The Baldock promise
BARCELONA, Spain -- Kyle Baldock always knew he was capable. Anyone who watched him ride a BMX bike knew, too. When it comes to raw talent, vert legend Jamie Bestwick -- the only man in history to win eight straight X Games gold medals -- says, "There's everybody else, and then there's Kyle Baldock."
Still, until Baldock, 22, swept the BMX events at X Games Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil last month, winning Park and Dirt gold medals in one memorable three-hour span, he was the definition of potential unfulfilled. Back home, on the Gold Coast of Australia, he was known for making the hardest tricks in the sport look routine. But in a big event, more often than not, he crumpled like a sheet of tissue paper.
"I've always been too eager," he says.
You have to go back to May 2011 for the first clue that he would someday make history. At a Dew Tour competition in Ocean City, Md., Baldock entered as a nobody. He had never won a professional contest, and at his only prior U.S. event, a Dew Tour qualifier in Chicago in 2010, he crashed so hard that he thought he broke his back.
But someone noticed his talent, and he got invited to Ocean City, where, over the course of the weekend, he turned into a steamroller. He won his qualifying heat, then his semifinal heat, then the final, sticking a rare double backflip. It was like he was possessed by someone else's spirit.
In a sense, he was.
And still is.
One month before his breakout Dew Tour win, in April 2011, Baldock went bowling with his girlfriend and uncle on the Gold Coast. He usually has trouble keeping his ball out of the gutter, but on that day, he lit up the lane, finishing with a score well over 200. He figured he'd take his luck to the casino. Only then did he realize he had forgotten his wallet. When he drove home to retrieve it, another uncle greeted him in tears.
"Where have you been?" he sobbed. "Blake passed away."
Blake was Baldock's younger brother and best friend. He had been riding his motorcycle on a street near their home when a car clipped the bike, sending it into another car. Blake was ejected over the handlebars. He broke both femurs and lacerated his abdomen. A friend who had been holding on to him from behind died instantly. Blake survived for two hours before succumbing to internal bleeding. He was 16.
Kyle, 20 at the time, lost it. Raised in the Southport projects, he had broken 22 bones in his life, many from street fighting, but had never cried for anything. He started bawling. He smashed the kitchen table with his fist, breaking it in half.
Then he remembered: Blake doesn't ride his motorcycle on the street. It must not have been him.
"They found his wallet," someone said.
The guy who died must have stolen it, Kyle reasoned.
"Why are we here?" he shouted. "Let's go to the hospital."
At the hospital, a woman asked for someone to identify the body. Kyle, still convinced it wasn't Blake, volunteered. He walked into the morgue and stood next to the corpse as the woman lifted the sheet. His mother, watching from behind a pane of glass, collapsed. Tears gushed down Kyle's cheek.
"Everyone has their own smell," he says. "I sat there, and I smelled his hair. It was Blake. I could look at him in a million pieces and know it was him from his smell. I slept in the same bed with him for eight years."
Kyle put his hand on Blake's chest, refusing to leave his brother's side.
"I sat there for three hours, just talking to him and holding his hand," he says. "I knew he was listening. But he couldn't talk back to me."
Although their last name is the same, Kyle and his younger brothers, Blake and Jordan, 14, each have different fathers. Kyle's dad was a professional fighter. He left before Kyle was born. Kyle never pushed to find out why. "I don't ask questions that I don't like the answer to," he says.
Their mother, Debbie Lee Baldock, raised her boys in government-subsidized housing. "It was like the ghetto," Kyle says. "There were robberies and stabbings all the time."
Debbie worked as a housekeeper for local hotels. She would drop the boys at school on her way to work and pick them up on her way home. She ate less so her sons had enough food. Taught them right from wrong, but let them make mistakes so they would learn. "We moved around a lot, and it was always us -- that family that would go through everything together," Baldock says.
In 2006, when Baldock was 14, a local BMX legend named "Crazy Colin" took an interest in him and taught him to hit jumps. "He was the guy I wanted to be like. Not Jamie [Bestwick], not [Daniel] Dhers," Baldock says. "I don't know his last name or what he did for work, but he taught me a lot about life."
