It’s been almost one year since professional trials rider, and Nitro Circus athlete, Phil “Smagical” Smage suffered life-changing injuries when his attempt at breaking the world record for the longest distance jumped in a UTV went horribly wrong. If you spend any time on social media, you’ve likely seen the videos of his massive crash—Phil himself has posted about it and updates his fans daily on his recovery via Instagram. Since the crash, Smage has dealt with everything that comes with a severe neck injury/becoming paralyzed in the most hardcore, uplifting, gnarly way most of us have probably ever seen. Once fundings and insurances would no longer allow for traditional means of therapy, Phil took it upon himself to rehab his body the best way he knew how—taking it to the good ol’ outdoors.
If you follow him on Instagram, you’ve probably seen him shoveling snow, walking with his goats, using power tools, and anything else he can do to advance his recovery time. Recently he’s even begun riding again, first on his snow skate, and now back on pit bikes and his trials bike.
We caught up with Smage earlier this week to have a chat about where he’s at now nearly one year later, his unorthodox therapy methods, future plans and goals, and more. During this interview you’ll realize that conforming to paralysis, trusting doctors when they said he’d never walk again, and letting the dark days win are not exactly Phil Smage’s way of doing things.
Racer X: It’s coming up on basically a year since the accident. Do you want to just remind people what your injuries are and were, and just kind of give us an update as where your life is now versus when the accident happened?
Phil Smage: Right now, life is crazy because I’m driving down the highway with two goats and a cat in my car. So I guess for me that’s just close to back to normal as I have been since the crash, for sure, if normal would be the word for that. Two weeks from now is the one-year anniversary. It’s still slightly up in the air, but I’m making plans to try and go back to the scene of the crash at Brimstone down in Tennessee and try and join the Nitro Circus show that’s happening. It just so happens that there’s a Nitro Circus show happening at the same location on the exact same date from the crash. So I feel like that was a sign saying that that should be my first show back. So that’s my goal is to ride that show on the one-year anniversary. I can’t even really put it into words how far it’s come since a year ago.
My injuries were pretty severe. I had exploding burst fractures to [my] C4, 5, and 6, so pretty much that means my vertebrae blew up into a bunch of tiny pieces and some of those pieces jammed into the spinal cord and that’s what paralyzed me. From the neck down I was paralyzed for a bit. I kind of put it out of my memory exactly how long. I’ve been trying to think forward, not think back so much. The neck injury was the main thing, but then there [were] numerous other broken bones: collarbones, wrists, a whole bunch of ribs and foot and all that good stuff.
The good thing about it was I couldn’t feel any of those broken bones because I couldn’t feel anything. So I was able to actually start therapy a little bit early because broken ribs—I think we’ve all had them—they suck to do anything with, but when you’re paralyzed you can’t feel your broken ribs, so it doesn’t matter if you’re doing therapy or not. I kind of got to jump the gun on therapy a little bit there early on. Like I said, to come from that position of sitting there and being told that you’ll not only never do any type of motorcycling again, but much less walk or anything like that, was just crazy to think back and think about hearing that and how it felt and now to be doing what I’m currently doing is just… Dude, I can’t. Like I said, there’s not really even words for it. I don’t really know how—I wish I knew exactly how I was able to get back to this point, because then I would tell every single spinal cord injury patient out there exactly what to do, but I just don’t know how or why I was so fortunate. I know I worked at it every single day, and tried to stay as positive as I could. Really, I guess I got really lucky and fortunate on top of that.
For those who might be reading this and aren’t familiar with your story, let people know when you talk about where you’re at and this point, you are back walking. You still are recovering, but not only are you riding a motorcycle again; you’re walking, using chainsaws and kind of sort of living a little bit of the life you were living prior to this.
So the biggest issue aside from obviously anytime you damage your spinal cord there’s going to be things that you just are going to have to deal with for life, for myself obviously there’s going to be a lack of range of movement in my neck forever because it’s fused from C3 to C7. I will never get that movement back. Aside from that there is going to be muscle spasticity, which is almost like having a full-body cramp, or it forces your body with severe, like the worst cramping pain and inability to move. Every morning when I get up, my body kind of goes into spasms. Then if I sit for too long and I get up it’ll do the same thing. Or if I use any one muscle, especially my arms and hands, for too long then they kind of just seize up and lock up. The muscles just kind of cut out.
That’s what you want to have while you’re about to use a chainsaw, right?
