Dave Mirra: 'He was a superhero'
The first time Kevin Robinson met Dave Mirra, neither had won a major BMX contest, graduated from high school or met the women they would fall in love with and eventually marry. The X Games was still years from debuting in Robinson's backyard of Providence, Rhode Island, and Mirra had yet to follow his older brother, Tim, to Greenville, North Carolina, the town he would transform into a BMX destination just a few years down the road.
"We were just two skinny little kids laughing and riding and having so much fun," says Robinson, a four-time X Games gold medalist and a BMX analyst for ESPN. It was 1989; Robinson was 17, Mirra was 15 and they were competing in a BMX vert contest being held in a warehouse in Long Island, New York. Robinson had driven 3½ hours from Providence; Mirra five hours from Chittenango, New York.
"We rode all night long," Robinson says. "All the other guys were sleeping on the ramp, but we stayed up riding and laughing. That's the memory that comes to mind today, us riding and giggling. All the years of being on tour together, those are the moments that stand out, the times when he could let his guard down and just be Dave."
Thursday's news hit with a shock. Texts and phone calls filtered throughout the action sports community as the news of Mirra's death traveled like an uncontrollable wave of inconceivable sadness. Friends asked if the report of his suicide was a hoax, some texting Mirra directly to confirm its falsity. It seemed impossible to believe that one of of the greatest and most influential action sports athletes of all time, a man loved and revered by those who knew him well, and those who knew him simply by his accolades and impact, had taken his life. He was 41 and leaves behind his wife, Lauren, and daughters Madison, 8, and Mackenzie, 6.
"There's so much that hurts, so many tears, so many unanswered questions," says Ryan Nyquist, one of Mirra's best friends, greatest competitors and for many years his roommate in Greenville. "There were so many years left, so many laughs, so many special moments that will never be."
In the days and weeks to come, Mirra's friends, family and fans will struggle to make sense of this. They will wish he were here to sit beside them, read the tributes and feel the love. They will rally together to begin an overdue conversation about depression and heroics, and they will fight to prevent this from happening to another within their ranks. But today is not about how or why Dave Mirra died. Today is about taking a moment to remember the man he was and to celebrate the manner in which he lived.
X Games BMX rider Dave Mirra, in memoriam
Dave Mirra, the versatile BMX freestyle rider who owned the most X Games medals in history through the summer of 2013, died on Thursday of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to police in Greenville, North Carolina. Mirra was 41.
It is a testament to the power of a moment in Mirra's presence that so many of his friends, people who have known him for decades and forgotten more inside jokes than they've held onto in their minds, are able to remember vividly the day they met.
"The first time I saw Dave was in the '90s," BMX icon Mat Hoffman says. "There are people you see with such natural talent it's as if they were born to ride a bike. I saw him and the first thing I did was give him one of the very first of four prototype bikes I made. I said, 'I would be honored if you would ride a Hoffman bike.' "
"It's so clear," BMX pioneer Dennis McCoy says. "I was 20, Dave was a 13-year-old kid. We were at a contest and our team manager introduced him. Dave was a fan and I showed him a couple tricks. We spent five minutes riding together. Not long after that, in 1989, he passed through Kansas City and we rode my ramp together."
During the next decade, Mirra and McCoy became inseparable as they traveled and competed together, even riding to the theme song from "Laverne & Shirley" -- "And we'll do it our way/ Yes our way/Make all our dreams come true" -- during BMX Doubles at the 1998 X Games. They performed demos as part of the iconic Sprocket Jockeys team that included Hoffman, Steve Swope and Rick Thorne. Mirra was the youngest of that legendary bunch and he looked to his teammates as friends, mentors and big brothers. They looked at him as the most gifted among their ranks.
"I remember being at a BS contest in Chicago in 1994," McCoy says. "He hadn't competed in a while and he confided in me that his confidence was low that day." Less than a year earlier, a drunk driver had hit Mirra while he was crossing the street. Mirra suffered a fractured skull, a dislocated shoulder and a blood clot on his brain. The months of rehab were painful and arduous, and his future in BMX was uncertain."
Big brother wasn't about to let his doubts get the best of him. "I didn't give him a chance to go there," McCoy says. "I told him I knew he could do it. Then [during the street contest], he did this fufanu on the side of a beam that no one would touch."
After his run, which would eventually win the comp, Mirra rode up to McCoy and his fellow competitors and said he hoped they knew they were riding for second.
"He went from not believing he could compete to telling us to be satisfied with second place," McCoy says. "I've thought about that a lot today, how he could go from being totally unsure to being super confident within a five-minute span. For whatever reason, he wasn't able to snap out of that place fast enough yesterday."
I've thought about that a lot today, how he could go from being totally unsure to being super confident within a five-minute span. For whatever reason, he wasn't able to snap out of that place fast enough yesterday.Dennis McCoy
Ken Block remembers the confidence, the need to try, fail, make mistakes and learn for himself. When Mirra began racing rally cars, Block -- who'd been competing in the Rally America series for a couple of years -- offered to give his friend some advice. But Mirra wanted to follow his own path.
"Dave was very hard-headed," Block says. "Sometimes he made it harder for himself, but I respected him for it because that's what got him to where he was. He was always true to himself."
