Professional mountain biker Paul Basagoitia was at the pinnacle of his profession. He competed with the best in the world, flying down steep terrains and pitching off cliffs in harrowing aerial maneuvers. He traveled widely and is a two-time winner of the prestigious Crankworx competition for slopestyle. But all of this would end in a devastating crash in 2015, leaving the young athlete paralyzed from the waist down.
“It’s absolutely the hardest thing that I have ever faced in my life,” says Basagoitia of his spinal cord injury (SCI). Even though doctors had little hope of him walking again let alone riding a bike, Basagoitia threw himself into recovery, applying the same rigorous athletic discipline he used for training. Today, he’s back on two wheels—not competitively, but recreationally. “I’m very blessed to be able to pedal a bike once again after being paralyzed from the waist down,” says the Nevada native.
His grueling journey, along with others who have spinal cord injuries, is the focal point of a new feature-length documentary—Any One Of Us—which premiered this year at the SXSW Film Festival. Before a recent screening of the film by Red Bull Media House at the Newport Beach Film Festival, Basagoitia, along with his fiancée Nicole Munk, spoke with ABILITY about his injury, the making of the film, and his new position with footwear company Ride Concepts.
Chad Cooper: Do you know the people with spinal cord injuries who were interviewed in the film?
Paul Basagoitia: No. At the time I did not know any of them. But after the film was released I got to meet a few of them, and some of them will be at the screening. I’m looking forward to hanging out with them.
Cooper: Who will be here, do you know?
Basagoitia: I do. Mike, Nate and Toby will be here.
Basagoitia: I’ve met the majority of them, but at the time the film was shot, I didn’t know any of them. But since we had a big premier at SXSW, Mike came down for that, so I got to hang out with him for a few days. And then before that, Red Bull did a private screening at their headquarters, and some of the people came out to watch it and I got to meet them there.
Cooper: Where are their headquarters?
Basagoitia: Santa Monica.
Cooper: Oh, right. A lot of those guys are local. Where do you live?
Basagoitia: We both live in Reno, Nevada.
Cooper: How long have you two been together?
Basagoitia: We’ve been together for almost nine years?
Nicole Munk: Yeah, eight years, nine years.
Cooper: Eight and a half?
Munk: (laughs) Yeah, we don’t know!
Cooper: What do you do?
Munk: I’m a medical assistant and an aesthetician.
Cooper: At what point did you realize that there was going to be something produced beyond your home footage that you made?
Basagoitia: It wasn’t until about a year out. I was documenting the whole progress with my camera. I bought this camera literally the week before I got injured, and then here I was in the ICU, and I see my brand new camera. I didn’t think it was ever going to be a feature film until about a year after the injury. I started documenting my whole progress and the struggle in the ICU. To answer your question, I didn’t know that it would become a feature film until about a year out.
Cooper: How did you come together with Red Bull?
Basagoitia: I’ve always had a good relationship with Red Bull. I was a brand athlete for many years. One of the athlete marketing guys would visit me at the hospital and he would see me document my whole situation. He pitched it to the guys at the Red Bull Media House that, “Hey, Paul’s shooting something, and I think we could come on board and help tell the story and bring a wider awareness to the situation.”
Cooper: Had you known people who had had spinal cord injuries prior?
Basagoitia: I did. But I did not know what they had to go through. I had a lot of friends who had spinal cord injuries, but I never knew what went on behind closed doors. I just knew that obviously you can’t move and you can’t feel, but I never knew the other things that go into a spinal cord injury.
Cooper: Now that you have a disability, what was the biggest surprise for you beyond the therapy?
Basagoitia: What was the biggest surprise about this injury? Losing the control of your bowels and your bladder. I had no idea that that was even possible with this injury. When I was living in that moment, I was so surprised. I had no idea. I remember calling one of my buddies who had a spinal cord injury, and I was like, “This is what you have to go through on a daily basis?” and he was like, “Yeah, man, this is what I go through.” I felt so guilty, so bad about it, because I’d known this guy for 14 years and never knew that that’s what he had to go through.
Cooper: So proceeds from the movie are helping to raise funds for SCI research?
Basagoitia: Right, through Wings for Life, a not-for-profit spinal cord research foundation.
Cooper: Beyond that, what are you thinking about doing connected to—
Basagoitia: —the spinal cord injury community?
Cooper: Yes—volunteerism or anything connected to disabilities?
