40mph to 0mph in BMX racing generally happens in two ways - instantly, or on the second bounce. Broken, dislocated, concussed, knocked-out, torn or sprained, are terms, I unfortunately associated with earlier in life than most. The faster I got, the harder I hit.
Growing up in the small town of Cambridge, New Zealand, gave me the freedom and safety to ride myself to the BMX track every day of the week. I would be teaching myself to achieve things no one before me had. Leaving school for an apprenticeship painting cars, I was working 65+ hour weeks, then putting in an additional 2-3 hours of training each night.
The majority of this time was with zero supervision or emergency services. I cannot count the number of times I woke up either alone, or with a mate leaning over, saying “Hey bro, you good? Here, let's walk it off”, while I was still processing which limbs are intact and in place.
My wrist had been broken 4 times and sprained countless others, all before age 16. I've seen my own bone on half a dozen different body parts, dislocated my collarbone from my sternum, tore my labrum dislocating my shoulder, broke an elbow, hands, fingers & thumbs, ribs, nose, ankles and a tailbone. Throw in career-long back problems…get the picture?
BMX is an individual sport but in 2004 I had the pleasure of being an original member of the New Zealand National BMX team. At age 19, in Paris, France, I became the first rider from NZ to reach the World Championships final at the professional level. BMX was also green-lighted to join the roster of sports included in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
That brought me to the launch of my professional sporting career at 20yrs old. With long work weeks and training hours, I had become a Professional BMX’er! At that time, I began basing myself out of California. I wanted, and needed to compete more, to make sure I hadn’t been getting lucky.
I don’t know what would have been better: the naivety of a kid to brush off every impact with a ‘meh’, or as an adult now absorbing heavier blows and swallowing pain and inflammation meds.
Traveling the world, what seemed like every 3 weeks on your country’s dime, is an incredible way to spend your 20’s. Along with 2-5 other Kiwi riders I spanned the globe accruing Olympic qualification points, watching riders come and go as injuries, pressure, or a waning desire to succeed forced early retirements and new blood to come on the scene.
I was fortunate in only requiring one surgery during my lifetime. It was due to that shoulder that refused to stay in position. The numerous corticosteroid injections in my shoulder only masked the pain, and when my DIY tape system didn’t hold, they did nothing to stop my arm from going instantly numb when it did pop. That’s not fun whilst racing a BMX bike.
I noticed over recent years that driving at night was becoming difficult, as was racing indoors due to the glare coming from all the lights. But the doc said I had perfect vision. That's the first time I remember putting pieces together and questioning myself that I may have a problem.
The message had been loud and clear since the 1930’s, drugs are bad, except for those little white ones. I was happy to take what the doctor prescribed and had no reason to believe there was an alternative out there.
What started as a tool to deal with traveling for my BMX career ended up in a long & harmful 10 year sleeping pill addiction. The long-haul flight from New Zealand to everywhere else in the world is grueling. Pills for the flights and jet-lag adjustment were par for the course. Then they were needed to counter the caffeine and other supplements I took during race days. I’d then take more because I’d get nervous in days leading up to events. Near the end, it was every day. I couldn’t sleep, anxiously waiting for the next race which was weeks or months away. While doctors kept prescribing more with no questions asked, I was beginning to notice the harm it was doing and became aware of just how far this addiction had come.
The morning of the 2014 BMX World championships I woke up, somehow, to realize I had taken 18 pills during the night. A concoction of some that I’d take early in the night to mellow me out, then the good stuff that I took once it was time to shut down. It was a foggy start to the day, this time a little more so than normal, but nothing a few thousand milligrams of caffeine and energy drinks wouldn’t fix, right?
One delayed reaction during those World Championships was the cause of an accident that left a slim chance of me returning to full physical strength. Hitting the face of a jump at 40mph, impacting dead on my thigh, separating the sub-dermal fat from the underlying fascia, I had de-gloved my left leg. That Morel-Lavallée Lesion was inevitably the career ender.
This was dedication. That is what it took to become a multi-time World Cup champion, USA ABA National Champion, and double Olympian.
