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A Pro Mountain Biker's Journey Back From Spinal Cord Injury

Paul Basagoitia
November 05, 2019

By Debbie Koenig

Paul Basagoitia was the first person to ever land a double back-flip on a mountain bike. He’d been on two wheels since the age of two—riding and performing stunts was second nature to him. At the 2015 Red Bull Rampage, he was one of the favorites to win. When a small mistake threw him off the bike, he suffered a burst-fracture of his 12th vertebrae and a partially severed spinal cord.

Doctors told him he’d have to use a wheelchair, probably for the rest of his life, but he had other plans—and a camera to record his journey back to mobility (even his most intimate experiences). “Any One of Us,” airing on HBO, is a documentary about spinal cord injuries (SCI). It interweaves Basagoitia’s story with a chorus of other SCI survivors, showing what it’s really like to have your life change in an instant.

WebMD spoke with Basagoitia about the film and his struggle to recover. Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.

WebMD: As a pro mountain bike rider, you did back flips off of cliffs on your bike. Being a risk taker, what was your relationship with danger? Had you considered the possibility that you might get severely hurt on your bike?

Basagoitia: Being on two wheels was part of my life since age two. This was something I never thought would happen. I knew getting hurt was possible, but getting paralyzed is the last thing you think of. What I did looks crazy, like you’d need to have a stunt double, but it’s pretty calculated what we do. We plan every move.

The crash itself wasn’t even that bad—I’ve had hundreds that were a lot worse. In this one I just landed a certain way and wound up with a spinal cord injury. That’s the unpredictability of SCI, the logistics: They’re random. They happen most often in car accidents.

WebMD: After the accident, you were told you’d probably use a wheelchair for the rest of your life. Did you take that prognosis to heart or did you immediately reject the notion?

Basagoitia: When you first hear that you’re going to be in a wheelchair, you start second guessing your future. Is this my new life, what I have to work with? You become negative. I got very depressed. But all it took was a little signal to my quad, some sensation—once I had a signal below my injury level, I thought I had a chance to get out of the wheelchair one day.

WebMD: You couldn’t have known from the beginning where you’d end up, but the film includes footage from day one. When you started filming yourself, did you have a purpose in mind for that footage?

Basagoitia: I started documenting my recovery when I was in the ICU. Here I am in a hospital bed, knowing I’ll be there a couple months at least. I’m passing time by looking up at the popcorn ceiling counting holes, and then I looked across the room and saw a camera I’d bought a week before the accident. I started to shoot day that day because I had that camera. It was just a way to kill time.

WebMD: The film intersperses interviews with other people who’ve suffered spinal cord injuries. Why was it important to include their stories?

Basagoitia: I’m so happy we had the other cast members. That came about from the producer and director asking others if they’d want to speak. We thought it would be important to tell everyone’s story. I mean, I was doing back flips on my bike, riding crazy. People probably think I was bound to have a spinal cord injury. But the main cause is car accidents and day-to-day living. Most people sustain a spinal cord injury without doing anything extreme—this can happen to any one of us.

WebMD: Early on in the film, you say, “The real struggle is what goes on behind closed doors.” What did you mean by that?

Basagoitia: That was about both depression and the problems I had just doing stuff. You play a different character when you’re out and about, but when you’re alone things are tough. That’s when I was facing depression.

Behind closed doors, my biggest struggle was using the restroom. I had to self-catheter myself every three hours. I was watching the clock, dreading the next one. A lot of people who sustain spinal cord injuries would say the same.

WebMD: The film includes some very intimate scenes, showing you inserting the catheter and bathing. Why were you willing to expose yourself like that?

Basagoitia: The main reason was, I wanted to bring awareness to spinal cord injuries. I had lots of friends who’d had one, but had no idea what they were going through behind closed doors. When I thought about someone who’s paralyzed, it was always about how they can’t get from point A to point B. I didn’t think about the bladder or bowel situation until it happened to me, so I figured most other people don’t, either.

I was clueless about what I was facing, so I wanted to document, to show people how to do things. There’s a lot more that goes into spinal cord injury than you think. At film festivals, the majority of questions have been people thanking me for showing that stuff.

WebMD: In addition to traditional therapies, the film shows you trying several alternative therapies. Which did you find helpful?

Basagoitia: None. I tried everything—acupuncture, going to a different country for stem cell treatments. None of them really helped me. What ultimately helped was time. I’m four years in, and we stopped filming at the two-and-a-half-year mark. Even since then I’ve seen some progress. I think it’s all about time and patience and letting those nerve cells regenerate.

WebMD: What advice do you have for people who are thinking of leaving the country for cutting-edge treatment?

Basagoitia: Don’t waste your money. I’m sure stem cells help with other injuries, but with spinal cord injuries we’re a long way from finding that cure.

WebMD: In what ways has your accident, and the challenges of recovery, changed the way you see yourself or life in general? 

Basagoitia: There were a lot of things I used to take for granted: riding a bike, walking, peeing on my own. Now I appreciate the littlest things. Every time I take a shower, I think it’s awesome, I can feel the temperature of the water. Or oh, my legs are sore, that’s awesome—it means they’re working. Before the accident I hated pedaling uphill. I always wanted to go down, go fast, be the most extreme. Now it’s the opposite. I want to pedal 50 miles, until my legs are burning.

WebMD: What’s your life like now?

Basagoitia: I’m in a lot better headspace. I’m still involved in the bike world, and my mission is to find a cure for spinal cord injury. Not much has changed, except I’m walking with a cane full time, and I’m able to pedal a bike a lot better. And Nichole [who appears in the film] and I are planning on getting married in March of  2020.

WebMD: At the end of the film, we hear the interviewer ask everyone except you what they’d do first if they took a pill and woke up completely healed. What would your answer be?

Basagoitia: That’s me asking them! I’m glad you asked about that—hardly anybody does. It’s silly, but I wish I could walk in sandals again. Prior to my injury, I loved wearing them. I wish I had a more powerful answer, but it’s something I used to take for granted. I wish I could flop some sandals on my feet and walk around.

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