Danny MacAskill: The Struggle To Imaginate

The story of a Red Bull athlete who was threatened by a potential career-ending injury and how he learned that bikes aren’t the most important piece of equipment.

Ed Millerby Ed Miller

There aren’t too many athletes who can use a bike like Danny MacAskill.  At 27, the Scottish-born Red Bull BMX rider has spent years trying to perfect the most intricate of tricks.  Like a surgeon, MacAskill meticulously pulls off his moves, using the most technical of combinations and maneuvers, as though the environment around him was specifically designed as his skatepark.

It has taken 12 years for MacAskill to become one of the sport’s best technical riders and has lead to numerous video appearances recently, including Industrial Revolutions and Concrete Circus, which combined his thrill of pushing the boundaries with his comfortability in front of the camera.

So when the folks at Red Bull – a company that has sponsored him for years – approached MacAskill to create his own film, he jumped at the opportunity.  The concept was simple: create a movie that took the level of his tricks to the extreme, with all the creative freedom that was necessary.  After agreeing to the proposal, MacAskill was excited and eager to begin one of the biggest projects of his career.

But the excitement wouldn’t last too long, as prior to production on the project – titled MacAskill’s Imaginate: Enter Danny’s Mind – he suffered a flare up of a previous injury.  Without any idea of the severity, MacAskill decided to get looked at – and it turned out to be serious.

Suddenly, not only was his new, career-defining project in jeopardy, but so was his career.

The injury, which he believed was to his lower back, had plagued him for years and it was time for MacAskill to seek professional medical attention.  It was then that he visited with the team from DISC Sports and Spine Center headed by Dr. Robert S. Bray Jr., one of the west coast’s top neurological spine surgeons.  Dr. Bray and his team recently began working with Red Bull through its High Performance program, thus allowing the company’s athletes to test their body’s boundaries.

MacAskill was certainly in good hands, as Dr. Bray has a lengthy résumé working with some of the world’s top athletes, spending a portion of his career assisting Olympians for Vancouver and London, while the last 20 years were spent performing minimally evasive surgeries for such professional teams as the Oakland Raiders and Los Angeles Kings.  Red Bull’s relationship with Dr. Bray and the staff at DISC began about four or five years ago, almost entirely thanks to word of mouth.

“Because of the cross between Olympians and Red Bull athletes, the company [Red Bull] had just seen our name again and again,” Dr. Bray admitted.  “It started on a handshake.  After taking care of a number of [athletes], we hammered out a formal arrangement, because Red Bull was very happy and the athletes were very happy,”

For MacAskill, he was still able to perform the sport he loved even with the injury, but not at the level he had pushed his body for so many years.  As a result, he lost much of the technical aspect to his riding, thanks to the inability to rely on his core strength.  The pain became simply too much.

“The biggest thing my back affected was actually my leg, so I had lots of other injuries with it,” MacAskill said.  “I was able to ride 60 to 70 percent, but when I’m filming I’m trying to ride 100-percent, so it was really holding me back.”

Dr. Bray knew his client was nervous about surgery and the recovery process that was involved with it. 

The BMX star had long been performing while battling injuries, but Dr. Bray discovered that because of MacAskill’s years of performance, the lowest disc in his back compressed and ruptured, causing the joint on the side to rotate.  It was as though the injury was causing an acceleration to the wear-and-tear that BMX had created.  According to Dr. Bray, the constant force to MacAskill’s body was worse than if he was getting laid out by a hockey player or a football player on a regular basis.