TOKYO — Connor Fields plunged down the mountainous ramp at the start of a BMX race, a semifinal in the Olympic competition most considered him the favorite to win. At the bottom, he began to pedal furiously, from the left side of the track, near the front of the pack as it barreled, the riders clustered together, down the first straightaway.
All Friday, the first turn—a sharp bank left with a steep incline that required riders to steer up, lean left, turn their wheels and fly back down—had proven problematic, even for athletes who see crashing as an occupational hazard. That went for both the men’s and women’s semifinalists competing to make the Olympic final. Fields won that race four years ago in Rio, leaving with a gold medal he had every intention to defend.
Just before that particular turn, in this particular race, the front wheel of Fields’ bike appeared to clip the back wheel of the only competitor in front of him. Fields skidded, lost his balance and crashed into the turn. Worse yet, this caused a pile-up and two riders behind Fields rolled over him on their bikes. His head appeared to collide with the track, as his body rolled over, bikes and bodies flying by. It hurt to watch and prompted immediate concern.
Medics and volunteers rushed onto the course, a stretcher not far behind. They huddled around Fields for what felt like 10 minutes or so, as the spectators fell silent and the broadcast waited, ostensibly out of respect and apprehension, to show the replay. Eventually, several folks clad in blue Tokyo 2020 gear carried Fields off the course on that stretcher. They took him outside the venue immediately.
U.S. teammate Alise Willoughby warmed up for her next run nearby the course. She could be overhead telling a fellow competitor that Fields was in an ambulance, headed toward the hospital.
Back in Las Vegas, Mike Fields watched this nightmare unfold on television with understandable concern, his pain and worry unfathomable and impossible to explain. He knew the sport his son competes in, because he introduced him to it, after spying a flyer for a BMX race in 1999 and buying Connor his first bike.
In a text message exchange, Mike said he was “not in a good place right now” and waiting for an update from the hospital where Connor had been taken to. What he knew at 1:15 p.m. Thursday in Tokyo was that his son was “alert, answering questions and moving all his limbs.” That said, Mike said his son was in pain and “quite subdued” and undergoing CT scans on his head, spine and abdomen.
Mike wrote that he expected to get an update in “a couple hours.” He said that he was trying to be pragmatic, perhaps as an “avoidance tool.”
“There’s always a yin and yang to the world and how it works,” he typed. “We enjoy the highs of the success and all that comes with it but the other side of the coin is exactly what we’re dealing with now, which (are) the risks and consequences if things go badly.”
This crash, he wrote, “is one of those times we just have to trust in the universe.”
While they waited, Mike remained in frequent contact with Connor’s mother and fiancé. “I’m terrified but helpless,” he said.
Fields's mother posted another update Thursday stateside while her son recovered in Tokyo, saying her son was "still constantly sleeping but is cogent and communicative when awakened. Latest CT scan shows no additional brain injury and no additional bleeding," resulting in his removal from ICU critical care to high level care, and that he wouldn't require surgery.
USA Cycling released an update Saturday that Fields sustained a brain hemorrhage at the race venue and spent the night in the intensive care unit. Doctors report that he has had no additional bleeding or new injuries, and that he has moved out of the critical care unit and will stay at the hospital until cleared to leave.
I profiled the two of them nine years ago, before the London Games, for another outlet. Only 19, Connor had already won three-straight World Cup final races. He was prodigious; so skilled, in fact, that Mike King, then the BMX program director for USA Cycling, told me, “We have these moments where we watch him, and we’re like, 'He’s really going to hurt himself.' And then, at the last millisecond he can bring his bike back together. He’ll throw it sideways, and when it looks like he’s going into the face of the jump, at the last second, he’ll land.”
“I watch in amazement,” King said. “You can’t teach that.”
Still, this is BMX racing, so there are crashes. They are as inevitable as winners, part of the sport’s landscape. Before London, Mike told me about one crash his son had suffered at the 2010 junior world championships in South Africa, where Connor led the entire way but spilled in the final lap trying to record the fastest time of the competition. For seven months afterward, Connor rarely left his room, suffering from depression. He registered for classes at UNLV, wanting to become a physical therapist. But then he met a coach, Sean Dwight, who told him, “You have the ability to win the Olympic Games.”
Connor placed seventh in 2012, after crashing in the Olympics. He broke a wrist in March of 2016, and the injury required emergency surgery. But he recovered in time for the Olympics in Rio to seize gold, despite having only two months to train.
In ’18, the champion went through what he would call “the scariest injury of his life” at the national championships. He posted on social media that he had hit his head, woken up strapped to a body board in an ambulance, en route to the hospital. He said that medics inside the ambulance had told him he’d suffered a seizure on impact and been knocked out cold. But he was cleared in a few months and returned to competition.
Before Tokyo, he wrote lovingly about his parents, their support and how he figured this would be his final competition. When it ended, he was in the hospital, as strangers across the world prayed for him. His competitors, the three medalists, said similar things to what Connor himself had said before. They heard the slam when he crashed. They understood the risk. They knew that anything could happen.
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