After narrowly edging out Lance Coury in the Moto X Speed & Style quarterfinals on the second night of X Games Los Angeles earlier this month, Nate Adams found himself in the bike pits answering another challenger: his mechanic.
"Dude. Why didn't you do the one-handed takeoff like we'd planned?" asked Derrick Mahone, the man who has been officially responsible for tuning Adams' bike and unofficially responsible for tuning his psyche for the past three years.
"Because I'm scared," Adams said. "I'm [expletive] scared."
The private pep talk that followed was brief, but after Adams spent the past two years recuperating from severe injuries in both shoulders and wondering if he'd ever be able to win again, it was what the most decorated motocross athlete in X Games history needed at that time.
"Go make it happen," Mahone said.
And Adams did just that, going on to defeat Andre Villa in the semifinals and Blake Williams in the final. The win brought the 29-year-old rider his 18th medal in an X Games career that dates back to 2001.
Adams says every medal is special to him, especially the gold ones, but that winning this one was a career highlight.
"I've been through the frickin' wringer these last few years," he said in his on-camera interview after the victory.
Later that night, Adams offered an even more candid admission as he expounded on the full extent of that "wringer" and what it has taken him to claw his way back from it. "The last few years have just been really tough," he explained. "A lot of injuries. A little bit of depression maybe. I'd kind of given up on myself, really."
Depression. It's not exactly a word frequently associated with action sports or with Adams, a man as well known for his positive outlook and clean-cut image as for his high-flying antics. But everyone has their battles, and the weight on Adams' shoulders stems largely from the complications and emotions that arose after he severed nerves in his left shoulder.
Before the final Red Bull X-Fighters contest of 2011, Adams fell while practicing a Holy Grab flip, causing his first dislocation and nerve damage. He was off a bike for five months. Shortly after he started riding again, Adams dislocated the shoulder again while practicing for Speed & Style, further complicating his nerve issue and adding another five months of recovery.
"That just kind of flew out of my mouth in that interview," he said a week after X Games L.A. "Depression's not a word I'd ever mentioned to anybody and maybe not even to myself before that night. It took feeling as good as I've felt in a long time to fully realize how low I'd been feeling before that."
Nobody gets far in freestyle motocross without tallying up a list of career injuries, and Adams' résumé includes injured knees, wrists and a particularly vexing broken femur that required four surgeries to repair.
"That femur was easy compared to these shoulder injuries," Adams says. "There's nothing like nerve damage. No one can give you a straight answer, no one can give you a recovery time frame, and when you can't lift your arm up to chest level or chin level it's pretty defeating. These last two shoulder injuries were really debilitating and demoralizing in a way that was different from any of my previous injuries, and it really started playing with me mentally."
For Mahone, a former motocross racer turned mechanic, helping Adams deal with the mental struggles brought some challenging new responsibilities not mentioned in his official job description.
"Working on the bike is the easy part compared to fine-tuning a friend who is down and depressed," Mahone says. "Between riding hard and running his Deft Family business, Nate's the hardest-working dude out there. These last few years helping him rebuild from his injuries have been a powerful reminder that your mind and your body need as much care as your machine."
Adams says he hasn't sought out medication for his depression, and has also tried, as much as possible, to avoid the painkillers he has been prescribed for his injuries even as he has been battling the most intense pain of his life.
"I'm not gonna mention one name whatsoever, but let's just say our sport has lost as many guys to addiction to painkillers as to actual injuries," he says. "It's gotten some of the best guys I know."
Ultimately the root of Adams' depression wasn't the pain or the painkillers so much as the sense that he might not ever again be what he once was. While it's uncommon for pro athletes to speak openly about depression, that crisis of self is all too common: What becomes of you when you can no longer compete at the top level, or as you retire from the sport that has defined you?
"I think a lot of people probably don't realize how damaged Nate's shoulders were or how much it damaged him," says Lary Dean, the pastor at Extreme Life Ministries who has been Adams' friend and spiritual adviser since they first met at X Games in 2005. "One day he called me and said, 'Pastor, here I am, one of the top athletes in the world, and I'm sitting here at the kitchen table and I can't even salt my eggs, much less get on my bike. What am I going to do?' He was not only struggling with the fact that his body would never be the same, but also with the shock to his identity that came with that. It really put him on a healthy journey of self-discovery to redefine himself and to place some new trust in God."
Dean calls Adams' return to the top of his sport "miraculous."
"If you talk to any doctor or trainer or rider who knows the extent of his injuries, how messed up his deltoid still is, they will tell you that it is absolutely miraculous that he can pull backflip variations and 360s."
Adams is not claiming any miracles, but says that he does feel blessed to have lived the life he has lived and to still be able to do what he loves most.
"I'll be honest: There were six or eight months there where I thought maybe I was done," Adams said. "I believed it in my heart and mind. Getting back to X Games this year was just huge for me physically, mentally and spiritually, and not even because I got the gold but just because I proved to myself that I'm not a last-place guy. Not yet. Getting on the podium really helped me get out of that space."
Adams has spoken publicly about the full extent of his injuries and many of his competitors are also among his tight-knit crew of riding and training partners in Temecula, Calif., and have seen his struggles to get back on top. He agrees with Pastor Dean that his win surprised anyone who had even a hint of what he has been going through. Most of all he surprised himself.
"When I dislocated my left shoulder, it dislocated so far that the nerve just severed in two, and once the nerve was repaired the word the doctor gave me was, 'Nothing's for sure. You could get all of the muscle back or none of it, you could start seeing muscle in three months, three years, or never, or something in between.' So I just did what I could do and then had to wait and see. I've accepted that for the rest of my professional competing career I will be dealing with this shoulder."
Adams won bronze in Moto X Freestyle in Los Angeles in addition to his Speed & Style gold, but says the latter might be where his future in the sport will be. Other riders such as Mike Mason and Andre Villa – some of Adams' closest friends and personal heroes – have followed a similar path after winding down their freestyle careers.
"I feel like in some ways I've proved what I set out to prove at X Games and on the Red Bull X-Fighters series," he says. "I can see myself doing some isolated events, but don't necessarily need to try to compete at every freestyle event anymore. But Speed & Style is just my style: My goal when I was a kid was always to be a racer, and then freestyle came along and I fell in love with that and went that direction. In a way this is the perfect event for me."
Adams has already picked up some new sponsors since his win in Los Angeles, filling a void left by several others who didn't stick with him after his injuries slowed him down, and says he feels as if he's coming through the other side of the darkness that has been weighing him down. But he also says he's trying to be mindful that the exaltation he's feeling now might be temporary. His experience with depression has been a roller coaster, but he can admit that life has been good even as the pain sears through his shoulder daily. He's trying to emphasize the positive.
"I've definitely had to apologize to some people over the last few years, because when we're hurting like that the people we hurt are the people closest to us, the people who are trying to help," Adams said.
He turned to doctors to repair his damaged nerves, but for his damaged soul Adams says he turned to Pastor Dean and dug deeper into his Bible. When he had the microphone after his win, thanking God took priority over shouting out his sponsors or anyone else. That, too, was partly an apology, he says, for allowing himself to sink so low and for questioning God's plan for him.
"That peace I get from God is what carried me through," he says. "I know if I'd had to just rely on my emotions and what I know it wouldn't have happened. It was just too much mentally and physically for me to handle. It was having some faith to fall back on that allowed all the pieces to come together."