Block, a co-founder of DC Shoes, signed Mirra to DC in 2001. "I've been very lucky to work with and become friends with the most talented athletes in the world," Block says. "Guys like Dave, Jeremy McGrath, [Travis] Pastrana, Todd Richards, they come along only once in a great while. One of my favorite memories is watching Dave and Travis argue about who had more X Games gold medals. It was mind-boggling. And it was a testament to how much talent they have and dedication they put in that they could even have that argument. This is tragic, but I won't remember the tragedy. I will remember the positives and honor him as the legend he was, as a dedicated father and athlete."
"He is an icon of BMX, a pioneer and for X Games one of the true legends," X Games vice president Tim Reed says. "But what you loved was his personality. It was as stellar as his skills. We were fortunate to be around him for a lot of years."
Chad Kagy says he meant to call Mirra, to ask him for advice. This has been a difficult year for Kagy, a four-time X Games gold medalist. He broke both of his heels and a vertebra in his back, and tore his ACL in a crash during Big Air practice at X Games in Austin last June. The road back has been longer and more painful at times than even Kagy believed he could handle. He knew his friend could talk to him about pain. He was the rider they called "Miracle Boy" -- the guy who survived being hit by a car, the suicide of BMX rider and friend Colin Winkelmann, and a near-fatal bout with bacterial meningitis. If anyone had advice about recovering from brutal setbacks, it was Mirra.
"I had this gut feeling that I wanted to call him," Kagy says. "Now I can't make that call."
Kagy says the stories of Mirra's dueling personalities come to mind first. Mirra was intense, yet reserved. Competitive and giving. He was impossibly proud, yet humble enough to say, "I'm sorry." He was the walking, peddling embodiment of Newton's third law: For every action with Mirra, there was an equal and opposite reaction. As Kagy shares story after story, he vacillates between laughter and incredulity, anger and disbelief.
"Years ago, we were riding in a contest in England and I gave Dave a run for his money," Kagy says. "He ended up beating me. I got second or third. When they announced his name, someone standing near me yelled, 'BS! No way the Miracle Boy won.' Dave heard that, assumed I agreed and for a couple years, he held a grudge."
Then, a few years later, Mirra walked up to Kagy after a riding session at Camp Woodward in State College, Pennsylvania. "He said, 'I'm sorry for holding a grudge against you for something someone else said. I'm disappointed in my actions.' It was a true sign of sportsmanship, of being a strong, upstanding man. Friendship always meant more to him than medals."
At ESPN The Magazine, we considered Mirra part of our "Coalition of the Willing," a group of athletes we could call upon for quotes and participation in projects on deadline. He always came through. "Especially when it mattered," former editor-in-chief Gary Belsky wrote in an email. That last part is key. Mirra wasn't always willing. But when he said yes, he threw himself into whatever he was doing with his whole being.
Katie Moses Swope has known Mirra for 20 years. Her husband, Steve, was part of that iconic Sprocket Jockeys crew and Moses Swope spent more than a decade in the PR department at X Games. In the past few years, she became Mirra's personal publicist. They had a call scheduled for today. But it's a fashion show in 1999 she can't get out of her mind.
"When we were in San Francisco, X Games partnered with Macy's," Moses Swope says. "Danny Way, Nyquist, Carey Hart all agreed to model Tommy Hilfiger clothes. I thought, 'No way Dave will be into it.' But he said yes and he worked that runway, rocked those Tommy Hilfiger jackets. He treated that fashion show like any other competition. He was going to be the best."
When a request came through X Games PR for an athlete to visit a children's hospital or take part in a Make-A-Wish event, Mirra was the first athlete to raise his hand. "He loved working with kids," she says. "His passion came through in everything he did."
He was known for saying "without commitment, there would be no success," and he often accompanied his Facebook and Instagram posts with the hashtag "beadadnotafad," encouraging the guys around him to follow his lead and take part in the lives of their children. His daughters even competed in triathlons with him.
"I met Dave at his first rally in 2007 and he was such a welcome addition to the paddock," says rally driver, co-driver and analyst Jen Horsey, who raced against Mirra at the 2008 X Games in Los Angeles. "He was super-analytical, intense and focused, but with a real kindness and gentleness. I can only imagine how hard it must be to go from being the best in the world to being a rookie. It's humbling to start from scratch, but Dave was open and so committed to putting in every scrap of hard work to succeed. We all admired that quality in him."
After watching his friend compete in an Ironman in Lake Placid in 2012, Mirra hired a coach and began learning how to turn a body battered by years of riding BMX into one that could run and swim long distances. At rally races, while his peers relaxed in the paddock, Mirra would change into his running shoes and complete half-marathons by lapping the rally tracks, morphing his body into one of an elite endurance athlete. Within a year, he placed fourth overall at a 70.3 in Galveston, Texas, which qualified him for the IRONMAN North American Championships in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec. When he was offered a celebrity spot to race in the IRONMAN world championship in Kona, Hawaii, he turned it down. He wanted to earn it on merit, not his name.
"He was a superhero. He could do anything on a bike," Hoffman says. "Dave was the strongest dude any of us ever knew. I don't understand how we are dealing with this today. He was superhuman. I'm thinking of his family and the struggle they will go through without him. But I hope he is remembered as a sensitive badass who was an amazing husband and father and friend."