By 2006, many commentators considered Saul Raisin, a 23-year-old cyclist from Dalton, Georgia, the best hope of becoming the next American Grand Tour champion, in the mold of Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong. That Raisin rode at all was unlikely. Teased because of his curved spine as a teenager—the result of a condition called kyphosis—Raisin responded by focusing all of his determination on the bicycle. He first raced a road bike at 17; barely a year later, he missed his high-school graduation to compete in the Junior World Championship in Lisbon. Tests showed that, paradoxically, the condition had allowed Raisin to develop double the normal lung capacity and a heart nearly three times that of an average person. At 20, he won the Best Young Rider jersey at the Tour of Georgia and, shortly after, signed with one of Europe’s top professional squads, Crédit Agricole.
It was during a tune-up race for what was to be his first Grand Tour—the Tour of Italy—that Raisin’s bike skidded on a patch of gravel and he crashed. Even in a sport known for frequent and severe injuries, Raisin faced an unusually bleak prognosis. In addition to several broken bones, he suffered a subdural hematoma that required emergency brain surgery and left him in a coma for nearly a week.
His French doctors didn’t expect him to survive; they told his parents that even if he did, he would be paralyzed for life. Remarkably, a year after the crash, having had to relearn tasks like tying his shoes and eating, Raisin was back on the bike, competing in the U.S. National Time Trial Championships. Having retired from racing, today Raisin raises awareness about traumatic brain injuries through the annual Raisin Hope Ride and a foundation of the same name; with Dave Shields, he’s written a book about his accident and recovery, “Tour de Life: from Coma to Competition.”
Do professional athletes have a responsibility to others?
Winning is a small part of being a professional athlete. They are meant to give people hope, to motivate them. Of course, ultimately, to be responsible is a choice that each of us makes. Today, for me, that means using my hardship to help others get through theirs. To draw on my experiences to let people know that they, too, can make it.
What first drew you to cycling?
When I first got on a mountain bike, I was 15 and stocky—I stood 5’6’’ and weighed 180 pounds. What I liked about cycling was that there was a discipline for every body type: if you were lanky you could be a climber and if you were heavier you could sprint.
Many young cyclists find becoming a pro cyclist more challenging than they’d imagined. Did you set goals for yourself when you began to compete?
My initial goals were to make a living at racing by age 21, and to place top 10 in a major stage race. I was lucky enough to accomplish both.
When did you first realize the severity of your injuries?
I still don’t remember the crash. About a month and a half later, while recuperating at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, I logged onto the CNN Headline News website and read an article about my accident. It was the first time I realized just what had happened and how close I had come to dying. I was in shock.
What is the biggest misunderstanding about brain injuries?
How broadly and deeply they affect people. In my case, for two years after my injury I felt that I was in a fog. Even after getting back on the bike, I still had the mentality of a child. In December 2007, I married a woman I’d met at the Los Angeles airport two weeks earlier. We had talked a few times on the phone. Everyone tried to tell me that I was making a mistake, but my judgment was so poor that I didn’t listen. We were married not even a year. And poor judgment was only one of the lingering symptoms: there was also fatigue, slow processing, balance issues. I still have motor coordination problems with my left hand and leg, and the left side of my body is weak. Also, a piece of writing that an average person completes in one hour takes me an hour and a half; things that require cognition take me a little longer.
Where did you find motivation during your recovery?
The bike. All I wanted to was to ride my bike again. Riding helped my symptoms immensely. I know now that being highly motivated was something that set me apart from many others with brain injuries. I knew that something was missing and I wanted my life back.
When did you decide you wanted to help others who were living with brain injuries?
Statistically, I’m very lucky. Not even one percent of people with injuries as severe as mine recover to the extent that I have. When I woke up at the hospital, one of the first things I said to my parents was: “If I ever live a normal life, I want to give back to people like me.” When you’ve been given a second chance at life, how can you not give back?
Describe the work you’re doing today.
In the past three years we have raised more than $100,000 for brain injury research and treatment with proceeds from the Raisin Hope Ride and sales of the book I wrote with Dave Shields. My family and I participate in outreach programs; we go to hospitals, sit down, and listen. Sometimes a smile can tip the balance between life and death. We’re also working on a Big Brothers, Big Sisters-type mentoring program for people with brain injuries, and on better connecting these individuals and their families with the information and resources they need to achieve complete physical and emotional recovery. Of course, we also need to raise public awareness and understanding. My dream is to create a support network that isn’t really there right now.
What has been the most challenging part of that work?
Working with injured veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—tens of thousands of them are coming home with brain injuries. In 2007 I had the opportunity to give a signed copy of my book to nearly every person recovering in the Traumatic Brain Injury Ward at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It’s rewarding but can be challenging, too. Sometimes I sit down with a family of a veteran who has lost both legs and is still in a coma; it’s hard to see the pain in their eyes and not cry with them.
Do you miss professional cycling?
At the end of 2007, my team decided that racing posed too great of a risk to me and refused to let me return to competition. It was difficult but I accepted their decision and moved on. You know, if I could choose to be the person who could have won the Tour of Italy or even the Tour de France, I’d choose to be the person I am today. I couldn’t affect nearly as many lives when I was cycling.
Alex Halberstadt is the author of “Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life And Times Of Doc Pomus.” His writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Salon, and other publications.