Back in 2011, during a rather surreal NIKE competition in a former London swimming pool, we met young BMXer Kayley Ashworth who shone with a rather rare charisma and real skills on the bike. The kid exuded a real passion and commitment. Struck (maybe just in time) by fate, she had to get away from her favorite bike to deal with a nasty cyst in her spine. Now that she’s back with the same flame, let’s take advantage of the creation of this FISE Athletes Fund to salute her fight and inspire us all to put our daily worries into perspective.
What made you love BMX at first?
I was drawn to BMX as a teenager, watching riders be airborne and then watching them do tricks whilst airborne simply blew my mind, and I really wanted to achieve the same thing.
You were getting pretty good at this thing, tell us what your main accomplishments were back then?
In 2011, I was unable to enter a BMX competition as I was the only girl, so I gate-crashed the competition (thanks Webby) and became the first girl to backflip in a competing BMX environment. Obviously, I didn’t place because I wasn’t on the riders list, but my point was proven – we deserve our own BMX class.
How were girls considered in BMX at that time?
Back in 2010, girls in BMX were in no position to demand space in BMX competitions, besides, that would have meant cutting down on the number of guys in a class just to make time for us. By 2012, we found events holding jams for girl riders, I guess they were testing the water (as there weren’t many girls at this point). Most competitions are outdoors, so you have to bear in mind that events may need to play ‘mix and match’ with their schedule and it wasn’t uncommon for the girls’ jam to occur at 6 am on a Sunday morning.
How is it nowadays?
Thankfully, many women across the world now participate in this sport and we are in a position where a girls’ class is compulsory – especially since 2017 as BMX freestyle is now considered an Olympic sport. Now in 2020, and this past decade has seen a huge increase in female riders and a tremendous leap in level of riding. I think it’s great and I feel like a proud BMX mama!
For those who don’t know, your whole life changed in 2015, what happened?
I looped out of a backflip, fracturing my pelvis and spine (T9 compression fracture). The MRI looking at my spinal fracture showed a lump on my spinal cord, it would soon emerge that this ‘lump’ is a fluid-filled sack (cyst) placing constant pressure on my spinal cord and it’s been there my entire life (I’d simply ignored the symptoms). From here, I had to deal with a few things, first of all, I’d fractured my spine, so walking/sitting/moving and other simple tasks were far from simple, then I had to consider what my future was going to look like now that I knew of my spinal disease (syringomyelia). I was advised to not use a trampoline, an airplane or anything which could ‘jar’ my back – this is because the cyst could ‘pop’ at any point with a large enough impact, and if it popped, I would be in a very vulnerable position with high rates of losing the use of my legs completely.
What did you have to endure during the recovery process?
It was very hard and in some instances, I’m still recovering now. When I originally crashed, I was in the hospital for three weeks and I had every intention of getting back on my bike by the end of that year – little did I know that was impossible, but I remained confident. Throughout 2015-2016 I took the opinions of doctors very seriously (as you should), but sometimes you find yourself in a place where you are taking everything you are told, from pain relief to anti-inflammatories and for me, this amounted to taking ten different tablets a day, plus liquid morphine whenever I felt like my body was collapsing in on itself.
I reached a point where I became super frustrated at myself, watching daytime turn to nighttime and doing nothing other than medicating – yet, I wasn’t getting better? My bike was covered in dust!
By the end of 2016, I was not only recovering from the spinal injury, but at this point I was depending solely on morphine for some relief from this newfound life (let’s be clear, morphine is categorized as ‘end of life’ treatment, so my situation did not look promising). In 2016 my doctors attempted a spinal drain – this was in an effort to drain the cyst from my cord. Turns out, they missed and drained 25ml of healthy spinal fluid, leaving me with a bleed on the brain and a two weeks vacation in A&E. I came out of that procedure 2st lighter and with new symptoms to add to my diabolical list – I was sensitive to light, which I still am to this day, so you’ll see me wearing sunglasses A LOT.
How do you feel nowadays?
I wish I could tell you everything is fine, but it’s not. I live with this condition because I have no other choice, I am proud to be where I am now, I have overcome so many things! The cyst remains on my spine and so does the pressure, I’ve learned to identify what the symptoms are and how to remain calm whilst experiencing them because sometimes, I genuinely cannot breathe. Most mornings I wake up with some impairment to my legs, jumping out of bed and going straight to the bathroom is definitely a thing of the past, nowadays I will do some yoga before I even consider getting out of bed. It’s all neurological, all those messages which are sent up your spinal cord to reach your brain happen without you realizing. In my situation, sometimes I don’t receive the message in time and I can come across as someone who is slow/ignorant/clumsy – which I’ve had to learn is not true about myself, but true about my condition. I’ve been warned by doctors that if I have a child, pregnancy and labor can increase the risks of losing my legs. Equally, another crash on my bike could also be the reason I lose my legs. Or, I can carry on living and at some point, my cyst could cause enough pressure on my cord for me to lose my legs. So either way, my legs aren’t here forever. And I need to make the most. So back on the BMX I go.
From what I see you are now living one day after another, what have you changed in your life to adapt to this condition?
I changed everything, time and time and time again, it felt like I would never find a routine to suit, but eventually I gained some traction. Let me tell you what I’ve learned – your entire body is 70-75% water and we simply do not drink enough of it. I drink one pint of cold water before I do anything else every day. I also had to approach my mental health, I looked into why I was waking up and despising my existence. I needed something huge for this and this is where my love for hot/cold treatment was born, as simple as it sounds, getting in a freezing cold shower and standing in it (for as long as possible) changes your entire day. It took about four months for me to get used to this, as I would sometimes pass out from the instant temperature change (thanks for catching me, Joe) but I got through it and still continue to do it, daily. I stopped feeling bad for taking a nap. Resting is another huge factor, this is where your body truly has time to recover.
