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Documentary series spotlights charity’s aid to severely injured athletes

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Motorcycle stunt rider Phil “Smagical” Smage gives a high-five to friends moments before he suffered a devastating crash in RAZR vehicle jump attempt in 2018. This scene is featured in the first episode of “Road 2 Recovery,” a web series spotlighting the work Encinitas charity Road 2 Recovery has done over the past 20 years to help athletes recover from career-ending injuries.
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Since 2000, Encinitas-based Road 2 Recovery has raised nearly $9 million for 93 athletes who suffered career-ending crashes

Twenty years ago this month, Jimmy Button was catapulted over the handlebars of his motorcycle on a Supercross track at San Diego’s now-SDCCU Stadium. By the time his body hit the ground, his career as one of the nation’s top professional Motocross racers was over.

Then 26, Button was initially paralyzed from the waist down and he suffered serious spine and neck injuries. But Button was one of the lucky ones. He could afford good health and catastrophic accident insurance to pay for the months of hospitalization, surgeries, rehabilitation and therapies that followed. Most of his fellow athletes, who Button said barely eke out a living with limited or no insurance, are not so fortunate.

So in mid-2000, Button, Bob Moore and Bob Walker co-founded the Road 2 Recovery Foundation. Over the past two decades, the Encinitas-based nonprofit has raised $7.9 million to support the care and rehabilitation of 93 athletes who have suffered career-ending injuries in the sports of Supercross, Motocross, BMX and other extreme athletics.

For most of those years, Road 2 Recovery has kept a relatively low profile in its fundraising efforts. But when Button — who’s now a top sports agent for cycling athletes — was singled out for criticism a few years ago about how the charity spends its money, he and the R2R team decided to confront the rumors and shed more light on what the charity does.

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The result is the new web series “Road 2 Recovery.” The five-episode documentary series profiles four injured motorcyclists and one BMX rider who the foundation has helped over the past four years. The series, which can be found on Youtube.com (search “Road 2 Recovery”), premiered its first episode on Dec. 13. Future episodes will be released monthly through April.

The debut episode features the comeback of Phil “Smagical” Smage, a stunt cyclist from Elkhorn, Wis., who was severely injured in May 2018 while attempting a world-record jump in a RAZR utility vehicle in Huntsville, Tenn. In video that was being recorded for the action sports film “Action Figures 2,” Smage can be seen overshooting the landing ramp and the vehicle crashing and rolling multiple times.

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Athletes, employees and volunteers gather to watch the premiere episode of the “Road 2 Recovery” documentary web series at Fox HQ in Irvine on Dec. 12. The series profiles five injured motorcycle and BMX athletes supported by the Road 2 Recovery Foundation in Encinitas.
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Smage broke his neck, both arms, his collarbone, ribs and a toe. He underwent spine fusion surgery and had to learn to walk and use his arms again. Recently, he has begun snowboarding and cycling again, but his extreme stunt career is over. In the video, Smage praises R2R’s all-encompassing support.

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“Road 2 Recovery has completely changed the end course of my recovery,” Smage said. “They are just good-hearted people. They’re not doing this to make money. They’re just doing this because they know they can help because they’ve been through it and they want to help ease the situation for everybody else. They become like your family.”

The March 11 episode will profile San Diego athlete Sam Willoughby, an Australian motorcyclist who lost the use of his legs after a training accident on a BMX track in Chula Vista in September 2016. In his video, Willoughby said R2R made the process of getting the support he needed after his crash much smoother.

“We didn’t know where to start. We didn’t know where to get equipment from. They have just made this process so easy. It’s a nightmare, to be honest, the amount of things that aren’t covered by insurance,” Willoughby said.

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Former Motocross racer Jessy Nelson watches the premiere of the “Road 2 Recovery” web series at Fox HQ in Irvine on Dec. 12. Nelson, who suffered a paralyzing injury in a 2016 race, is one of five athletes profiled in the series spotlighting the work Road 2 Recovery Foundation of Encinitas does to support the needs of extreme sport athletes who suffer career-ending injuries.
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In the organization’s early years, Button said he, Walker and Moore would come together to raise money whenever there was a major accident. Then, when Button’s mother, Anita, retired from her corporate job, she became the foundation’s sole paid employee. Her job over the years has been to serve as the athletes’ advocate. Using skills she perfected while her son was hospitalized, she analyzes athletes’ medical bills for coding errors and negotiates down hospital bills. In one case she was successful in getting one athlete’s medical bills reduced from $500,000 to $32,000. She also supervises the payouts for follow-up needs such as therapies, air transportation to specialty clinics, motorized wheelchairs and home adaptations.

Button said only top-tier professional athletes earn enough money to buy the all-encompassing insurance they need. Catastrophic care policies alone run around $40,000 a year. So when hospital and extended care bills add up to $500,000 or $1 million, even good insurance policies will eventually run dry. Button said career-ending accidents happen more often than the public realizes.

“Our sports are big and if you competed in a sport where you wear a crash helmet or a fireproof suit, you kind of know the dangers you’re getting into every day,” he said.

In recent years, the foundation has expanded its outreach to athletes in Europe and it now also serves athletes in action sports fields such as skiing, surfing and mountain biking. But its administrative operations have remained small.

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Today, R2R has just three employees who all work from their homes. Arizona resident Anita Button focuses on the financial side of the organization. Corona resident Mike Young, a 24-year motorcycle racer who was paralyzed from the waist down in a 1997 crash, begins working with athletes and their families within 24 to 48 hours of the accident. And Temecula resident Lori Armistead handles marketing and public relations.

Armistead said her chief goal since joining R2R in 2016 has been to clear up misconceptions about the organization’s operations. She came up with the idea for the docu-series and oversees the organization’s redesigned website, which includes a detailed breakdown of expenses, funds paid out and the organization’s annual tax returns dating back to 2010. Because of R2R’s low overhead, 90 percent of the money raised through crowdfunding campaigns, grants and fundraising events goes to the athletes, she said.

She and Button said this high level of transparency and the docu-series have been met with a positive response from the public, but naysayers have impacted fundraising over the past two years and that will take time to overcome.

“One of the main reasons for the docu-series is that it really goes back to the old saying that no good deed goes unpunished,” Button said. “People start to question where the money is going. People also start to make assumptions. Some of them are not so tasteful. Some of them were pointed at me. Let’s show people where the money goes. Let’s tell the stories of some of these athletes.”

Upcoming episodes will profile BMX rider Scotty Cranmer on Jan. 8; Supercross racer Colton Aeck on Feb. 12; Willoughby on March 11; and Motocross racer Jessy Nelson on April 8.

While the docu-series chronicles the athletes’ physical rehabilitation, Button said one of the most critical elements of an athlete’s healthy recovery is good psychological care.

“When an accident like this happens, that athlete is dead and the next person is the reincarnation of what is left of his soul,” Button said. “The way you go through life changes. We help them get through to that second stage of life.”

— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune


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