At age 42, Brian Foster has blazed a legendary path through BMX. Starting as a BMX racer, Foster stunned the BMX pro ranks by focusing on dirt skills instead of gym training, winning races throughout the world before setting his sights on BMX Dirt competitions. In the late '90s and early '00s, he won multiple X Games medals in BMX Dirt before moving to the East Coast, where he now resides. Currently at home with a broken foot, Foster is set to take his next "step" into physical therapy at Rutgers University. This is his first column for XGames.com.
What are you going to be when you grow up?
I always hated that question, but always had an answer that made sense to me at that stage of my life. At 15, my answer was, "I just want to ride my bike and have fun." I knew riding bikes wasn't going to be something that I made money at, but it was all that I thought about. So that's what I did. I rode, then rode some more and lo and behold, the riding thing worked out.
Fast forward ten years and my answer had changed: "I'll probably just retire when I'm done riding." Why not? I was 25, and checks were coming in faster than I could cash them. I had just bought a house in Huntington Beach, home prices were doubling every few years and the stock market was booming, so any money that I was stashing away was headed to the moon as well. I sat in my delusional fog and thought I had it all figured out. I often joked that if it came down to it, I would just get a job at S&M Bikes, packing boxes.
Fast forward ten more years and I was now 35. The majority of my income from sponsors was dwindling, the housing market along with the stock market had crashed and I could maybe muster up a top-20 finish at any of the major contests. Not to mention, my body was weathered and beaten down from years of abuse. I was still riding at a high level but unfortunately ESPN was not giving out prize money for "sweetest roast at the trails." For the first time in my life, the question I hated really needed an answer.
"What the hell am I going to do when I grow up?"
I looked at my resume and it said "high school graduate/BMX rider," which was not that impressive in the real world. I looked at all the riders that came before me to see what they had done. Most of them worked in the bike industry, some were policemen or firemen, a few worked at UPS and a lot of them worked landscaping or construction.
First off, I know that I'm not tough enough for a 9-5 manual labor job. (My joints already ache enough.) I figured I would see what my options would be in the BMX industry. Team manager, sales rep, bike shop owner, skatepark owner, product designer and brand manager seemed to be my main choices.
Team manager? I've been on plenty of trips and I know that the most unenviable seat in the van is the driver's seat. Coordinating a band of misfits, stressing about missed flights, making sure the smokers don't end up in the non-smoking room while keeping a clip count on the riders are just a few of the concerns that I wouldn't have the patience to tackle without turning into a grumpy old man. No thanks.
How about sales rep? You may have heard of my reputation for not returning calls. I think sales would suffer. I've seen enough skateparks and bike shops shut down to know that unless you're highly dedicated and connected to the local scene, it's an uphill battle.
That leaves product design/brand manager. To be successful here, you need to have your finger on the pulse of the sport and be able to recognize trends and decipher the good from the bad. I'm honest enough with myself to know that I am not connected to the sport in this way. Even if I was good at this type of work, in just a few years I would be 50 trying to relate to a group of riders aged 10-25. I don't even understand what's going on these days. These kids get the biggest bars possible and then pair it with the stem that lowers the front end as low as possible, not to mention freecoasters and plastic parts. I can't keep up.
It appeared I needed to look outside the sport. It was time to look in the mirror. What was I interested in? How could I stay connected with riding without taking a slice of the already depleted BMX pie?
It came to me one day in the supermarket. I saw a guy with crutches and a knee brace and asked him what he injured. He had ruptured his ACL and was getting it repaired in the coming days. I shared with him my experiences with ACL injuries and told him what to expect at three, six and nine months. I realized that although I hated injury, I was interested in the process of recovery. Physical therapy seemed like an interesting option, but there was a small problem -- I would have to go back to school.
I didn't even know if this was possible. In high school, all I cared about was riding. I only went because it was something you had to do. And I was never a fan of college. I looked into the process I had to go through to become a physical therapist and figured the only way to find out if I could cut it in an academic environment would be to dive in and take some classes at the local community college. To add insult to injury, I didn't receive credit for the "D" grades in Biology and Algebra II that I got in high school over 20 years ago so I had to take those classes before I even arrived at the starting line to my college career.
As it turns out, college in your forties is much easier than college in your late teens and early twenties. The basic rules for being a successful BMX rider are similar to the basic rules for being a good student: Show up on time, work hard and don't be an idiot.
I've been reluctant to share my journey with a lot of people because it seems like such a long road and until I'm finished, I will have doubts as to whether I can pull it off. Over the past three years I have gradually increased my class load, and this past spring I received an Associate's Degree in Science from Middlesex County College. This fall I will be attending Rutgers University in pursuit of a Bachelor's degree in Exercise Science and Sports Studies, which will be step two. And there is a step three (Doctor of Physical Therapy) that I won't mention because it causes anxiety for me to even think about. The only way for me to make it through this is to take it one class at a time, one semester at a time. To look at it any deeper than that is overwhelming and makes me want to quit.
My goal aside from finishing this journey and finally having an answer to, "What are you going to be when you grow up?" is to maybe be a role model to someone battling with that same question for themselves. They say that if you love your job, you'll never work a day in your life. Although I've been riding bikes professionally for over 20 years, it has never felt like a job. As my riding days will eventually fade away, it excites me to potentially work with injured athletes and assist them in getting back to what they love and have a passion for.
Don't be afraid to take that first step. You'll never know unless you give it a shot.