By Alex Tougas, BMX National Team Athlete
My name is Alex Tougas and I am a BMX racer competing as part of the Canadian National Team. I am twenty-two years old, from Pitt Meadows, B.C., just outside of Vancouver. My time on the National Team has been more than I could have ever wished for, and over the years I have been fortunate enough to travel the world with some really cool people doing even cooler things. Being part of the team has shaped me into the person I am today, through training, racing, traveling, and unfortunately injuries. Today, I want to share the story about what suffering a head injury has meant to me.
Prior to having a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), I didn’t know much about head injuries. As far as I was concerned, a concussion was a collection of headaches, visual issues, and maybe some memory issues down the road. I had witnessed my teammate Tory Nyhaug deal with multiple head injuries and seen its implications on his life so I knew head injuries were serious, but I was far from prepared for what transpired next. I was diagnosed with what is called a diffuse axonal injury, which is the result of tearing of the axons of the brain and is much more than a concussion.
In the spring of 2019, I was competing at the UCI BMX Supercross World Cup in Papendal, the Netherlands, when I crashed. In retrospect, it was a pretty awesome day. I remember some of it; I remember getting ready that morning and having a good feeling and being really excited to be riding and racing. It helped that I was feeling fast on the bike. At a race like this, we go through a series of qualifying rounds, before competing in the final at the end of the day. I remember that my 1/8th final qualifying round was with my teammate James, and of course I remember the banter of how we were going to finish first and second in the round. And then my memory cuts off. I have seen the videos of what happened, but to make a long story short, I made a minor technical error, landed a jump out of position, lost traction, and then hit the ground . . . quite violently.
As the seriousness of my head injury was diagnosed, my father was flown in to be with me in the hospital. At first, I was not able to communicate at all, but gradually I started to communicate little by little. I was not aware of where I was or what had happened, I was really tired, very confused, and I felt like I was constantly looking through a fish-eye camera lens. After two and a half weeks, I was cleared to fly home with the supervision of a doctor. My memory at that point was still pretty foggy, but I remember landing in Vancouver, and being transferred to a local hospital before being released to my family. At this point, I was still not too sure what had happened to me, I was unsure if I would ever recover, but I was convinced that I would never touch a bike again, let alone race one. Walking down the stairs was scary enough.
For anyone who knows me personally, I am a pretty quirky individual. I have a thing for order, a desire to keep a routine schedule, and a fear of lacking either, which in turn can make me anxious. As I started to transition into my new normal, the cognitive aspect of my injury really came into full swing: the anxiety, the paranoia, the anguish. I was convinced that the life I had known was a thing of the past.
I love BMX racing. Up until my crash I had allowed it to define who I was as a person. There was no way of talking about me without BMX racing being part of the conversation. I was completely oblivious to how unhealthy this was. Following my crash, everything changed; here I was, a 20-year-old BMX racer, convinced I would never touch a bike again, and that I would walk around for the rest of my life in bubble wrap. I was completely aware of how illogical my thinking was, but it would not change no matter how hard I tried. As you can probably guess, this did not align with the BMX racer characteristic I had let define me in the past and this led to many sleepless nights. BMX is who I am, it is what I am – what am I if I can’t race or ride? Months of this thinking led me down some pretty dark rabbit holes and made me feel like I would never recover.
If having a head injury has taught me anything, it has been to not let only one dimension of life define me. As much as I love what I do, I want to be more than just an athlete. I’ve realized that I am more than a BMX racer, I am more than an injury statistic, I am more than a neat freak. I don’t let that take away from my passion for the sport one bit – I love what I do, and there is no changing that. I have learnt that BMX racing and injuries don’t define me, they have simply helped make me into the person I am today and will continue to shape me as I pursue my BMX racing dreams. I am grateful for the fact that I am back to feeling like myself and have gotten back onto the BMX track. This summer I ended up having knee surgery, but I continue to work towards getting back into racing shape, learning from my injuries.