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How To Mother A BMX Bandit In The Wake Of Sam Willoughby's Crash

Hearing Willoughby's news was one of my greatest fears becoming reality.

29/09/2016 12:39 PM AEST | Updated 29/09/2016 12:41 PM AEST
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Eric Gaillard / Reuters
Sam Willoughy leads a race at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Sam Willoughby, Australian BMX Olympic silver medallist and world champion, is known by the nickname 'BMX Bandit'.

My son, nine years old and BMX-crazy, is known to me as my 'Baby BMX Bandit' (aka B3). He's not happy about the cute nickname, but it's not my job to make him happy. (Wait, what?)
Anyway, my gorgeous little freckle-faced B3's hero is Sam Willoughby. As a child, Willoughby trained at the same track my kid bolts around twice a week. Last month, we excitedly watched Willoughby compete in Rio, and my son actually shed tears when he saw his hero crash out.

But there were more tears last week after a much more significant crash when Willoughby came off his bike in a training session and broke his neck. He immediately lost all use of his limbs but has since regained movement in his arms. B3 was shaken by the news -- but trust me, his mother was much more shaken.

B3 has had a few huge tumbles from his bike at high speed, and mid-air. He's gotten off lightly with sprains and nasty scrapes. But I've seen, and heard, him hitting the ground. Hard. As a parent on the sidelines, it's a sickening experience. In seemingly slow-motion, you rush out to where you see your kid lying motionless on the gravel, hoping to God that he will get up before you get there. Please, let it not be his neck or spine. Get up, get up, you want to scream. Hearing Willoughby's news was one of my greatest fears becoming reality.

So while the world wants to know that Willoughby is recovering, I wanted to know more -- I needed to know how the accident happened. According to B3's BMX trainer, what happened to Willoughby also happened to her years earlier. She used a bunch of technical bike-y terms to explain it, but basically in non-bikey terms, Willoughby was going over a hump on one wheel, and flipped backwards, rather than moving forwards, and cracked the back of his neck on the hump. A freak accident that could happen to any rider.

It was heartening to hear, in terms of Willoughby's recovery, that B3's trainer had done the same thing to herself and was back riding within months. But as a parent, the timing of Willoughby's accident has been significant. In recent months, I have been trying to decide whether to let B3 compete in races, where the other, more experienced kids are faster and wilder. BMX is a dangerous, high-risk sport. But what do you do when your kid is passionate about it, you know it's brilliant exercise, he has lots of mates in the club...but, but, but -- an accident in the sport has potentially life-changing consequences? We are responsible for making responsible decisions for our kids; it is hard, and I've struggled with this one.

A fellow BMX Mum, a highly seasoned lass who has watched three children compete, put it in perspective for me at training the other night. Between bites of Redskins (one of the privileges when you volunteer at the Club's canteen), she pointed out that significant injury is a potential risk with so many sports. Children have teeth knocked out in football. Sprained ankles in netball. Concussions in rugby. And if we cast the net wider -- should a sporting ban extend to not allowing them to get their driver's license? Or even be a passenger in a car? Go on a boat? Hike in Summer? Swim at the beach? Fly on a plane? By my third Redskin (they're really small) I realised that, put in the wider context of life, maybe the risk is no greater in BMX than it is in anything else that is fun and active.

And so I think the answer needs to be considered in that wider context. BMX is a fun, fast, highly regulated sport that millions of kids around the world love. Faced with the alternative of not permitting B3 to do any sort of activity, I know what I need to do; let the kid ride. Like his hero.

Best wishes to Willoughby for a speedy (pun intended) recovery.
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