By Nicole Hanratty
Posted June 4, 2013
When pro BMXer Kurt Yaeger was involved in a hit and run motorcycle accident that sent him sailing down a 40 foot ravine, he lie abandoned knowing he was dying. Trying to trauma check himself and keep himself awake, his only hope was getting a call out for help.
Kurt spent three months in the hospital recovering from severe injuries and the loss of his lower left leg. The popular UK band Rudimental recently highlighted Kurt’s remarkable story of recovery in the music video for their song “Waiting All Night,” in which the amputee reenacts his journey and getting back on the bike with his real life BMX friends starring right along side him.
For a man whom has looked death in the eye and come back stronger than most of us could ever aspire to be–he’s doing backflips on his BMX–Kurt Yaeger has the most positive outlook on life you can imagine. Kurt seems to worry only that each new adventure will be “the last awesome thing that happens,” but admits to having fears. “I’m definitely afraid of things. Afraid of failure. Afraid of getting hurt. I used to be really afraid of spiders. Now I’m still just a little bit afraid of them.”
Recently staring in Season 5 Sons of Anarchy as a bad guy in the club, Kurt has found a comfortable home in the acting world with a film and a new show on the horizon. The San Francisco native grew up in a rough part of town and had to learn early on how to fight for survival, a skill that comes in quite handy in Hollywood.
Rudimental “Waiting All Night” ft. Ella Eyre on YouTube Music Videos
Not letting anything slow him down, he rode his motorcycle to the interview and was in shock I’ve never been on one in my life. We talked about everything from childhood to music, including sports, work and his accident as we sat for nearly an hour and a half drinking coffee in a outdoor cafe as life bustled by us on a busy street. I’ve never met a more inspirational man, yet he’s totally human and got in trouble in church as a kid just like the rest of us did…
Kurt says his parents still live in the same house in which he was raised and he begins reminiscing by saying, “My dad’s the nicest man on the planet without being a pushover. …I remember in church, I’m scribbling on the back of like the little cards that you put in with your donation, or whatever, your offering. He’s like, [shows his dad’s serious look] it’s all he had to do was give me a look.” I laugh and ask, “Why didn’t the church just put out scrap paper for us to color on? They just knew we were going to color on those envelopes.” “I know. I know,” Kurt says, “then you get in trouble, and G*d hates you.” I add, “Then you have to go to confession. I think it’s a whole conspiracy to get you.” He laughs, “Yeah. It’s a conspiracy to start the guilt young. Get them with the coloring.”
Kurt tells me he got in trouble for everything and gained self-confidence out of fighting. “As my dad describes, [I was] the nicest boy ever who could turn on a dime. I guess it was like frustration and just emotions just let loose in a kid. I was a fat kid so I got picked on a lot and I couldn’t really deal with it because I tried to be friendly with everyone. Just got shut down left and right as a kid. I lived in a rough place, really blue collar. In probably fifth or sixth grade I got in my first fight. I had two older brothers, [they] are like 10 and 12 years older than I am. They tossed me around in a good way, like good old brothers kind of way. They toughened me up so when I did get into my first fight I did extremely well and everyone was very surprised including myself.
I was horrified that his brothers, the guy I beat up, his brothers were going to come get me. I was like, ‘this is horrible,’ until I went back to school the next day, and walking down the halls I kept thinking, ‘So who is going to hit me? Who is going to want to fight me?’ and people spreading like the Red Sea. I was like, “Hmm, I like this. Let me sit up a little straighter.’ Then another thing would happen. I got into another fight and proved it again, and again, and again. I’m like, ‘I’m pretty good at this,’ so it kind of went towards the dark side for a while, I guess you could say.”
As biking took him to new places, Kurt says he saw that life could be different and a positive change began to occur. “I’ve always ridden bikes,” he explains. “I think that was the thing my dad was talking about, was the duality of what I was. I was a sweet kid. I wanted to be liked. I liked other people. I’m goofy. I say the dumb thing at the dumb time. I wasn’t smart, a little dyslexic. Sometimes words came out wrong. All the things that some kids have. Then that world turned me dark when I was needing to go dark. It was more like protectionary, but I’d always ridden bikes. My dad raced motorcycles so I rode motorcycles. When I wasn’t riding motorcycles I’d ride bikes; since I was five years old. There’s a dirt field behind my house. We’d always build jumps, and they just got bigger and bigger and bigger. Thirteen, maybe it was 12, I started racing, then I started getting into freestyle, then I turned pro.
