I. One Hill Too Far
A tired Emma Dunn and her fiancé Andy arrived late to the motocross track in Craig, Colorado, on a July Sunday in 2006. Their pickup truck and trailer crunched over gravel into the parking zone, hauling Dunn’s bike and gear for her first race at the venue. A win that day would amass enough points for the professional racer’s license she craved.
She pulled on leather pants, a long-sleeve jersey, plastic chest and back shields, gloves, helmet and reinforced calf-high boots. Then she started the blue Yamaha YZ 250F motorbike, its engine growling braap-braap, braapity-brap, and hurried to practice.
Three consecutive hills rose from the track through a haze of dust and petrol fumes along one section of the Craig course. Jumping all three together would maintain speed and hand Dunn an edge over less-skilled riders. She sailed cleanly over the first two as a pair.
Normally Dunn, thirty-two years old with four years of competition experience, would watch more riders attempt a triple jump and test different gears to dial in the lift before trying it herself, especially on an unfamiliar course. But that day she decided to go for it while officials flagged riders off course as practice came to a close.
When the rear tire didn’t clear the third tabletop hill, the jolt slammed her pale throat against the metal handlebars. The impact bounced her off the bike. She can’t recount what happened next, but bystanders remember her falling twenty to thirty feet. Dunn flopped unconscious onto the earthen track.
As a volunteer tried to remove her helmet she opened her eyes and battered him with her fists. Maybe she was responding the way she knew best since childhood. Maybe she needed space because she couldn’t suck enough air into her lungs.
For the first time in her life, Dunn was terrified.
In the emergency room, Dunn squeaked, “Don’t cut my gear off” with a voice she hardly recognized, so unlike the bold one that recently told a female competitor to suck up the muddy conditions or sell her bike. She spit red streaks into a white cup and handed it to Andy.
Air escaped from the hole in her throat when she inhaled and inflated her neck instead of her lungs. Concerned about the possibility of organ failure and head injury, staff asked if she had her affairs in order in the event she didn’t survive the helicopter ride to Denver General Hospital. Then the doctor administered a sedation drug dose that put her into a medically-induced coma – or so he thought.
Andy returned to the track and loaded Dunn’s bike in the trailer. On the way to Denver he flashed by the state highway that led to Grand Lake, Colorado. In just three weeks he and Dunn were supposed to marry there, on a deck overlooking Shadow Mountain Lake. He scanned the sky for a helicopter.
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II. Crazy Curly
Motocross takes place on outdoor dirt track loops about one mile long, with slimmed-down versions of a motorcycle. Most women ride a competition-model bike with 250 horsepower that weighs about 200 pounds without fuel. Terri Miller, who met Dunn while racing motocross, says it only looks easy. “A lot of people don’t understand it as physically demanding. They see an engine and think you just twist a throttle.”
From the starting gate riders throw elbows to gain the lead as the track narrows into a curve to begin about thirty minutes of racing at speeds up to forty miles per hour. They complete dozens of squats in that time, rising off the seat to launch over a jump and sitting to absorb the landing. Only a death grip on the handlebars prevents the front wheel from popping out of ruts in corners; by the end of a typical race, Dunn couldn’t open and close her fists.
Today women make up less than five percent of motocross racers. In the U.S. they first filed into starting gates in the 1970s, about fifty years after the first form of the sport emerged in England. Motocross rules allow women to race in men’s classes, and, never one to shy away from battling against men, Dunn scheduled a mix of races in male and female categories.
In one men’s race, Dunn and a guy landed their jumps side-by-side in puffs of dust, her blond ponytail bouncing in the air. Each gunned it and aimed for the single fastest line through the next corner. She’d played this game of chicken a thousand times before. In a previous race in Brush, Colorado, a guy crashed her, remounted his bike and rolled over her, tattooing her torso with tire tread. Now as she aimed for the corner and stretched out her leg as a rudder, she sent the guy who had just landed next to her a silent message: “I’m not going to back off, so get out of the way or get stuffed.” He got stuffed.
“I’ve always had the need for speed,” Dunn now says. “Even as a wee child I was always doing everything at 100 miles per hour.”
Dunn grew up on a pig farm in England’s rural Lincolnshire where she strode around in Wellingtons, wore her wavy blond hair short and climbed trees with the boys. In that area the girls got around on horses and the boys on dirt bikes. Young Emma yearned for both, but her mum declared, “It’s a dirt bike or a horse.” Emma, who first sat a horse around age three, chose the horse.
