someone with a whole lot of perspective, some of it very hard-earned but all of it valuable. I really appreciate him taking the time to share his story below.
Could you start by telling me the story of what happened?
Landon McGauley: I was 15 when I broke my back, it was actually the second time. That sounds bad, it sounds like I just don't learn. I broke my back when I was in grade 8 but it was kind of just a small fracture, just from a stupid crash. Then I was 15 and I was in a downhill mountain bike race at Sun Peaks. I had a bad crash and broke my back and ended up a paraplegic. I was in Vancouver after that. I learned how to kind of relive life. I was paraplegic and at that point. I pretty much left the hospital totally independent - full arm strength, upper body strength and everything.
I relearned to live, relearned how to ski. I traveled around with the ski team and raced and everything. Then, around 2018, I got a Bowhead adaptive mountain bike, which was so cool. Mountain biking had always been my number one thing, I just wasn’t able to do it for a lot of years. And this bike was so capable and so fun, back riding with friends. I’d ridden other adaptive bikes, but they were so limited on what you could ride with them. You kind of needed to ride adaptive trails. Those are really great in some ways and really cool, but I was a mountain biker before and I wanted to go ride tech trails or go ride fun trails with my buddies. When I got my Bowhead Bike, I could go ride pretty much any trail for the most part.
I have sort of a dumb question. I keep hearing from people who've ridden Bowhead Bikes that they're amazing and different from all the other adaptive bikes. What makes them special?
They're about 10 inches narrower than the next narrowest bike in the front, and the whole front end is really cool. It’s designed around a king pivot so it can actually articulate. So instead of being super unstable and tippy and locked in on uneven terrain, one wheel can be higher or lower than the other. So you can rail corners or anything off-camber. you can be leaning into the hill instead of being locked in with the axle on the bike. So that makes it really capable.
Yeah, that makes sense, having control over your angle to the ground.
So I got a few years of really fun, awesome riding. It was the same deal, meeting other adaptive bikers and becoming friends, not because we both are adaptive riders - it was like, we’re friends because we can go mountain biking together. It was kind of the dream again. Then, in March of this year, March 26, I just went out for a chill ride with a buddy. And these trails are so easy. I ended up coming around a corner where there was no berm and there was a ditch on one side. I flipped into the ditch, kind of went headfirst into the ditch, and broke my neck.
That's crazy. How did it feel like when you had just crashed that time? Do you remember what you were thinking and feeling?
I do. I've crashed before and you have that moment of ‘this is gonna suck.’ I had that, I didn't think really anything more than that. After I hit the ground it was just static through my arms and through my neck. Immediately I was like ‘No, this is so much worse than just getting some road rash or breaking a collarbone or something.’ I knew right away that it was bad. Fortunately my roommate and good buddy was right behind me and he was able to be there and call the ambulance and stay with me until I was able to get off the trail and into the hospital.
Wow, that sounds brutal. How did your recovery go after that?
It is definitely ongoing, so much more than the first time. I don't know if this will make sense, but it was like an on-or-off thing last time, either something worked or it didn't work. My legs didn’t work, but my upper body was fully strong. My arms now, they're pretty weak. My triceps are weak and my hands are very limited, but they are getting better. So they're kind of half on, so that's kind of wild. Before, I could either do something or not. Now, it’s like, maybe. If that makes any sense.
Does the uncertainty of that stress you out? What does that feel like to deal with?
It does for sure. This injury has been emotionally - and physically, but really emotionally much harder than the first injury, being so limited. My spontaneity - it feel like I kind of need to plan out for how things are gonna work. There's no like, ‘I can make that work.’ It's like, if there’s not an accessible bathroom or something like that, it's probably not going to work. Before, it was more like, ‘I can wheel up this hill and just pee on the bush or something.’
I have a question about terminology. Are you paraplegic still or quadriplegic now? Are there different shades like paraplegic-plus or anything?
Yeah, so technically a quadriplegic is anyone who has impairment in all four limbs. A lot of people hear quadriplegic and think, like, Christopher Reeves, can’t move anything.
Yeah, that's kind of the idea that I had but I also just haven't learned that.
Totally and that's very common. And so now I'm a quadriplegic, meaning I have impairment in all four limbs.
Are you still able to ride a bike at all now?
Bowhead’s been great, I've been in contact with them. They do have a setup for different braking and steering and everything. I haven't had the chance to get back on a bike. I don't think I'm quite there yet. Just trying to figure out everything else in my life right now, but I will get back.
Yeah, that's wild but also really cool that you're able to think forward about coming back. How do you feel about the sport of mountain biking as a whole? Has your relationship with it changed since getting hurt again?
I almost wish it had more than it did. Before, I was so obsessed with mountain biking - I could tell you whatever pedal every slopestyle guy was riding, and it was hard at times because I wanted to do it so much. Now, it really hasn't changed. When Rampage was just happening, I was so invested in it, seeing everyone's lines and dissecting it that way, it hasn't changed. It's changed in the way of wanting to go out and do it, but it hasn't changed in the way of being a mountain bike fan.
And with having multiple back breaks, does that change your risk over time of having more breaks to your back, anything like that?
I don't think so, no. I've had two surgeries on my back. The first time, they fused they put a rod from T8 to T3 or something like that, so that became super stable with the hardware in there. And then this time, they went in through the front of my neck and put a smaller plate in just to stabilize the vertebrae that I broke this time, so I shouldn't be at any more risk than anyone else.
