Paralyzed motocross champ hopes for super quick recovery
Fans nicknamed him Superman, because he could fly.
Daredevil athlete Blair Morgan gained fame and fortune soaring through the air while straddling both motorcycles and snowmobiles on the race track. He's a champion several times over, and he has his own clothing line and even his own video game.
But now there's only one race Morgan wants to win: wheeling out of Saskatoon's City Hospital as soon as superhumanly possible.
"I want to break all records of someone getting out of physio," Morgan says with a slight smile, lying in bed on the hospital's rehabilitation floor.
The 33-year-old severed his spinal cord on a jump during a motocross practice in Montreal six weeks ago. He is paralyzed from the chest down and doesn't expect to ever walk or race again.
After a month of living in what he describes as a fuzzy dream, he's coming to grips with his new life and concentrating on mastering a new machine — the wheelchair — so he can join his wife and two children at home in Prince Albert, Sask.
He says his physiotherapy instructors are already amazed by his progress, and he should be released from hospital by Christmas.
"What I learn in one day usually takes other people one or two weeks to learn," Morgan says softly.
But he is more shy and sincere than a cocky superstar. He wheels himself outside the hospital for a lesson on how to pull himself in and out of the passenger seat of a car. He accomplishes the feat on the first try.
"My goal, really, is to get strong to get out of here and get back to normal living."
Morgan started racing minibikes at 13, following in the steps of his older brother.
Turned pro at 17
He turned pro on the motocross circuit at 17. A two-time national champion, he was persuaded by friend Jamie Anseeuw to try a new sport called snocross. It's like motocross on snow, with 180-kilogram snowmobiles flying through the air.
Morgan qualified in his first United States national event in the sport and never looked back.
"Everybody just sat there with their jaws dropped," remembers Anseeuw, on the phone from his home in Oak Bluff, Man. "He did things on a snowmobile people hadn't seen before."
Morgan used his aggressive motocross style on the snowmobile by standing up instead of sitting down. His Superman signature was kicking his legs straight back while flying first past the finish line.
Other riders soon adopted his style, and snowmobile companies began redesigning their machines to follow suit.
Morgan claimed the snocross title in the Winter X-Games five times and was inducted into the Guinness Book of Records for winning the most gold medals in the sport's history.
He even has his own line of clothing and a Playstation 2 video game.
If Wayne Gretzky is the hero of hockey, Morgan is the icon of snocross, says Anseeuw.
He's also your average, down-to-earth guy from the Prairies, says Wayne Madsen, the business manager of Morgan's snocross racing team.
When other riders were busy packing up after a race, Madsen says, Morgan would spend more than an hour sitting on the tailgate of his truck, signing autographs for lined-up fans.
Even before his accident, Morgan had been generous with spinal cord research, acting as a spokesperson for the Canadian & American Spinal Research Organization and holding an annual fantasy camp fundraiser in the Rocky Mountains.
Inspired to help by Christopher Reeve
Morgan explains he chose that charity, in part, because the real Superman, the late actor Christopher Reeve, suffered a tragic spinal injury.
But he also chose that cause because he knows many athletes who have gone through the same thing, including Anseeuw.
Anseeuw, his snocross team manager, was testing a snowmobile for Morgan when he was paralyzed in a crash in Calgary in 1999.
Morgan, himself, has had serious injuries before. In 2003, he broke his back and leg in a motocross accident in Nanaimo, B.C. But six months later, he returned to snocross and by the end of the season he had claimed another world title.
"That's probably my biggest accomplishment."
Morgan admits he had recently started thinking about retirement and his motocross race in Montreal might have been his last had the crash not decided his future for him.
Morgan says he wasn't riding very fast at the time, but got pitched off the side of his bike on a jump.
"I think there was another bump I just drove my head into, and it just kind of folded my body over backwards .… It didn't really hit until I was in the ambulance and they were asking what I could move. I couldn't move my legs."
Morgan says he won't discourage others from racing because of his own tragedy. Danger is part of the sport, and part of life, he says.
"Anything can happen, you know, not even racing — in everyday life," he says. "Pretty much everyone in this ward has spinal injuries from car accidents."
Wants to ride snowmobile again
Dean Thompson of Calgary, manager of Morgan's Blackfoot motocross team, says he gets emails each day from fans asking about their Superman. They just can't believe he won't be racing again.
"We understand in the back of our mind that the sport has risks, and we know it's a possibility. But it's not supposed to happen to Blair Morgan," says Thompson.
"It's very difficult for people to digest and comprehend that it's true. And I don't think people will fully understand until we see him in his next phase of life."
Morgan says he plans to get on a snowmobile again so he can cruise the country trails. But climbing on top of a motorcycle, his first love, is not likely to happen.
He doesn't yet know if he wants to continue in sports in some way, as a manager or coach, or possibly as a Paralympic athlete.
But on a recent day trip from the hospital with physiotherapists, Morgan visited the track and field facility at the University of Saskatchewan and spied some special racing wheelchairs.
His wife, Terri, says their five-year-old was full of questions when she heard about the visit to the track.
"Our daughter said to me on the phone, `Is he going to be a world champion wheelchair racer now?"' Morgan shrugs.
"I don't know. I've been competing my whole life. It seems like a lot of work."
But faster than a speeding bullet, the world-class athlete decides not to rule it out.
"Maybe it'll be something I try."