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Once-paralyzed supercross rider Jimmy Button to bicycle cross-country to raise money for spinal cord research

February 15, 2011 | 11:39 am


Supercross rider Jimmy Button vividly remembers the accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Remembers it as if it happened only yesterday, instead of 11 years ago.

"I can still remember it clear as day. It was one of those basic little falls -- I wasn't going very quickly at all -- I just fell down very slowly and hit at the wrong speed and at the wrong angle. It pinched my spinal cord and I had instantaneous paralysis," Button told Outposts.

Button, then 26, was starting his 11th season as a professional motocross rider. However, on Jan. 22, 2000, his life would drastically change in an instant. While practicing for the evening’s AMA Supercross Series race at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, Button went down in the whoop section and immediately went numb.

"The second I hit the ground I knew, I instinctively knew what was wrong, and when medic workers and various track workers got to me I basically told them that I was pretty sure I just paralyzed myself because I can't feel anything or move anything below my neck."

The injury sustained was a pinched spinal cord in the C-2 to C-6 region of his neck -- his second and third vertebrae -- leaving Button paralyzed from the neck down and considered an incomplete quadriplegic.

"A complete injury is when the spinal cord is severed; an incomplete injury is where mine is, where it's a bruise where there's always a glimmer of hope that something might come back to you, you may regain some function," said Button.

Still, doctors didn't hold out much hope, and told family that Button would likely never walk again.

"My records, which we have, say on the very first page 'give family zero hope for recovery.' I think there were maybe some people in the rehab center thought I had a chance but not the initial doctors," Button said.

Undated photo of Jimmy Button in action prior to his accident. "I had zero movement for about two months where nothing moved, nothing worked. I had no feeling and so I guess it seemed pretty bleak." Button, however, remained positive.

"I had really good people around me and I had my family around me all the time ... I never had the opportunity I guess to be sitting by myself scared out of my mind and really starting to dwell on it. I always had someone around never really letting me go to that place that you really start to get down and doubt yourself and doubt the situation you're in."

Things finally started to improve for the injured athlete.

"Once the swelling around my spine did go down I was able to get one of my fingers to move, and then my hand started to work and it kind of slowly but surely worked itself through the rest of my body." Button persevered, and within about four months, he was able to take a step or two, and at about five months he would walk, with a lot of assistance. "But it wasn't very far or very nice-looking, that's for sure," confided Button.

Button continued his rehabilitation, and has regained much of his mobility. "I was one of the lucky ones ... depending on if I'm having a good day or a bad day, I have somewhere between 85% and 95% of a recovery I would say."

Thankful that he's been given this "second chance," Button decided he wanted to do something to bring awareness to and raise funds for spinal cord injury research. That "something" is a cross-country bicycle ride, for which the impetus began Thanksgiving 2009.

"I was sitting on my couch and just watched a program about stem cell research and Dr. Keirstead at Irvine Center, and seeing some of the hurdles they were experiencing on the financial side of things with there being so many restrictions on government funding as it regards to stem cell research," said Button. "I felt really compelled to do something, since I've been given this second chance to use my arms and legs. I thought that if they had more money maybe a cure would already be there, so if I'm able to do something to speed that up by a day, a month, a year, I wanted to."

Button called his friend and trainer, Cory Worf, and asked whether he could ride a bicycle across the U.S. "He said 'right now you absolutely couldn't, but if you train the right way and stay committed within a year or so you definitely could.' That was it, the very next day I dove into this thing head first and never looked back."

Jimmy Button Now, 15 months later, Button is nearing his departure date for that cross-country bicycle ride, which will take him 2,428 miles -- from San Diego to Daytona Beach Fla. -- to benefit "Miles for Miracles." Leaving Sunday from Qualcomm Stadium and averaging 60 miles per day, the ride is expected to take nearly two months.

"I am extremely fortunate to have recovered from such a serious spinal cord injury. I want to help others that have experienced this traumatic and debilitating injury, while also bringing awareness of spinal cord injuries to the masses," said Button.

Though recovered, Button, 37, suffers from life-long injuries from the accident that will affect his ride. "My biggest thing is that I don't sweat and so it's very difficult for me to regulate my body temperature, which is one of the reasons we chose to do this in the winter." Button will have to medically monitor his temperature very closely the entire time, so Worf will be accompanying him.

Once the ride begins, followers can track Button's progress -- both across the country and fundraising as he aims to raise at least $1 million for spinal cord research. Donations, which can be made either online or by phone via text message, will go to Dr. Hans Keirstead at Reeve-Irvine Research Center at UC Irvine.

"I will be celebrating my recovery by riding for those who cannot," noted Button. "It has been a long journey for me to now be able to do this physically demanding journey, but I know that this will help bring hope to those that are trying to walk again through either inspiration or funds."

Outposts salutes Button and his heartening venture, and will attempt to keep readers updated on his progress.

-- Kelly Burgess

Video credit: Simon Cudby / Racer X Films via Miles for Miracles

Photos: (top) Undated photo of Jimmy Button in action prior to his accident. (bottom) Button is departing Sunday on a cross-country bicycle ride to raise money for spinal cord research. Credit: Jimmy Button