After grade 11, Baldock quit school and got a job as a construction laborer. He paid his mother $50 a week to help with food. He intended to focus on BMX but instead got into trouble, eventually ending up in jail. "I did some break-and-entering, some stuff I don't want to talk about," he says.
A year passed. His BMX career went nowhere. "I was just treading water," he says.
When Baldock was 16, Crazy Colin hanged himself in his bedroom. Baldock was so devastated he couldn't bring himself to attend the funeral.
He started riding harder in 2008. One day, another local BMX hero, James Rides, showed up at the skatepark and asked Baldock if he could do a backflip. "A backflip? That's crazy," Baldock thought.
"Then he just pedals through this bowl and does a backflip," Baldock says. "And from then on, I was like, 'I'm going to beat you.' I just pushed it every day, just committing and committing and committing."
Before Blake's death, Baldock had a terrible time controlling his anger. It started when he was a kid and persisted into his adult years, when an average night consisted of getting drunk and finding someone to fight. "I did that every night," he says.
At 5-foot-8 and a bulging 160 pounds, he watched violent movies and took fighting classes before brawling with bigger men. Asked how many fights he's been in, he replies matter-of-factly, "Over 500, easy."
"I've been gang-bashed. I've been beaten by bats," he says. "The craziest thing is after every fight, even if I did something to another person, I would feel so sorry for that person. But I knew they didn't feel sorry if they did it to [me]."
When Blake died, Baldock was so broken that he says he considered suicide. "I wanted to see him so badly," he says.
Since then, his entire perspective has changed. His brother Jordan still doesn't talk about Blake's death. The reason Kyle does is the impact Blake has had on his life.
"He was a person who had a spark," Baldock says. "He would meet someone for the first time and have a bond instantly. I never had that. I was fighting people. I hated life.
"Now I talk myself out of every fight. I don't get upset anymore. It's insane, man. Someone will piss me off, and I just laugh. I just think it's the funniest thing, because when my brother was alive, he used to do that. And I never noticed it until he was gone. He was just the happiest guy. And I found that in me after he died."
Privately, Baldock's ambition and commitment to BMX changed, too. He made a pact with himself in 2011. "I wanted to win a gold medal, and I wanted to put all my effort into helping kids and families that have the same circumstances I had when I was growing up," he says.
He has hated hospitals since he was a boy, a feeling that haunts him even more since he identified Blake's body. Baldock and his fiancée, Sandy, whom he met when he was 11, are expecting their first child in June (a boy they've named Lucas Blake Baldock), and he has a hard time going in for their doctor visits. "As soon as I step in there, I feel like everything good disappears," Baldock says. "I don't know how to fix that."
Lately, though, he's become something of a rock star on the Gold Coast. His photos hang on the walls of the GC Compound skatepark where he learned to ride. He's embracing the responsibility that comes with his celebrity, most poignantly when he visits sick kids in the hospital he detests. "A lot of them have it worse than I had," he says.
He is also conscious enough to intentionally fall at his local skatepark every now and then, because he wants the kids who study his every move to know that, yes, even X Games champions crash.
Bestwick mentors Baldock on and off the bike -- "He's a special breed," Bestwick says. "I have a lot of time for that kid." -- but Baldock hasn't won everyone over quite yet. His flashy, demonstrative style can be construed as cocky in a sport in which humility is the norm.
After practice this week, four-time BMX Park gold medalist Dhers -- the icon Baldock seems destined to supplant -- put his hand on Baldock's shoulder as they rode side by side through a tunnel.
"You impress me, but I'm not impressed yet," Dhers said. "When you win a few in a row, I'll be impressed."
As it happens, that is precisely what Baldock hopes to do, starting Saturday. Just as he has for the past two years, he will draw on a brotherly bond that has fueled his career since the day it ceased to exist in the flesh. "Blake knew I could do it, and I knew I could do it," he says.
To make their vision a reality, Baldock had a chat with his brother's spirit shortly after Blake died. "I want to ride as well as I can. How do I do that?" he asked. The message he says he received -- Blake's message -- was to stop trying so hard and let it happen.
"That pushes me over the edge every day," Baldock says.