[Laughs] I kind of pushed the envelope on recovery as far as “safe” versions of therapy. But to be honest, I really think it’s all these crazy things that I’m doing for therapy, and also that I’m just putting myself back into that situation. Those situations are why some of the things are starting to come back, and these connections are being able to be re-firing. I did everything I could at therapy through as long as my hospital visits lasted, and then even continued my home program. It wasn’t until I made myself get back on a bike that the connection from my brain to my hands and to my triceps and pecs actually started happening, for one at all, and then started doing it with more consistency. It’s more, I’d say, dependable on when I send a message from my brain. More times than not, it’s starting to get to the spots that it didn’t get to before which was namely my hands, fingers, arms, and chest. I really think it’s putting myself back on the bike. Whether it’s the vibrations of the bike or just the muscle memory or whatever it is, it’s really started to re-fire these connections that none of my therapists—we couldn’t find a way to make it happen, outside of darn two-wheel therapy.
Basically, with that too is your mental status, your mindset. I have to imagine you’re happier and more motivated to go out and try and cut down some brush or do outdoor things versus sit inside a therapy gym.
Oh, yeah. Actually until you brought that up, that actually kind of triggered something I’ve noticed. Since I have been outside and doing my own thing, more to speak, I just go for so much longer. I think at therapy—I know they had reasons why they would only have it for a certain amount of time, but back when I was in therapy in the hospital I just wanted to keep going. Is there a record here? What’s the record for longest “this?” What’s the record on “this?” What can I do here? Then they’d be having to kick me out of the gym and stuff. So now that I’m doing my own things that I am more passionate about and I just have more desire to keep pushing, I think that’s why instead of kind of getting stagnant and plateauing off in my recovery after therapy, I think I’ve actually started ramping it up and going even more so. I think you’re actually right. It’s because of all the passion behind it now, instead of just going through the motions that the therapists give me, which I did and I did it as hard as I could. But now I have more potential to go longer, further, and with more passion behind it.
Do you still have days where your body is like, “You’ve been pushing it really hard all week—we need a little bit of rest?” When you go to bed at night, do you rest all through the night and you wake up ready to go the next day? Or do you have days where you’re like, man, I need to just kind of chill a little bit today.
No, there’s definitely those days. I like to push my body, especially arms, until I just really can’t use them anymore that day. No matter what, I already know that in the mornings it’s going to be a slow, hard to get moving start, just because that’s the way my body is now in the morning. Like I said, the spasms are worse. Everything’s tighter. Everything’s just worse in the morning. I know it’s going to be like that. So I push myself as much as my body can go. Not every single day, because that would be just crazy, but as many days as possible. I’m constantly just going until my body can’t go, and then knowing that the next morning is going to suck because it’s going to suck regardless of if I push it hard or not, so I might as well push it.
How do you bring yourself to push through the “dark days,” where your body feels like, no, I can’t do this, but mentally you’re like, I have to do this? What do you use as a motivation to just do it?
At first to be honest, the only thing that was motivating me or the main thing that was motivating me to keep going that hard, was the daily videos. For whatever reason, they gave me something to work for, something to be creative. I think that my darkest days were on the days that I was the least creative. Every day hurts and every day sucks and I’m going to just live with this pain forever. I know that. But it was the lack of creativity that would make me stay darker for longer throughout the day. It wasn’t until I focused on, “I need to do my daily video today,” and I needed to create this thing and this video, whatever it happened to be, and it was when those creative juices got flowing that it was where I was able to find positivity again. I know it always seems like it online, and I do try and motivate and keep people positive with my videos, but some days it would be that video is the only positive part in that day and the only time I practically had a smile that day, or whatever it may be. I found out that recently it wasn’t the act of what I was doing in the videos. It was creating something and having my creativity flow. I used to express that through my riding and through my snow skating and through all that stuff, so when I couldn’t do that, it was a mental block. So when I would do those videos every day it would get those creative juices flowing, and that was super motivating. I found out after doing them for so long that that’s what it was. Then I knew like, “Okay, no matter what the day is, I’m going to create something out of this day,” and that happened to be the daily videos.