It was not rare for me to have up to four naps in a day and for some of those, I’d force myself to sleep because I was an unpleasant person at that time. If you are in pain, you become pain and you will amplify it, even if you don’t mean it. I had to find a new way of dealing with my pain, I couldn’t continue using morphine (even though my workplace was okay with me taking it and doctors were happy to repeat prescribe) I did it for myself, I had reached rock bottom. I found changing my pain relief routine the hardest part of all of my recovery, I never thought stretching whilst in pain would be good for the pain – but it is and you just need to work through it. I swapped Morphine for CBD.
I have found a huge amount of relief from the foods I consume – back to 2016 when I had an unsuccessful spinal drain, my body wouldn’t let me eat many things – by this, I mean if I smelled anything artificial, I would find myself in a vicious vomit cycle. So for six months, I roasted sweet potatoes and beetroots, mashed them up into baby food, and that was the main meal. After that, I progressed to smoothies. I swapped artificial foods for fresh, I use turmeric as a natural anti-inflammatory. Gut health became another priority – both your gut and stomach are the first to be compromised when you take tablets on a long term basis (including anti-biotics) so I found myself buying fermented foods to promote good bacteria in my body. I researched all natural remedies and I tried every single one, not all worked, but some stayed with me.
Tell us about your famous “happy juice”?
I make my own “happy juice” which has all of your seven a day fruit & veg, this way, I can guarantee I am getting the nutrients I need to give myself the best chance of a good day. I now have a diploma in nutrition and fitness – I even tried to be vegan, which I soon worked out was no good for me as I kept feeling faint, but thanks to that spell of being a vegan, I have cut out cows milk from my routine and I’m much better for it! (i couldn’t give up eggs though, sorry). Fun fact, spinal fluid is 80% water, so the only way you can recover from a spinal drain is to drink water, literally.
How decisive was the support of the BMX community in your mental strength?
In 2015, when I originally crashed, I had a huge amount of support from the BMX community, many messages, many gifts and many visitors. I didn’t speak out about many negative things at this point (like my sponsors dropping me via text message whilst I lay in a hospital bed). Unfortunately, by 2016 I was a shell of myself, attempting to find other things within the BMX industry to do – I commentated at NASS for the girls’ comp, where I had the microphone taken off me because I screamed down it after Izzy landed a T-bog haha! I attempted to run a couple of ladies BMX sessions, but shouting from the sideline didn’t cut it, I wanted to be on the ramps with the ladies. Which was impossible.
By 2017, I’m terribly depressed, the sport I’ve spent over ten years in has just announced its plans to take female BMX (alongside the males) to the Olympic stage. And what am I doing? I’m just sat here watching my dreams fade away, it’s cool. I didn’t want to speak to anyone in BMX because when I did, it felt like the world was taking huge strides without me, I had no present, no future, just a past. I was so devastated at this, I asked a friend to submit my Team GB riding application, she didn’t want me to miss out on the opportunity, but I didn’t want to face the emotional setbacks I’d face when applying for something I know deep down I’m not going to be a part of, I’m now classed as disabled, remember? I must have pestered, annoyed and frustrated so many members of the BMX community between 2016-2019, I’ve since learned that when you’re in pain, you amplify pain. I am thankful that the community has been patient with me. It wouldn’t be until 2019 that I’d regain the confidence to even speak to people within the BMX industry in person, I didn’t trust myself till then.
Did it help to have the goal to ride again?
As the child who would complain about walking (it makes sense now I know I have a lump on my spinal cord), cycling has always played a huge role in my life. From the moment I fractured my spine, my BMX became my wheelchair. I rode to my doctors’ appointments, they would even leave room for it in the waiting room during my consultation – which I LOVED. Riding my BMX is one of the top reasons as to why I am here today, I couldn’t picture my life without BMX in it, so I worked on getting myself as fit as I could possibly be, given my situation.
When and how did you come back to riding?
I embraced the mini-milestones:
2017 – I jumped my first box since crashing.
2018 – I learned the importance of a pump track and a pull-up bar.
2019 – I entered my first BMX comp.
I took on my own exercise regime based only on the movements I could make: let’s be frank, jumping, running, skipping, anything that required any high impact movement, was no good for me, it hindered my recovery. I decided the only way I can exercise, is gently and with my own weight.
Have you found most of your skills back? Or even more progression?
I’ve had the opportunity to go back to square one and learn everything again, I’m better at manuals now than I have ever been! Whilst I’m yet to throw another backflip and I don’t know when/if I ever will again – they’re such a cool trick, it’d be a shame to lose those!
In 2019, you entered the amateur contest at FISE, how did you feel?
In some ways it felt really good to be part of the scene again, it was 2011 when I first participated in a FISE competition and I was counting my lucky stars that I was sharing the course with other female riders. In other ways, I was a little unsettled during this event, a few rules have changed and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with current rider policies. The best part of attending this event was having the time to catch up with some faces I hadn’t seen for over five years, I couldn’t believe they remembered me!
The FISE Athletes Fund could bring more money to girls too, tell us how important it is for a rider to receive some support from the people, but also by receiving cash to support their passion?
To those fans who show up early in morning to support a girls’ BMX class, I applaud you, what legends you are! BMX for me, has never been about the money, I know of many girls who have self-financed their entire riding career and still to this day, receive no external support.