After another surgery.
I hear jokes sometimes where people say if they were in a wheelchair, they’d be able to send it so hard because they wouldn't be worried about that again or whatever, but that it seems like you've sort of been through the worst side of that. Do you ever hear that, or how does that feel to you?
I haven't really heard those but that's funny because I guess I'm the study where that's not the case.
Yeah, I don't know. I heard your story and thought of that idea and kind of thought, ‘Wow, turns out you can still get hurt a lot further.’
Yeah, your risk of breaking your leg is a lot less but you're kind of in a position where your head is the first to hit the ground.
Seriously, yeah. How did all your phases of injury and recovery change you as a person?
I'd like to think I'm still the same person. I was fortunate in some ways. Usually when you crash on the Bowhead, your head hits and you get that flash of light, you know you’ve hit your head, you’re dizzy and everything. I didn't get that this time. I really don't think I hit my head. So fortunately my brain is still the same, and then physically things are a lot different, but I'd like to think that I'm still the same. My friends who were my friends before, we’ve only gotten closer and I’d like to think there isn’t any difference in me mentally or personality-wise.
How's your support system been through all this? Your friends have been able to stick by your side?
Yeah, I feel fortunate in that way. My parents were able to be with me the whole time I was in Vancouver. My brother was able to be with me and then my friends have just been unbelievable the whole time. I feel like they would leave their own wedding to come give me a hand getting off the couch if that's what needed to happen.
I think about that a lot, how fortunate I am to be surrounded by people who are so caring and loving and just great people.
I think that makes a huge difference.
Absolutely, I feel so sad for people because not everyone's in that situation. When I was in rehab there were people my age whose parents weren't able to be there or their friends weren't able to be there all the time. So that would make it even that much harder.
Definitely. What's your best advice for anyone coping with a similar life-changing injury?
That's so tough. Because everything's changing all the time and you kind of got to take it day by day. As cliche as it is, I’ve used this example so many times but it’s real. When you're outside and you're so cold and it feels like you're never gonna be warm again, then you go inside and you warm up, like, ‘I made it through that, that wasn't that bad.’ I think about that a lot in life. When things are really shitty, eventually they won't be. I still feel like I'm out in the cold a lot of the time and things are really challenging and not how I want them to be, but then they get better, whether it's the next day or a month or a year or whatever. Eventually you’re inside and you’re warm again. You can look back at that and know you made it through.
Totally. Do you have an idea of what it will take to move you into a phase where you feel more consistently warm and solid and in a good place?
I think just more time. I got a lot of hard work to do, physio and getting stronger. It'll get there someday. It doesn't feel like it but I know it. Yeah, time, hard work, and continuing to be positive.
What types of physio are you doing nowadays?
I actually just started with physio - our medical system is overworked, I think is the biggest problem. It’s tough not to get frustrated, but I got to keep in mind that it's not the physio's fault or the hospital's fault, just the system as a whole. I just got set up with physio this last week. My triceps are my weakest muscle that is improving, which is so huge for transferring or getting into bed, off the couch, into a car or whatever. So it's going to be a lot of work on my triceps and trying to get them as strong as possible.
Very cool, I hope you keep progressing with that. Is there anything else we haven’t covered yet that’s important in your story?
Well I work for a foundation called the High Fives Foundation.
Oh yeah, I’d actually really like to hear about that.
There have been many things that have gone in my favor and probably the biggest one was getting connected with High Fives Foundation back in late 2010 after my injury. Through this crazy chain of events, they started emailing my parents - I didn't even know about it, and they flew me down to Tahoe. They were still a very small foundation at that point and they taught me how to set ski and then gave me my own set ski.
And skiing has been one your main sports, right?
For sure, and it was just like that sense of normalcy, being able to go out with my friends and ski around instead of being stuck at home in my head - an idle mind is not a good thing. So I got connected with High Fives early on and then as they grew, I went on different trips with them. I went surfing with them and waterskiing in Mississippi and just I really connected with the foundation.
Then in 2017, I started working for them. And so it's kind of a full circle. I was able to call people and tell them that we were gonna be giving them equipment that was gonna change their lives. Just like how they did for me in 2010.
I've been working with them for a number of years now and they just have grown much. I was the ninth athlete they supported and we just supported our 715th athlete.
It's really cool and it's a bunch of like-minded people. A lot of the athletes that we get bring on camps and I get to hang out with, like I said before, they're not just good people because they're injured. They're people you'd want to hang out with and spend time with.
That sounds so great. I'm glad that's been part of your recovery. Are you still doing stuff with them after this next injury?
I am yeah, and that's been so fortunate. They've been so unbelievable, like, ‘When you're ready to come back working, we got a job for you.’ They’ve supported me throughout my whole recovery. I'm not working to the same capacity, but I am working as much as I can and I'm able to connect with new athletes and people going through similar struggles, which helps me as much as I'd like to think maybe I'm helping them.
That's so cool. And I bet you are helping people even just by getting your story out there, showing what’s possible in recovery.
I hope so, totally.
I mean similarly, I appreciate getting to hear your story right now and it's just so cool to see you working through it and see you progressing, getting better.
I’m trying, day by day for sure.
For anyone who would like to learn more, find Landon on Instagram here and find the High Fives Foundation website here. Thanks for reading. Landon, thanks again for being so open about your experiences and good luck with your continued recovery.