Nitro Circus Star Bruce Cook on Returning to the Sport That Paralyzed Him

In 2014, freestyle motocross rider, Bruce Cook was attempting the world’s first double front flip to dirt amidst an arena of booming fans when he landed incorrectly. He became paralyzed from the waist down, but even as he was being wheeled out of the arena on a stretcher, he says he thought about getting back on a bike.

Nine months later he was riding again, and just one month after that he was attempting the sport’s first paraplegic back flip. This Sunday, July 10, at 3:30 p.m. EST, tune in to NBC for his 90-minute documentary, Never Say Can’t: The Bruce Cook Story. Chronicling the motocrosser's journey from the moments leading up to the crash to the road leading to his record-breaking stunt, the film has as much adrenaline as it does compelling emotion (the trailer above should convince you). We spoke with Cook about returning to the sport that paralyzed him and what this documentary means to him.

When did you discover your passion for action sports?

It was really early on, I got my first dirt bike when I was about five years old, and from there it was basically inseparable from the bike. I think it really became apparent when I was about 12 years old — it was stuck in my head that I wanted to ride a dirt bike for a living.

What went through your mind after the crash?

Well I mean, I was still sliding down the landing ramp from when I crashed, and it was terrifying and painful. I was conscious the whole time so I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I was slapping my legs with my hands and I basically knew I had broken my back right away, so that was terrifying — obviously the scariest thing that happened to me. Also this kind of weird peace came over me that, you know, my head was OK, and my neck was OK and I could still move my arms, and my upper body was basically fine…. Right off the bat, I was just thinking to myself that it could definitely be worse and I was alive at the end of the day.

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Walk us through the moment you were told you’d been paralyzed from the waist down.

As much as I knew [from the outset] that I had broken my back, obviously you’re going to keep hope. You’re just hoping that it’s not what you were imagining, and unfortunately it was everything that I was imagining: the worst-case scenario.

When did you decide that you wanted to continue to ride?

Right away, I was getting wheeled out of the arena on the stretcher and I knew that I didn’t want my last time in a show to be being wheeled out on a stretcher. So I knew I’d be back in front of a live crowd in some form. I went into surgery that night, and when I came out of surgery it was [that morning] when I came around that I knew I wanted to get back on the bike.

What sort of mental preparation did it take to actually get back on the bike?

It’s a crazy thing, I mean, there’s a lot of time obviously laying out in the hospital, where you’ve got hours and hours on end to think about it. So by the time I did get back on the bike I was definitely mentally ready just because of those months and months thinking about it. But at the same time you’re thinking about it and picturing it going well, and when it comes down to it, I really had no idea how it would go. I didn’t know if I was going to make it five feet and fall over and it would completely not work or if it would work out awesome. We ended up kind of nailing it and it worked out really good.

Were there ever moments where you felt like, “How am I going to do this?”

Yeah, there’s definitely struggles, and especially with adapting the bike; there’s not a whole lot of guys who are doing it. And I knew that I wanted to build the bike to jump and get back to it as much as I could. With that, jumping, it’s not the smoothest thing, so I definitely had some doubts about the hardware. My T9 to L1 vertebras fused, so I’ve got two rods in my back with screws. So it’s just thinking and hoping that those are going to be strong enough. It’s the worst injury I’ve had, and you don't want to get injured more. I think it’s just the passion outweighs that, and it’s a classic case of mind over matter.

What is your goal for this documentary?

With just doing the shows, it started out with my desire to do at least one more back flip and then one more show in front of the same crowd to prove to myself it was possible. After that first show the feedback was just so unreal; people were really into it. It’s awesome getting messages with people saying things they’ve tried, or what they haven’t given up on, or how they’ve just pushed through hard times because of my story or because they saw me at a show. So that’s pretty cool, and that’s honestly what’s kept me going. A lot of the reason that I’m still touring with Nitro Circus is just getting that feedback. It’s basically the same thing for this documentary… however many people don’t give up, then it’s all worth it for me. 

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