The boys lined up to race their dirt bikes alongside a dike about a mile from the family farm, both feet planted on the smooth path while straddling their machines, engines shuddering. Emma would guide her steed to the opposite side of the waterway, press her knees gently into the saddle and hold the worn leather reins with a light tension as she leaned forward.
“I’m gonna kick your arse!” she yelled. When a kid dropped his arm to signal “go,” off she galloped. Clumps of dirt jetted from the horse’s hooves while the boys’ rear wheels shed rooster tails of soil. Minutes later the dust settled on the boys’ side. Emma turned her horse to face them, laughter animating her marine blue eyes. “My horse is faster than your dirt bikes!” she called out.
About the age of seven she curled her arms around her father’s leather jacketed midriff as they took off on his motorcycle for a ride near Cambridge, England. Once out of town he sped up. Emma poked her head into wind thick with the scent of sweet hay. “Faster, Dad, faster,” she yelled. She held on tighter to the man who piloted Royal Air Force planes and hadn’t lived with her since she was three.
Five years later she continued to find ways to ride petrol-powered wheels. At her best girlfriend’s home Emma commandeered the brother’s motorcycle and darted through orchards.
She eventually crossed the Atlantic to America and set down in Vail, Colorado, in 1999. There she met a motocross guy and at last acquired her own bike, a yellow Suzuki 125. The first day she sailed off a berm and put down with a soft thump, rubber side down. Trail riding led to track racing in 2002 at about age twenty-eight. She progressed unusually quickly.
Miller describes her friend as fearless. “Having the balls to be on a gate with thirty-eight to forty men with machines of 250 pounds underneath them going as fast as you can to be the first person to get to the first corner, that’s something. To be in that situation takes some cojones.”
Emma Dunn was perfect for motocross.
Once at the Thunder Valley track in Lakewood, Colorado, a woman took Dunn out during a race; screaming, the woman blamed her for the collision. Dunn spat out a few choice words, pushed her over onto the dirt, and zoomed away.
Her physical and verbal aggressiveness while racing was an extension of the thorny exterior she developed during childhood. “I was like, don’t fuck with me. I will kick your ass. Seriously, I will fight anybody, I don’t care who you are,” Dunn says as she reflects on her past. “I mean, all in a good way; I’ve never hurt anybody to a point where…[I’ve ever] gone to jail.”
When Emma was about six years old, her mum remarried. Emma didn’t like him. As she grew into a teen she clashed with her stepdad’s fiery temper at home and fired off harsh words like bullets, which kept most people at a distance. The rebellion carried over to school. She picked fights with students and teachers, and even earned the attention of the police, who once picked her up during a high school fight. She was grounded for a month.
Her toughness originated in part from growing up English, she says. Her British mum would claim, “Oh, you’re fine,” whenever she ran home with a broken finger or another injured body part as a young girl. “She’s never said she loves me,” Dunn says. “Not because she doesn’t. It’s just because you don’t show emotions like that.”
Today Dunn believes a physiological reaction to sugar may have contributed to the verbal and physical wild streak that earned her the nickname “Crazy Curly.” By her account she calmed down some by her early thirties, but her outspoken tendencies remained. “Up until before the accident, I was probably running my mouth a bit too much,” she says.
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III. Finding a New Speed
In Denver General Hospital, Dunn fought the sedation. She tried to get out of bed. Her fiancé later told her that he, his mother and two nurses struggled to hold her down. The doctor upped her medication and she relaxed back onto the sheets. A few hours later she tried to prop herself up again. The doctor further increased the medication, puzzled by the unusually high dose needed to keep Dunn down.
The accident had severed Dunn’s right vocal cord and stunned the nerve that energizes it. A surgeon reattached the vocal cord to its proper place, uncertain if the nerve would recover sufficiently for the vocal cord to manage its job of diverting food into the digestive tract and away from the lungs, where it could threaten her life. The way Dunn tells it, the drug-induced coma she slept in prevented her from swallowing and talking so that the repaired vocal cord and nerve could properly heal. The operation left a scar on her throat.
Even under the influence of an extremely high level of drugs, her body rebelled. Dunn twisted in bed. She tossed her head left and right, matting her hair into a thick clot. She tried to sit up. She latched onto the feeding tube to yank it out of her nose. One friend visited and found Dunn restrained with a harness, her hands and feet bruised and tied snugly to the bed railings.
Miller sat at Dunn’s bedside. She had seen the broken bodies left behind by motocross. Her two sons, both riders, had each been picked up by Flight for Life emergency helicopters. More than one person in her motocross circle had died while practicing the sport.