Basagoitia: My whole goal, obviously, is to raise as much funds as possible with the film and having those funds go directly back to research. It’d be pretty amazing to say I was in charge of funding a clinical trial to find a cure for paralysis. Other than that, on the weekly, I’m always going to the hospital visiting people in the ICU center and talking about spinal cord injuries and letting them know where I was at. And maybe there’s a good chance they can recover as well. Obviously every spinal cord injury is different, but I was so lost, so confused in the beginning that I wish I had had somebody come into the ICU and explain the status and the situation. There’s really no goodness with this injury. I know one of the people who works at the ICU center in my local town, and every time there’s a spinal cord injury person, I’ll go in and chat with them and give them some encouragement and hopefully some words they can feed off of.
Cooper: Nice. I think some of the folks you now know from the film do some of that. I know some of them do. Do you surf?
Basagoitia: No surfing for me.
Cooper: Jesse Billauer has a program for people who want to surf. The foundation is Life Rolls On. You might want to try that out.
Basagoitia: Yeah, I’ve seen some of the videos that Jesse had done in the surfing community, and they’re pretty awesome.
Cooper: You should try it.
Munk: Not too many waves in Reno.
Basagoitia: Yeah, there’s not too much surfing. I kind of just stay on the trails. I just go on pedals these days. I keep it kind of mellow and low-key.
Cooper: They have events literally around the world. They’re fundraisers, too. So you’re biking again?
Basagoitia: It’s a lot more of casual biking. I ride motorized e-bikes—they have a little motor below the cranks, and it helps you pedal when you’re struggling. So anything that has a hill climb, this motor kicks in and helps, which for me is awesome, because I don’t have any strength below the knees. I don’t have the calf muscles, the dorsiflexion. So to have that device on the bike is a huge blessing for me.
Cooper: Do you have drop foot?
Basagoitia: I do, yeah. I still have paralysis on the right side. My glutes are not firing on the right side; my dorsiflexion in my calves are still asleep.
Cooper: I have an e-bike that has the power on the handle bar—
Basagoitia: —a throttle?
Cooper: —it’s like a motorcycle.
Basagoitia: No, mine is a pedal assist. You still have to work for it. You still pedal. But when you’re struggling, it senses it and kicks in and helps you.
Cooper: That is such a game changer.
Basagoitia: Yup, absolutely.
Cooper: (laughs) I cheat constantly.
Basagoitia: That’s OK!
Cooper: Do you know Kurt Yaeger?
Basagoitia: I don’t.
Cooper: He has a prosthetic from a motorcycle accident, and he can do backflips on his BMX.
Basagoitia: Oh, wow. Awesome!
Cooper: He was in the X Games. He’s an actor as well. Do you know Ricky James?
Basagoitia: That name sounds familiar—a motocross guy?
Cooper: Right. We went out to the track—I ride motocross a little bit—and he kicked my butt.
Cooper: He has a spinal cord injury. They put him on the bike, strap him in—
Basagoitia: I know Doug Henry has a setup like that. He sustained a spinal cord injury many years ago, and he built a dirt bike with a cage around it.
Cooper: His Yamaha.
Basagoitia: Yeah, that guys a savage.
Cooper: He’s so fast. I raced Day in the Dirt and he was in the race, but in the Pro lineup.
Basagoitia: Yeah, he’s rad.
Cooper: You know him from—?
Basagoitia: I don’t. We have a lot of mutual friends. I’m always watching his videos. It’s pretty amazing what he’s doing on the motorcycle and the bucket bike.
Cooper: I don’t know about the bucket bike.
Basagoitia: It’s a downhill mountain bike. He put a ski bucket bike on it, and he’s able to ride two wheels down the mountain bike courses. It’s pretty amazing.
Cooper: Going downhill on a mountain bike feels similar to motocross. The only thing I can do on a mountain bike is go downhill. When you were training did you have a pit to jump into? How did you learn to do the maneuvers?
Basagoitia: In the early days, before there were foam pits, I would go to my local river spot and build a ramp into the water. I would learn all my tricks in the water and then over time the foam pits became a thing and I started learning all the tricks in the foam pit. And then when you feel comfortable doing those tricks in the foam pit, you’re able to go to the Resi-pad, which is a masonite landing with a little bit of padding below it. And when you feel comfortable going from there, then you transition to dirt.
