1 Sep 2020

Brook MacDonald: The broken back comeback

7:16 pm on 1 September 2020

A year ago to the day, Brook Macdonald broke his back.

The New Zealand downhill mountain biker suffered the worst crash of his career and lay semi-paralysed on the side of a Canadian mountain.

But testament to the strength and determination of the man they call "Bulldog", MacDonald has just left New Zealand for Austria, with plans to compete at October's World Champs.

"It has been a surreal year and my recovery has gone as well as it could. I can't wait to hook up with my team-mates and ride and race bikes again," he said.

Brook MacDonald (NZL).
2019 Crankworx Rotorua, Downhill event in Rotorua, New Zealand on 22 March 2019.
Photo Credit: Fraser Britton / Crankworx 2019

Photo: © Fraser Britton / Crankworx 2019

MacDonald is pumped to be back, but his mood was much darker the day his career almost ended.

Feeling confident after qualifying third fastest for last year's World Champs in Mont Saint Anne, he needed just a couple of practice runs before the race.

But he never made it to the bottom of the trail, hitting an exposed root on a rock slab that sent him off line and over the handlebars.

"I landed straight on my back and bounced about a metre into a ditch. I went to roll over and and I couldn't move or feel my legs.

"I knew straight away there was something seriously wrong. I don't remember too much becase I was in so much shock but I was wanting to get off the hill as soon as possible."

Semi-paralysed and in extreme pain, race officials tried to take MacDonald off the mountain on the back of a quad bike.

He lay suffering for almost five hours before a helicopter finally arrived.

"It was probably the worst day of my life, lying there and not knowing what was going on.

"I was in a lot of pain and the medication they were given me was pretty light and wasn't really doing anything for the pain. I was in agony for quite a long time."

MacDonald fractured his T12 and L1 vertebrae.

He had surgery and spent three weeks in hospital in Quebec before being flown to Burwood Spinal Unit in Christchurch, where he had to learn to walk again.

Despite being told his riding days might never be over, MacDonald wasn't content to just get back on the pedals, he wanted to race again too.

"After my surgery when I had everything fixed and put back into place and the pressure taken off my spinal chord and the sensation in my legs started to come back, that's when I started to believe I would race again. From when I started walking again, that's when I knew I'd be sweet."

MacDonald knew he'd be back on the bike, but recovering from a serious back injury and being back racing in just a year has exceeded even his expectations.

He says he's one of the few international athletes to have benefited from the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's been a blessing in disguise for me. It's given me more time to recover and strengthen things that I was weak in and work on stuff that I needed to work on. I've been pretty lucky."

Back riding down hills as fast as ever, Bulldog says his passion for bikes grew deeper during his rehab.

"I feel like I've found a new love for riding. Having such a big accident, that could have taken it all away from me, made me realise how much I enjoy riding my bike, whether it's racing or just riding with friends."

MacDonald plans on making this year's World Champs, scheduled for Austria in October, his first race since breaking his back at the same event in 2019.

So will the Hawkes Bay hucker have any second thoughts as he points his bike down the steep chutes of the Leogang track.

"I'd rather be riding my bike and die than live in fear. You never know what could happen, could cross the street and get hit by a car and killed. After my crash it made me realise how important life is and how fast it can change. You can't just sit on the couch and watch TV all day and night, that's not living."

Riding bikes down mountains at breakneck speed might not be everyone's idea of living, but for MacDonald, nothing else comes close.