“I love you,” Miller told Dunn. “You’re going to be O.K., you tough cookie. We’re all praying for you.” Days later, when Dunn ran hot and her skin flushed, Miller would drape her body with wet paper towels.
Inside the cocoon of drug-induced sleep, others visited too. Dunn’s uncle Rob, who had passed away the year before, stepped off a steam engine locomotive that chugged along the circumference of the hospital room. He and two of Dunn’s cousins performed a cabaret act with top hats and canes. Another time, from her seat in an imagined wicker chair, Dunn gazed in black and white through her transparent arm and through the floor at injured men in woolen military uniforms who brought with them the smell of hundred year-old books.
Dunn’s mother, Stella, flew to Denver as soon as possible and watched her daughter every day. After the nurse eased Dunn’s circulation boots off, Stella squeezed thick lotion into her hands and massaged her daughter’s feet. Two weeks passed.
Doctors discontinued the sedation one week before the wedding. Dunn came back to life. Only it didn’t feel that way. Just two weeks earlier she had navigated a growling machine around a challenging obstacle course; now she felt handicapped. “It was embarrassing,” she recalls. “All of a sudden I couldn’t do anything. As soon as I put a foot down my legs collapsed. I thought, ‘Even if I want to get out of this hospital [and to the wedding], I can’t walk.’”
Growing up as a tomboy, she hadn’t entertained thoughts about walking down the aisle – she had pushed them away. But Dunn’s hidden wedding dreams came forward when nurses told her she would not walk down the aisle but instead return home in a wheelchair. She was determined to prove them wrong.
“When somebody says you can’t do it, then you think: ‘You know, I’ve always wanted to,’” she says. Walking down the aisle on the scheduled wedding day would also signify that everything was just fine. A Brit never shows weakness.
Supported by a harness, Dunn took five steps down the hospital corridor in the morning, then ten steps in the afternoon. Between walking sessions the nurse helped her to a seat by the window. After the nurse left, Dunn commenced pushups and leg pushes against the wall. By her count she completed three hours of self-directed physical therapy daily.
To leave the hospital, Dunn needed to demonstrate her readiness. First she had to prove she could swallow liquid and food into the right place. The repaired vocal cord performed that job well. But for a while she would refuse to laugh because she didn’t like the sound. During the three years it took to recover her voice – albeit a weaker, raspier version of the original – others could barely hear her. She would learn to pause and listen.
Additional assessments followed the swallow test. Gripping a cane and the railing, she labored up a short flight of stairs. She identified colors and matched round objects with round holes to demonstrate soundness of mind.
With three days remaining until the August 6 wedding, the medical staff insisted she stay. But she told them, “Nope, I have to be out today. That’s it, final answer.” They tried to force a wheelchair on her. No way, she told them. They offered a walker. She refused, leaving with a cane. Her fiancé forgot to bring a bra and underwear. So she departed wearing fuzzy hospital socks and the clothing he had brought: shorts and a tee shirt that swung loosely from her body.
Dunn entered the bridal shop for her final dress fitting the day after leaving the hospital. Over the past three weeks thirty pounds had melted away from her athletic, 135-pound form. Well-developed upper body muscles had atrophied; her breasts had shrunken. Garment zipped up, the bride-to-be raised her arms. The strapless dress of white silk with a train, unembellished save for a line of tiny buttons down the back, puddled around her ankles and calves.
Back at home one fistful of Dunn’s hair refused to untangle. So she cut it off. She was trying harder than ever to act normally, like nothing had happened. But when her sister pointed out the bald spot on the back of her head, Dunn cried. How could she be the pretty bride? “I’m kind of built a bit too tough,” she says. “But that did destroy me.”
The morning of her wedding, Dunn bronzed her skin with tanning cream. The hairdresser arranged her curly tresses to cover the bald spot. Makeup filled out her face. A sheer white scarf knotted at the back of her neck covered the scar on her throat, a reminder of the day she’d taken one risk too far and almost lost even more than her voice.
Before autumn arrived she would race again to secure that pro license. She received a letter stating she’d qualified for it but activating the license required a fee and Dunn didn’t send in the check. In 2007 she stopped racing motocross; then in 2009 she started fighting for wins in mountain bike races. Patches of her skin still turn white from a condition called vitiligo, which appeared after the accident. She still has that letter. She still hears braap-braap in dreams.
On the deck in Grand Lake, wedding guests who several weeks prior had wondered if Dunn would survive sniffled and dabbed their eyes with damp tissues. Then they turned in their seats to watch her approach.
Dunn smiled in the bright sunlight. Her mum gripped her arm. Without a cane, Dunn clutched a vermilion-colored daisy bouquet and took a first step.