Cooper: There’s a film with Kurt Yeager, and he’s on that pad you were talking about. They showed the film where he kept crashing—
Basagoitia: And you just slide.
Cooper: Which is weird, because he has a prosthetic, so it was an odd thing to watch him crash. I was wondering if the prosthetic might cause more injury.
Basagoitia: I can’t imagine. I would never want to have been thrown off the bike, that’s for sure. I don’t put myself in those situations. I know it’s a blessing that I’m able to pedal a bike again, and I would hate to lose that, so every time I ride, I always make sure I understand the trail and know my situation.
Cooper: When you were first learning how to do these tricks, did you have some gymnastic capabilities? How did you know you’d be able to do things in the air?
Basagoitia: I think it was just feeling so comfortable on the bike. I felt more comfortable being on the bike than I did on land. It was just practice, like jumping in the river all the time. I used to go to the local swim center and jump off the diving boards. I’m sure that helped out quite a bit. I think that transitioned over to my bike riding.
Cooper: When you land in the water, the water has to give a little bit of a shock. It’s not like foam.
Basagoitia: Oh, yeah, it still stings, for sure, but it’s a lot better to do a back flop onto water than it is onto dirt, right? It’s still not the best situation, but it’s a lot better than landing on dirt.
Cooper: You’ve done SXSW. Tell me about that experience.
Basagoitia: The world premier for Any One of Us was at SXSW. It was the first time we were able to show the film. It was a little stressful going to that festival, because thousands of people were there, it was a ten day event, and I was a little nervous because it was the first time the public got to see the film. You’re always wondering what the reactions will be with the crowd. It was nothing but positive. People loved the film. It was awesome to hear people’s stories after the film. I think we sent the best messaging we possibly could with spinal cord injuries. I’m really satisfied how everything came out.
Cooper: So this is the second festival?
Cooper: Where do you go from here?
Basagoitia: We’ve got a few film festivals we’re doing this year The next one is in Bentonville and then Telluride. We’ve got three other ones, I believe. I’m just going one by one. Bentonville in Arkansas is the Geena Davis one. It’s a big mountain bike hub in the South.
Cooper: Geena Davis is the one who puts them on?
Basagoitia: Yes, it’s a big mountain bike community with the theme of inclusion.
Cooper: A theme of inclusion? Most of the time the general term forgets to include disability—have you been learning the nuances?
Basagoitia: What do you mean?
Cooper: When I hear “inclusion,” I think disability, but the general population doesn’t. It’s gender and/or other minorities. Are you seeing this issue?
Basagoitia: I think my life is still the same. Things are a lot harder, it takes a lot more time to get to my car, to go grocery shopping, to do the little things in life. But I don’t feel like I have a disability, even though I can’t do a lot of things I used to be able to. I do the stuff I know I can do, and I enjoy that as much as possible. I don’t know if I answered your question.
Cooper: You’re in a unique position because within your sport you had celebrity status, and now you’ve got this film. But it usually becomes difficult for other people who have acquired an injury to get back into society. They see society and employers look at them sometimes as different. I don’t know if you’re experiencing that yet.
Basagoitia: Absolutely. I was a paid athlete for mountain biking. I was paid to go to these events and compete and do well. Obviously, I can’t do that any more. I had to find another route to make income, and I just recently got a new position at a new shoe company called Ride Concepts. I’m dealing with all global athletes, so I was able to develop the mountain bike program for them. Don’t get me wrong, when I go to these events, I wish I was out there competing, but it brings me joy to still help athletes and still be involved with the mountain bike community, maybe not on the competitive side of things, but it’s a blessing that I’ve found another way to make things work.
Cooper: Have you done any modeling?
Basagoitia: Modeling? No. No modeling for me.
Cooper: You should think about that. There is a push to have “inclusion” in models. You’re a handsome guy.
Munk: (laughs) Yes he is!
Basagoitia: I never even considered it. I’ve got a lot of scars on my body. I don’t know if that’s attractive. You see my back, and it’s like, “Whoa! What happened to that guy?”
Cooper: Can you talk about your injury?
Basagoitia: I got hurt at St. George, Utah, at the Red Bull Rampage, which is in Zion Park, 30 minutes from St. George, Utah. I was CARE-flighted to St. George, had a 10-and-a-half-hour operation. I was in the ICU for a week, and then I was in the rehab center there for another week, and then I got transferred over to Craig Hospital. I was there for three months doing my whole rehab. From there I went home and built a whole training facility at the house and now I work out at the house an hour and a half every day.