It wasn’t like biking came into my life and then made me good. It was more like I left where I grew up and that’s what made me realize people aren’t like that everywhere. It’s so provincial, you know, you’re so stuck in your own little spot. I mean it’s kind of like, the big rappers. You know, they’re like, ‘Kill or be killed.’ Then they get out and they realize that not everyone’s after them. Some people are, for sure, but the majority aren’t. In those people’s worlds including mine, the majority are. You have to unravel yourself by going out and seeing the world and seeing what other people are about. You don’t always have to have your protective goggles on. I think it’s just experience that got me out of it ultimately. BMX led to that, getting out of town.”
Kurt says that as other kids quit riding bikes when they discovered girls, football, high school, cars, etc., he just kept going. “I didn’t care. I kept going. At 16, you get a car so you quit riding your bicycle. I just put my bicycle in the trunk and went further. At 18, you go to college, you could quit kid’s bikes, I didn’t. I just kept going. You know what I mean? It got me out, into the world to see different people and different lifestyles and that’s what really I guess broke me out from the path that I was going.”
It seems evident to me that the very trait that had a young Kurt fighting for survival and acceptance amongst his peers, the same one that keeps him pushing forward with BMX–perseverance–is ultimately what’s making him successful in life. But he’s too humble to see it that way. “I think that it’s not a given. It definitely has a possibility of leading that direction but you are also fighting anyone trying to help you too,” he says. “You can’t differentiate between physical attack that’s an actual threat and someone giving you constructive criticism. There is no distinction until you realize there is a distinction. It can lead to definitely great things but I would say it leads definitely the opposite way more often. Because it might lead you up and then also it’s what thrashes you down and I mean every great character trait that made them who they are, is the thing that ended up destroying them because they went too far with it.”
“For all the dangerous things you do with BMX, it seems a little ironic that your accident happened on a motorcycle,” I comment. “Yeah,” Kurt agrees. “BMX is way more dangerous than almost all motorcycle riding, you regularly fall. And then I do stunts, you know flip-overs, jumps and everything else. Then I get ran over by a car–which is a good lesson–which means that anyone can get run over. Motorcyclists have a saying, ‘There are two types of riders, ones who have crashed and ones who will.'”
Irony aside, Kurt had the courage to get back on the motorcycle and that is what fascinates me most. He says, “I don’t know if that’s determination and the will to get back on the horse, strength or it’s just stupidity and I never learned my lesson. Probably the former because it was scary to get back on but at the same time, I’m taking the same risks that I took in the first place. It could happen again. It could happen on the way home.”
“Tell me about that day,” I say referring to the crash. “Normal day. Happy as a clam actually, I didn’t think about anything actually. I think it was a car that hit me. Hit and run. I woke up 40 foot down a cliff and I called 911 to come get me. I said, “Come get me, I’m bleeding out.”
The impact of his story sort of crashes over me like a wave. So many thoughts enter my mind but all I can utter is, “If you haven’t had your phone with you, you wouldn’t be able to call.” “I would be dead,” Kurt says. “I got service and my phone didn’t shatter into million pieces. Sprint saved my life.” “Nobody sees this?” I ask in disbelief. “No. It was at night. There was an overpass going over another freeway, which went over another freeway and then [the car] hit me and I went over the guard rail and it sent me over and down.
We talk about what he remembers. “Well I lost consciousness because there is a fifteen minute gap in time from things and how they should’ve all happened from what I remember which is very muddled,” Kurt says. “So you wake up and call?” “Yeah I wake up and call,” he says. “Besides G*d and my family being there for me, I think that BMX saved my life because I knew what was happening, I knew it was wrong. I had concussions so I wasn’t freaking out I was just like, ‘Come on wake up reset…stay awake…move. You can’t move that’s a compound fracture. Move your other leg–ahh–it doesn’t work at all from your pelvis down. Check your neck… Most people are like, ‘Oh no, oh no.’ I was definitely doing the ‘oh no’s’ but I was like keep that under control and we have to figure this out first and do that later.”