Quitting sleeping pills with what felt like a broken femur while having to fly home from Rotterdam, Netherlands, to the US is something I’d try to avoid doing again.
At first, I stopped cold turkey and struggled to adapt to live on 0-5 hours of sleep each or every other night. I was an entirely new type of zombie.
I don’t hold anybody accountable for anything. It was self-inflicted and any pain or concerns were quickly suppressed by my self-enrichment of adrenaline and success. But what if I’d been told of another option? I had to find a healthy alternative.
Other than a few tokes as a teen, my knowledge of the plant was nonexistent. My now brother-in-law offered a bong hit one night and aside from instantly rocking my world, I slept amazing. Upon waking, there was no longer a fog weighing me down trying to keep me in bed. I now woke completely recovered, ready to get up and attack another day. I realized this “drug” was allowing me to get to sleep and also sleep right through the night.
Being subjected to both random and in competition drug testing from 18 years old and dedicated to being the best I could, I kept a clean book from start to close-to-the-end of my career. For over 10 years we were required to submit a ‘Whereabouts’ every quarter; a schedule including the when and where of every training session and a daily 1-hour window where you must be present.
I think, at least for the night, I convinced myself that California’s quasi-legal medical system gave me immunity from prosecution. As my daily 1-hour window closed without a request to piss in a cup, I got to work researching this amazing plant for efficacy and how I can consume it legally. It turned out that out of competition testing didn’t test for cannabis, with in competition testing allowing a generous 150ml/ng of THC. It was actually the drug chaperone who informed me of this information. I had the all clear to consume.
I got really stoned to begin with, really stoned. But thinking back to a 15-year-old me smashing back a bottle of Jim Beam, it was no different. I had no idea how a sip of whiskey would affect me, let alone entire bottles. It took time to build a tolerance with alcohol. The same goes for Cannabis. The difference afterward, however, was clear. Zero hangovers and zero chance of death. Can you over-consume cannabis? Absolutely. Overdose and die? No.
Cannabis is also a neuroprotectant. October 7, 2003, the United States received its Patent for “cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants.” Perhaps a daily CBD/THC supplement as that youngster, pre-inevitable concussions, could have thwarted any potential risks for CTE later in life.
So why am I told it’s so harmful to consume my drug of choice? I was always hallucinating, shit, I was tripping balls on sleeping pills, but since smoking weed, my dragon friends are yet to return. What a buzz kill, right?
It can get me motivated, energized, creative, or happy. It allows me to rise from bed and not be forced to limp while clutching at back pains just to take a few steps. Insomnia eventually became a non-issue and I now sleep peacefully without nightly consumption.
I use cannabis and cannabis-based products like topicals, beverages, edibles and a wide range of others as required. They loosen my joints to help me work out, or to recover, to increase focus, take the pain away, and yes, to simply get as high as I can because I enjoy it.
Sleeping pills are a thing of the past.
Standing alongside NFL players, NHL enforcers, MMA fighters and others to force a change is a story I’m proud to help tell. Athletes For CARE is a global network, founded by former professional athletes, for athletes, each with their own story of struggle and experience, advocating for research and education.
I can’t begin that BMX career again. Nor do I dwell on what could have been. What I can and will do is help others and encourage their own research. That’s why my outreach has shifted from friends and family to the public forum. Unlike others, I have nothing to be scared of, my contracts have long expired.
I have been spiraling down this rabbit hole for 4 years now. My dedication is equal to that of the kid who refused to leave the BMX track, disturbingly eager to learn no matter the challenges. Only this time, it’s for your benefit, not mine.
Marc Willers spent over 10 years as a professional BMX Racer. Moving from New Zealand to America in 2010, he became the 2011 ABA National Champion. Marc was a multi-time World Cup Champion who competed at both 2008 & 2012 Olympic Games.
Retiring from BMX in 2015, after successfully kicking a career long sleeping pill addiction and 25 years of concussions and injuries, he now looks to help current and future athletes understand the benefits and alternative options in cannabis.