Cooper: How about health insurance?
Basagoitia: I had insurance. The problem with my insurance is that once you meet your deductible, you’re kind of on your own. After I met my deductible, the mountain bike community rallied, we did some fundraisers to take care of the other costs, but for the most part my insurance took care of everything.
Cooper: So if you don’t have a backstop like you had—celebrities and you were able to get people to step up and crowdfund—people who don’t have that are out of luck?
Basagoitia: I think insurance took care of the majority of the costs, but we weren’t able to compete at these events unless we had our own self-insurance. I can’t imagine getting injured like this without having insurance.
Cooper: With your new job, do you travel?
Basagoitia: Yes, a little traveling here and there. I go to a lot of mountain bike events, overseeing the athletes, seeing how they’re doing, making sure they have the product, helping out with the social media side of things, just trying to represent the brand the best way we can. It’s a brand-new company, a small company, there are only five people working for this brand, so I do a little bit of everything. I’m in charge of athletes, dealing with social media, helping out with the product development side of things, and I’m an ambassador for the brand as well.
Cooper: What is the brand?
Basagoitia: It’s a new shoe company called Ride Concepts. It’s based out of Truckee, CA.
Cooper: What are they making exactly?
Basagoitia: It’s a mountain bike shoe. We do have some clips shoes coming out next month. The shoe is designed for mountain bikers. It’s very stiff. It has a sole that’s really grippy, that has great direct contact to the pedal. It’s a great product.
Cooper: Can they be bought online or in stores?
Basagoitia: You can go online and purchase the shoes, and we just opened up our global distribution, so we’re now selling in 35 countries.
Cooper: When you were competing, did you travel around the world for different events?
Basagoitia: I did, yeah. When I was a professional athlete, I would travel oversees about five or six times a year. I would go to Canada and all around the world. I was very blessed to see the world because of the bicycle, for sure.
Cooper: Were those events similar to Rampage? Or is that one unique?
Basagoitia: Rampage is its own event. There’s nothing like the Red Bull Rampage. These other events I was going to were more slope-style events. Red Bull Rampage is itself. Rampage only happens once a year and there’s no other big mountain events.
Cooper: It’s so extreme. When I watched—I don’t understand how people can practice that.
Basagoitia: It’s as extreme as you want it to be. The thing with Red Bull Rampage is, you are out there to design what you want to ride. Nobody else is telling you how to ride. You have full control. “I’m going to go down this ridge line, down this chute. Hey, I think I can do that drop.” It’s the way you want to incorporate your riding style on that terrain. You can design something that’s absolutely insane, or you can play the same route. There are safe ways down that, believe it or not, but obviously it’s not going to get judged well.
Cooper: So that’s how it works? The judges make a determination of the extreme nature and the technical skills of a particular path?
Basagoitia: Exactly. We’re out there a week before the finals, working on our trails, finding unique lines, and hopefully being able to ride at our best ability.
Cooper: When I watched you do that, I thought, Who would tell people to do that? But you told yourself.
Basagoitia: I told myself, felt it, worked on it, visualized it, rode it the year before, and I wasn’t too stressed out on it, believe it or not. The most I was stressed out about that whole Rampage line was at the top when I backflipped over the canyon. That was the only thing I was really stressed out about. And my crash happened on something that I wasn’t even thinking twice about.
Cooper: Interesting. So you remember everything?
Basagoitia: Yeah, I wish I had blacked out. Unfortunately I was wide awake. I remember word by word, second by second. Still, today, I can describe that crash like it happened yesterday. It’s still in the back of my mind, absolutely.
Cooper: Have you talked to any psychologists or psychiatrists about PTSD?
Basagoitia: No, I don’t think I sustained that as much. Once in a while, every time I see a video of the Red Bull Rampage or if I see that type of terrain or when I watched the documentary, it obviously brings me back to that moment.
Cooper: Just remember, that could be an issue in the future. I had a hard time watching it. I hit a deer on a motorcycle when I was young, going really fast, and I still get haunted, even though I ride street and dirt bikes. I still have this thing for a while as I get on the bike, once I’m on the bike I’m good, but getting on I know it’s PTSD. Not that you’re going to go that route.
Basagoitia: Thanks for bringing that to my attention.
Cooper: Can you think of anything else you want to mention?