“So you had enough crashes on the bike that you were doing crash management?” I ask. “I was seriously in trauma mode,” he answers. “You know if I could’ve turned over I probably would have made a tourniquet out of a shoelace or something, you know a MacGyver move.” I laugh, “You kind of have that MacGyver look I can see you doing that. That might be your next role.” He smiles, “Yeah I just need a cup, a paperclip and some gum.”
I still can’t wrap my brain around how abandoned alone and bleeding to death 40 feet down a cliff Kurt Yaeger has any chance of being found. “Were they able to GPS you?” I ask. He explains, “I mean I knew where I was. I was like this is where I was, here is where I must be. I had the sense memory of where everything happened. It is so hard to describe because half of the experience you know I was just like, ‘Oh no my finger is broken I have to go to the hospital.’ Whatever, you know I have done that a thousand times and the other part was, ‘I’m really close to dying right now and I haven’t said thank you or I’m sorry to the right people. That is what was spinning around, all of the people that I hadn’t settled those things with that I needed to. It makes you realize really quick how good of a person you aren’t because you don’t think of all of the joyous things you think about all of the things that you didn’t do or should have done or the things that you shouldn’t have done and did.”
I listen intently, “So you started reviewing your regrets.” “It wasn’t quite a life flashing before your eyes so much as it was a rolodex of information that was recording, if that makes sense. It wasn’t even all regret, it was just all of the stuff that went into your life you are just like, ‘Well man, I haven’t seen my dad in nine days–too long for dying.’ You know what I mean? I didn’t say, ‘I love you, Mom,’ the last time I talked to her. All of that just pouring over you and you think about your other family and friends everything. It is not too much to handle but it is definitely not cognitive. It is almost like being aware of your subconscious for the first time.”
We begin to talk about how he wakes up and the aftermath, but just as I’m about to ask him about the despair with which he dealt, I don’t. While it is certainly worth reading about–he talks openly about being on the brink of suicide in an interview in the UK Cosmopolitan magazine–I realize after spending just a little bit of time with Kurt, that the real story is what kind of friend Kurt must be to garner such supportive people in his life.
“If your friends were sitting here and I asked them what you have done for them in their lives to support them what would they tell me?” “They would just say that I’m loyal,” says Kurt. “Because not everybody wakes up to that kind of support,” I add. “No, no but that doesn’t necessarily define my goodness more than it defines their goodness,” he replies. “I disagree. You describe long term bringing food, real dedication,” I probe.
“Yeah, but maybe I just got repaid for loyalty,” he says. “I can call people that I haven’t talked to in ten years and I will be like hey how are you doing man come on over if you need a place to stay, come hang out if you need help or whatever. I do better when people are in trouble and have problems.” “So you do help your friends,” I say as if I’ve gotten the witness to admit guilt. He laughs. “Well, when they are in trouble and have problems and need help. I don’t do well with the, ‘Do you want to come over for a coffee?’ I’m like why?” We both laugh.
In three words Kurt describes himself as loyal, curt and awake but I suggest fearless or brave should be in the mix as well. When asked what failure looks like to him, he answers with words that acknowledge his super human like tendencies. “Not learning from the goals I didn’t reach, I believe that you learn more from failure than you do from success. The more you learn the more you realize what you don’t know. So you have to always be learning things. This is something I’m still learning and it’s difficult for me: people won’t remember what you said, they’ll remember how you made them feel.”
He’s right. I may not remember all the things we chatted about during that leisurely morning, but I know how an hour with Kurt Yaeger made me feel and I will always remember the inspiration and light-heartedness with which I walked away.
Look for Kurt Yaeger at Sochi Olympics in 2014 doing an exhibition for Paralympic bobsled and Paralympic skeleton in the campaign to make it an official Olympic sport. If successful, Kurt Yaeger just might be representing his country in the next Olympics!
ON KURT’S PLAYLIST
“I listen to everything. I listen to punk when I want to get going you know, some rock when I want to feel like getting the blood flowing you know.”
Stiff Little Finger
WHICH SONG TITLE DESCRIBES KURT’S PERSONALITY?
Queen “Bicycle Race”
KURT YAEGER & CHARITY
— Michael McFarland (@Doc_Irish) June 4, 2013
KURT YAEGER ON THE WEB
RUDIMENTAL ON THE WEB