Kevin Robinson performs a trick on the megaramp during X Games practice… (Patrick T. Fallon / Los Angeles…)
The one thing that I've always loved about bike riding is crossing that fear barrier, regardless of the consequences.
He is a testament to the body's ability to recover. Nearly every inch of 40-year-old Kevin Robinson's 6-foot frame has suffered damage, which has included about 25 broken bones and required 43 surgeries.
And yet, after more than 21/2 decades as a professional BMX rider -- in which he says he rides a "little kid's bike" -- Robinson has always bounced back.
But that career has exacted a toll far beyond any injury that a procedure might repair.
Because Robinson has suffered, according to one of his doctors, at least 50 concussions.
This fact will be outside of Robinson's focus when he competes in the BMX Freestyle Big Air event on Sunday evening in the Summer X Games in downtown Los Angeles.
He'll just try to win his 10th X Games medal and fourth gold in the event to earn thousands in prize money that would support his wife, Robin; daughter Shaye, 6; son Kevin Jr. 6; and son Riley, 1. Still, he quietly worries those concussions might cost him in the future, might divorce him from his bike -- or from who he is altogether.
That said, he doesn't plan to abandon this job, which he began as a hobby at 9 years old, any time soon. "I still feel like I have something to offer," he says. "And I still love it."
Robinson's muscular 185-pound build doesn't offer any reflection of his injury-plagued past. Many of his surgeries were arthroscopic, sparing him scars. But his piercing glacier-blue eyes stand out, as both are defined by crow's feet and heavy bags that make his energetic face appear both young and old.
And behind those eyes are the long-term effects from his profession, all those concussions -- though their ultimate impact is not fully known, yet.
"The most important thing you can do," Robinson says, "is wear a helmet."
But he has, by his own count, been knocked out at least 25 times while wearing one. "The one thing that we have in common is hard heads," jokes Mat Hoffman, his close friend and BMX pioneer.
Modern helmets aren't designed to prevent the force of impact from reaching the brain. Instead, they are designed to protect against skull fracture and skull-penetrating injuries, says Dr. Ruben Echemendia, one of the leading experts in head injuries. "In those instances, helmets work quite well. They're just not very good at protecting from concussions," he says.
Yet for all Robinson's concussions, it was one he suffered in 2003 at a Dew Tour event that, as he says, "really scared me."
The hit left him in a mild coma and then hindered his speech for two weeks -- he tried to talk but only gibberish came out.
He acknowledged he needed help, and met Echemendia, who did multiple tests to examine Robinson's cognitive functions, such as learning, memory, concentration and processing speed. No significant damage was evident.
A few years later, Robinson suffered another concussion that affected his dexterity skills to the point where he struggled to button his children's jackets. His fears returned, and he surrounded himself with even more experts.
About two years ago, Robinson reconnected with Dr. Neha Raukar, a specialist in sports medicine and head injuries at Rhode Island Hospital who has also spent the last five years as a sideline physician for the Dew Tour and UCI, the international BMX Team.
The two discussed concussion symptoms, which can include fatigue, dizziness, nausea and/or temporary loss of consciousness. She estimates Robinson has had more than 50 concussions and 200 sub-concussions, considered less-severe blows to the head.
"Kevin," Raukar recounts telling him, "You have to really watch out for your family, because in 10 years, you're probably not going to have all your faculties about you."
Robinson has contact information for nine medical professionals in his cellphone and he considers their advice crucial.
"I want to understand it because I want to expect that if I ever see effects, that I'm like, 'OK, this is what's going on,' " says Robinson, who said he's considered doing a video or a book with Raukar to raise awareness about the lasting impact of concussions.
But, as of today, if anyone suggests that he consider retirement from his sport, one in which he has set records (a BMX high air record of 27 feet on a quarter pipe) and broken new ground (he's the first rider to land a double-flair, a twisting double back-flip), well
"They can't tell me not to do it anymore," Robinson says. "Nobody can. My wife can't tell me to stop That would be like me unzipping my body and getting out and being somebody else. It's not something I do, it's who I am. It's part of my personality. Riding bikes is something I've done for 30 years. I can't just quit and do something else."
Robinson rides BMX bikes with his 6-year-old, Kevin Jr., and won't stop his son if he wants to pursue the sport. "I'd be contradicting my whole life," Robinson says.