Dave Mirra was undoubtedly the biggest star in BMX biking in the 1990s and early ’00s, winning 24 X Games medals and making millions of dollars. In spite of his success, he found himself lost and depressed after retirement in 2011, and committed suicide earlier this year.
In a new article for New York Magazine, Lisa Miller talks to Mirra’s friends and colleagues to understand why the husband, father of two, and hero to many took his own life. Not surprisingly, she discovers that many BMXers have a hard time with retirement.
All professional athletes talk about the loss (of strength, stamina, attention, income) that comes with retirement—“athletes die twice,” as Mirra quipped to Fat Tony—but extreme athletes are distinct in their retirement as well. The thrill-seeking engine that has propelled them forward suddenly goes silent, and they’re left trying to figure out how to reignite. Retired riders talk about searching for something—anything—that will give them the old feeling. “I tried riding street bikes a little bit,” says Lavin. “I figured it would give me the thrill, but it’s super-boring. I just ride to the coffee shop.” At 39 years old, Lavin is in training to become a firefighter. Robinson struggled with depression and painkillers and now does motivational bike shows for schoolchildren. Another retired BMXer, Kenan Harkin, now 41, is starting a small business breeding exotic reptiles in captivity in Florida. “We are not normal people,” he tells me. “In the best sense of the word, we are childlike. We’re not happy idiots, but as I talk to you, I’m standing among giant tortoises.”
Some riders find that without BMX, they’re unable to live. Such was the case with Colin Winklemann, a BMX stuntman who, in a spectacular crash from “too high, at least 25 feet in the air,” says Eaton, crushed his heels to smithereens and was grounded for life. He began a spiral and, in August 2005, took his own life. He was 29 years old. After BMX, “your heart’s a little homeless,” Mirra told Fat Tony. “You’re like, ‘Wow, this is what I’ve done my whole life. What can I do to top that?’ Sometimes you want to give up.”
Mirra tried to fill the void with everything from triathlons to starting a campaign to get a velodrome built in his adopted hometown of Greenville, North Carolina, but nothing seemed to take. According to some of his friends, his death was, in some ways, the result of the same high impulse, easily fixated mind that made him so successful on the BMX circuit. As the piece puts it:
In the tiny, tight-knit clan of 40-something BMXers, many could not believe that Mirra intended to commit suicide. “His mind works so fast that when he went to go do that, the second he pulled the trigger, he regretted it,” speculates Lavin. The people who knew him best were shocked, but not surprised. His mind was a pressure cooker.
The whole thing is over on the New York Magazine site, and is well worth a read, especially for anyone interested in extreme sports and athletes’ lives.