When he was told by the doctors to forget about racing until the snow melted, T.J. Gulla understood. But he still couldn't help thinking that his doctor was exaggerating. After all, he is T.J. Gulla, the guy who nearly sawed off the cast on his left hand to race SnoCross at Winter X 2005; the same T.J. Gulla who finished sixth at Winter X in 2001 with cracked ribs and a bruised heart and lung. But none of the hurdles Gulla had previously cleared compared to what happened last season.
In mid-December 2009, Gulla was racing in a Pro Super Stock heat at the Duluth National when his throttle stuck. He bailed off the sled, got back to his feet and scrambled to get off the course.
The oncoming snowmobile that hit him nearly killed him.
After three weeks of severe amnesia, he was finally starting to remember who he was. His knowledge of the accident came from those who witnessed it.
Gulla's occipital bone, which makes up the back of the skull, was cracked in three places, he had bleeding on the brain and the doctors told him he was lucky to be alive. He not only missed WX14; he didn't ride a snowmobile again until November 2010, more than 11 months after the accident.
Gulla's skull did not require surgery, a rarity for this type of injury, but he had to nervously wait two months to find that out. During the recovery, he lost 20 pounds, suffered through countless tests and doctor visits. When he was able to remove the neck brace for the first time, he could only hold his head up on his own for 15 minutes before he had to put it back on. "The fact that I might not be able to ride again was the hardest thing because the doctors didn't know if [the injury] was going to heal right or how it was going to heal or if they were going to have to operate and fuse my neck together," he said.
The first time he was able to get back on a snowmobile was a cherished moment. "I felt great but I knew I wasn't my old self," he said. "I was playing it safe and going through the motions for the first week or so."
In late November, at the first final of the Amsoil Championship Snocross Series in Duluth, Minn., he almost had a storybook comeback. He led the first 12 laps before being passed by Ross Martin and then Tucker Hibbert. He finished fourth and has logged two more fourth-place finishes since. "It took two laps into the first race and I felt like I was back. But I had never been that out of shape."
Now, mentally and physically stronger, Gulla has a goal of finishing top-three in WX15 SnoCross. He already has two bronze medals (2000 and 2007) and a gold medal in Hillcross from 2003. With eight finals in nine appearances, he is currently the most experienced Winter X SnoCross athlete next to Hibbert, who has 11 appearances. He's also one of the very few riders who can say they led a SnoCross final at Winter X, which have typically been dominated by Blair Morgan or Hibbert. In 2002, he was leading with three laps to go before his motor seized. It's not one of his favorite memories but after what he's gone through, he's glad he still has it in the back of his mind.
"I can remember every single X Games," he said. "How many other things in your life are so memorable that you can remember that much of it?"