Basagoitia: The film will come out in September 2019. All proceeds are going straight to Wings for Life. Hopefully we can fund a nice clinical trial and find a cure one day. I think it’s possible; it’s just a matter of time.
Cooper: Have you talked to any doctors or researchers who are working in this area?
Basagoitia: I spoke to Hans Keirstead, he’s in the film, but other than Hans, I haven’t really spoken to anybody outside the film. I know Wings for Life has contacted every single one that’s going on around the world.
Cooper: Have you talked to anyone at Wings for Life? Aren’t they based in Austria?
Basagoitia: Yes, they are, and we have people here in the US as well. Wagner, he’s in charge of all USA Wings for Life. They do events, like the World Run, and they did a scavenger hunt last year.
Cooper: Do you ride motorcycles?
Basagoitia: No, a motorcycle’s too dangerous for me.
Cooper: But you get to wear safety gear. I interviewed Dr. Chris Leatt. He created the Leatt-Brace
Basagoitia: Oh, yeah, the neurosurgeon from S. Africa.
Cooper: Right. I don’t see people doing what you’re doing on the bikes wearing equipment.
Basagoitia: There are a lot of people who wear neck braces. I was wearing a back brace when I got hurt. There’s only so much you can do to save the back when you compress it at the angle I did, even wearing the back brace doesn’t do anything.
Cooper: It might have mitigated some trauma.
Basagoitia: I don’t think so. I’ve talked to the company that made the back brace and they said the same thing. It’s not so much trying to support the spine laterally, it’s about road rash and all that. He said, “We don’t design the back brace to support the spine, it’s for road rash.”
Cooper: Did you know that when you were wearing it?
Basagoitia: No. I wore it just because it’s another piece of protection that I don’t mind wearing.
Cooper: The idea of having too much on you, limiting your mobility.
Basagoitia: The back brace I had was super slim and very comfortable. It felt like a life jacket. It wasn’t too bad.
Cooper: I wear so much safety equipment I can barely move. Right now you’re doing your own rehab with your exercise?
Basagoitia: Yeah. I’m doing an hour and a half at the house, always trying to get better. They say two years is the most you get back with this injury, but I want to experience the difference. I’m going to continue to try to get better, whether it will happen or not. It’s my lifestyle now. I wake up, put in the hours and try to get better. There’s not a day that goes by when I’m not trying to improve with this injury.
Cooper: Nicole, tell me about your role in the film.
Munk: I think my role for Paul and for this film was to be the support system, to just being there in tough times and great times.
Basagoitia: With this injury, you definitely can’t do it alone. I think a support system is very, very important. Without having her on the side and the mountain bike community and friends being involved, I don’t know if I would have made the progress that I have.
Cooper: Had you thought about suicide?
Basagoitia: Not necessarily suicide, but there were times like, “Man, do I want to live like this for the rest of my life?” I don’t know if it was suicide. I didn’t think of a way to do it.
Cooper: With injuries like that, it usually goes through the mind, “What am I going to do now?”
Basagoitia: When I started having those moments, I pushed all that energy into the rehab. Now it helps me clear my mind. Every time I’m working out, riding the bike, whatever, it helps me. I think when I started thinking those moments was when I was by myself, lonely, on the couch. I think that’s when those moments occur. But as long as I stay busy and active and keep a focused mind on recovery, that helps a lot.
Cooper: You’re a competitive person to begin with, so you set a goal and then—
Basagoitia: I think so. I’ve been competing at some level since I was six years old, and still today I’m really competitive. Maybe not necessarily on the biking side of things, but with this injury and recovery and putting in the hours I would be doing if I were doing a competition, but instead into my recovery.
Cooper: Your engaged?
Munk: We’re engaged. We plan on hopefully tying the knot on 2/20/20. That’s the date we’ve been eyeballing.
Cooper: So you have some medical background? Has that helped?
Munk: Yeah, a medical background is a blessing and a curse when something devastating happens to family or friends or anyone you love. I think I knew more than I wanted to in the first couple hours of the crash, but it ended up working pretty well, being able to ask the right questions and seeing a little bit of the inpatient side and knowing what was going to happen in terms of depression and anxiety, being scared. Being in that setting was not that foreign to me. I’m grateful for that.
Cooper: Is that why you started dating, just in case—
Basagoitia: No, that was definitely not the reason. But one of the reasons. (laughter)
Munk: He’s smart! (laughs)