'A whole different person'
LOS ANGELES -- Max Gomez felt both of his parents watching him, the anesthesia from another surgery wearing off. He opened his eyes and smiled at them.
"I think I'm going to be all right," he said.
As he drifted back to sleep, his mother, Doreen, started crying. The doctor had just told her and Alex, her husband, that Max was going to have to make an impossible decision. A motocross accident at the Loretta Lynn championship in western Pennsylvania had shattered the 18-year-old's ankle and severed two arteries. His doctor said he would have to live with a leg that wouldn't function and drag limply behind him, or the leg would have to be amputated just below the knee.
It was June 2012, and it was the night of Gomez's senior prom at New Rochelle High School in New York. He was supposed to be putting on a tuxedo, taking awkward photos and dancing with his friends late into the night. Instead, he cried in a hospital room as his parents broke the news. In that moment, Gomez was understandably done with motocross.
"That only lasted, like, a week," he said.
After three weeks in the hospital, Gomez returned home and adjusted to life with one leg. His room had been in the attic, two flights up the stairs, so his family made a room for him on the main floor, and installed a new bathroom, too. Doreen told his two siblings to get Gomez what he needed so that he didn't have to hop from place to place.
Gomez couldn't get a prosthetic until three months after the amputation. During that time, when he could do little for himself, he started watching videos of disabled riders. One of them was Mike Schultz, a motocross racer who suffered a similar fate and continued to ride, and race, with modifications.
Gomez realized motocross was still a possibility for him. It would be the one thing that made him feel normal again.
"I kind of think about it as a blessing in disguise," Gomez, 19, said.
Doreen thought it was cute when Gomez started riding motorcycles at 3 years old. Alex built training wheels for Gomez's tiny dirt bike, and as soon as Gomez mastered his bicycle, the training wheels came off. But as the dirt bikes grew bigger and the competitions more dangerous, it stopped being cute for his mother.
"I didn't go anymore," she said. "My thing was always just waiting for a phone call to tell me he's broken."
The calls came often. Gomez broke his elbow, heel and femur. He and his dad were outside of Pittsburgh when the last call came. The doctors suspected it was a broken ankle, and Doreen was annoyed by the prospect of more crutches.
Motocross was supposed to be coming to an end for Gomez. He was in his senior year of high school and it felt to him like it was time to move on. The Loretta Lynn's event in Pennsylvania was supposed to be his last competition.
But on that night, Gomez undershot a jump, flew over the handle bars down a 10-foot ledge and shattered his ankle on impact. He told his dad it was the worst pain he ever felt.
When Alex and Doreen got to the hospital, Gomez was already in surgery. Doctors were concerned because they couldn't find a pulse in the foot. After an hour, Gary Gruen, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, updated the parents.
Gruen said two arteries were severed when the ankle shattered, so losing the leg was a possibility. Gruen started to tell them that doctors would do their best to save the leg, but before he could finish, Alex fainted.
"Save?" Doreen asked. "Aren't you just going to put him on crutches?"
Attempt after attempt to restore blood flow to the fracture site failed. While Gruen -- reached for comment earlier this week -- said the leg didn't have to be amputated, he emphasized repeatedly that a prosthetic would be more functional. The way Gomez and his family saw it, there wasn't much of a decision to make: Amputation was the only option to give Gomez the best chance of getting back to a normal life.
"I just couldn't comprehend what they were saying," Gomez said. He had a lot of questions. "I didn't know anything about amputees. I didn't know how the prosthetic stays on your leg. Right away, being hit with such big news out of nowhere, it just threw me."
Alex has always been superstitious, throwing out the crutches after every injury so it wouldn't seem like they were saving them for another accident. After the amputation, Alex sold both of his son's dirt bikes.
Gomez wasn't upset that Alex sold the old bikes, but when Gomez was out of the hospital, he asked Alex to buy a new bike and leave it in the garage for when he was ready to ride again. That day came in December 2012, just six months after he lost his leg.
His handicap disappears when he’s on the bike. It's the only time I see him that I don’t see a person with a prosthetic. Him on the bike is a whole different person.Alex Gomez, Max Gomez's father
"[I] couldn't even think about [him] riding then," Doreen said. "It was just about getting better and the whole thing. But I knew deep down that he would do it again. We were in the hospital before he had his leg amputated, and I asked my husband, 'Do amputees ride motorcyles?' He said yes. And I knew that would be Max. I said, 'This kid will go back on it.' I just had a feeling."
Dr. Gruen told Gomez about a former patient he had with prosthetic legs who now flies helicopters, and showed him videos of disabled athletes competing in various sports. He kept repeating that a good prosthetic is better than a bad leg.
"I hear from a lot of people who have been badly injured that try and say they will get back to their former lifestyle. Many do not," Dr. Gruen said. "But Max had something in his eye. I was sure he was going to get back to doing his thing."
It was easier said than done at first. Gomez couldn't comprehend why Schultz looked to be riding so much better than him in the online videos he watched. Gomez wasn't able to go as fast as Schultz and felt uncomfortable riding with a shoe over his prosthetic leg (Schultz used a special prosthetic leg with a foot that had ankle movement).
Alex reached out to Schultz, who, following an accident in 2008, was working on a special below-knee prosthetic leg. It had the incorporated foot that Gomez was missing on his dirt bike.
Riding the bike with the special prosthetic was the first moment he knew getting back to his old self was possible. But then a funny thing happened. Gomez got better and faster than his old self. His experience, post-accident, helped him better understand his limits and ride better within them.
"His handicap disappears when he's on the bike," Alex said. "It's the only time I see him that I don't see a person with a prosthetic. Him on the bike is a whole different person."
In May at the Extremity Games, an event organized by the Athletes with Disabilities Network, Gomez was able to interact with other disabled riders and see what modifications they were making to their bikes and prosthetics. After he won that event, Gomez got a call from Schultz to tell him an X Games Moto X Adaptive Racing invite was a possibility. The official word came a week later.
In his first X Games on Saturday night, Gomez flirted with the front three riders, but a slip-up on the sixth lap caused him to fall away from the lead pack. He ended up finishing in fourth place. Schultz took home the gold.
"It's not that I lived a boring life before, but I definitely wasn't going to X Games and traveling across the country," Gomez said. "The accident has really brought a lot of good stuff to me."