History was made here
LOS ANGELES -- Perhaps someday Meghan Rutledge will feel like Nate Adams did this weekend.
That thought came to mind as the world watched tears, turned black by mascara, flow down Rutledge's crestfallen face Saturday night at Staples Center. A few minutes earlier, the 18-year-old Australian was a formality away from upsetting two-time defending Moto X Racing champion Vicki Golden, 21, and winning the biggest race of her career. Rutledge had dominated the 12-lap competition and held a four-second lead with one straightaway to go.
Then she did what human instinct sometimes makes us do: She celebrated.
Rutledge took her hand off the throttle to pump her fist on the final jump and immediately went into a nosedive. The moment she struck the dirt and was bucked off her bike, everything she'd flown across the Pacific to achieve vanished. You didn't have to look hard to see the devastation in her eyes.
"If I had stayed on the bike, there was no way I could have lost," she acknowledged afterward.
As the cameras converged, Rutledge sat in a corner 7,000 miles from home, sobbing and inconsolable.
Which brings us to Adams. Not because Adams made an equivalent flub -- in fact, he has built his freestyle motocross career on precision and consistency -- but because Adams knows how it feels to be lost on two wheels. Two years ago, he was the best freestyle rider in the world, in the middle of a record streak that included 18 straight podium finishes. He swept the Moto X Freestyle and Speed & Style events in Los Angeles that July, but a few weeks later, while practicing at his home track, he dislocated his left shoulder so violently that it severed his axillary nerve.
Adams fell into a hole of despair in the two years that followed. He entered this week's X Games without having climbed a freestyle podium since his nerve injury, which heals only a fraction of a millimeter per month. At the rate he is going, the 29-year-old estimates, he is still three to five years from reaching full health.
Even for a man with a strong faith, the drought left him flailing internally. When asked Thursday afternoon how he had worked through the gloom, Adams said, "I really haven't, honestly. It's been the toughest mental battle of my life, all that nerve damage. I'd rather just break my femur, have surgery, stick a rod in there and let it heal. With this, I think about it every day -- how I used to feel, how I used to be confident and strong. It's made me feel old."
There might be no worse feeling for a champion athlete. But careers, like life, come to a close. Every one. It didn't make you a pessimist to think Adams' run was nearing its end.
Adams did say Thursday that he had been riding better over the past two weeks, but, given his recent struggles, it sounded more like a man clinging to what once was than an honest evaluation of what might still be. Even an X Games judge, when asked to handicap Adams' chances of returning to the podium Thursday, dropped his head and grimly shook it.
Then Adams went out and did the unthinkable, flipping and spinning his dirt bike to a bronze medal in Thursday's Freestyle final -- his first freestyle podium in two years. He followed that with a gold medal in Speed & Style the next night -- the 18th medal of his X Games career, giving him the most of any Moto X rider in history.
Adams, who said his turmoil "made me become more real with myself," grinned when asked later to describe the turn of events. "When you're down and you're hurt and out of the loop, paranoia creeps in and you're just always wondering where you're going to be," he said. "It feels good to know that I'm still competitive."
Somehow, it seemed fitting that the X Games' run in Los Angeles ended with Adams back on top. He is one of 12 athletes who competed in every L.A. edition from 2003 to 2013. For more than 800 others, life has moved on. There's something special about those who have seen it through.
Take Bucky Lasek. After winning Skateboard Vert gold in Brazil in April -- his first X Games Vert win in nine years -- Lasek went on to become the only athlete to sweep four 2013 gold medals this week. Better yet, he did it at age 40.
Bob Burnquist, who piloted his own helicopter to and from his events this week, narrowly missed joining Lasek in the summer-slam club, yielding to three superior forces in Big Air: first-time gold medalist Elliot Sloan, 13-year-old runner-up Tom Schaar and the wooden deck of the MegaRamp, which shattered the 36-year-old Burnquist's nose.
There are certain undisputed world leaders in action sports, and many of them reminded us this week why they carry that title. Skateboarders Nyjah Huston and Leticia Bufoni left no doubt on the street course, Ronnie Renner rode a flawless night to a record fifth Moto X Step Up gold and 5-foot-5 Taka Higashino swept the series' weather-shortened Moto X Freestyle docket with his second win in two tries.
In RallyCross -- the presence of which amounts to the most visible difference between the X Games in 2003 and now -- fans at the Irwindale Events Center watched the hottest driver in the sport, Toomas "Topi" Heikkinen, do what he does best against an ever-growing field of challengers. The 22-year-old Finn rebounded from an infamous crash a year ago in L.A., when he T-boned the gap jump and broke his ankle in 15 places, to win his fourth straight Global Rallycross Championship race and head home with a medal from every X Games stop this summer.
Of course, every streak has to end sometime, and Garrett Reynolds' unprecedented dominance in BMX Street finally met its demise on the wheels of Chad Kerley. Up until then, Reynolds had been the only rider in X Games history to win Street gold, snaring six straight until Saturday's upset.
As the X Games catch a metaphoric plane out of LAX on Monday, it bears mentioning that fans in the new host city of Austin, Texas, have a tall history to live up to. Sometimes weird, often wild, always devoted, there's a reason the epicenter of action sports has always been Southern California. When athletes here acknowledge the 1.5 million people who have shown up to watch over the past 11 years, it's not just talk.
"X Games L.A.," Lasek said, addressing the fans after winning gold Saturday, "Thanks. It's been wonderful."