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Smagical Daily Update Lap Time Challenge: I am honestly shocked that I am able to do both the things featured in this video at this point in time. My first time back at @smagicalRetreat I literally couldn’t do anything here (pump water, rake, chainsaw, or ride anything), and now, not even a year after the crash I am able to start the saw myself and clear off downed limbs on the pitbike track, and then put laps together! . . . This just goes to show you that you can do stuff that you even doubt yourself! I didn’t have any “plans” on ripping laps on the track this year, but I also planned on working at improving every single day in some way, and here we are... setting the FASTEST LAP TIME OF THE YEAR!! (The only lap time of the year so far) ??? Never give up hope on something because we even surprise ourselves sometimes! . . . @road2recovery #SmagicalStrong @novikgloves1
More or less, you’re kind of tricking your brain to focus on creating something as to worry about being injured, right?
Yeah. It’s a good, positive distraction. Also, I think having that creativity flowing, it’s making your brain fire in ways that just sitting there being bummed and watching TV in the hospital—which is usually what you do in the hospital—it makes your brain actually stay active. I think for spinal patients especially, spinal cord injuries, what you need to do is make your brain fire in as many different ways as you possibly can to try and wake up these connections. So I really give a lot of my recovery to that actually. Like you said, it was really good to keep your mind off of the obvious, “Hey, my life is forever different.” So it was a really good distraction for that.
Let’s talk about your support system a little bit. I know your family and your friends and everyone around you keeps you going. Was there ever any resistance at all when you were like, “I think I’m going to go out and use the weed eater today, or I’m going to go out and do this?” Or was it always like, “Do what you can, but be mindful of what you’re doing?”
Definitely from my close family, and actually, I guess it’s been a pretty crazy recovery because some of the things I did even [Travis] Pastrana himself said, “Hey, man, you’re pretty crazy for trying that in this condition.” But like I said earlier, I think it was those wild forms of therapy that I chose that helped get me where I am. For the most part, it was really supportive. Any time I had a crazy idea to do something, Sarah [Whitmore, Phil's wife] of course would be fully backing me because she knows that I know what I can do. I can’t even say that, really, because some of the things, I didn’t know exactly how it was going to go my first time riding or doing this or doing that. So, there was a little bit of a wing and a prayer on some of those things. I know that some of my family didn’t necessarily like to see me get back into the swing of things so quickly. But I feel the longer I wait on things, the longer they’re going to take to come back and the less likely they are to return to anything normal for me. For the most part, super supportive everyone. Then when you have a support group initially, all the Nitro Circus guys were there during the crash, so I had just nothing but positivity surrounding me. So I really didn’t have much of a choice but to be positive. Then by the time Sarah got there and back when the crash first happened, I just was really surrounded with a bunch of positive people that they didn’t give me the option to go down this super dark path that everything in my mind wanted to do. I have to just give a huge shout out to all the people that I had around me, yourself included. When you have that much support around you, it’s like you’re almost racing for a team. You’re going to push as hard as you can because you want to get better for the friends and family around you. It was a huge part of it, for sure.
What was more of an “Oh, shit, this could be bad?” moment, your first time getting back on a dirt bike or your first time getting back on a snow skate?
The funny thing about that is the snow skate definitely should be sketchier, but for me and my level of injury, the C5 was the one that really messed the cord up. That controls your arms and hands more so than your legs. So although it was dinged up enough to paralyze the body, really my legs bounced back faster than my arms did. For me, getting on the snow skate first and the fact that by the time I was moving around kind of again, it was going into winter, the timing was right and my legs were way, way, way stronger than my arms and functioning better. I thought that it was inside me. That’s the crazy part on that one, because I literally just went for it. I stood on the skate and I started going to the hill. I’m like, “Man, I sure hope I still know how to do this.” I thought I could, but there was nothing saying for sure, “Yes, I’m going to be able to do this.” So that was the first thing that I really just went for it. It worked out so well that I was almost in tears that day, just laughing my butt off. It was the best time I ever had at a ski hill. That kind of set the tone for, “I’m going to jump on a bike and try this again. If I can’t do it, then I’ll keep working until I can do it.” So, for me, being on the snow skate was a million times more stable than on a bike because just what you have to control with your arms on the bike, I can’t count on my arms to do what I tell them to do yet. The bikes are still sketchy for me, but I’m spending some time on them now, thankfully, and trying to smooth that out a little bit. I’m still way better on a skate now than I am on a bike, that’s for sure.
That statement is crazy to me personally because I’ve seen you when you couldn’t walk from a chair to the bathroom, and how wobbly you were on your legs and stuff.
That one was definitely the first really huge, super uplifting, life-altering milestone that I hit. So I think that was really big. Then also it really helped me too because when I found out that I could do that, and at this point my arms were so far from… I had no feeling in my hand either. I’d put my hands on the handlebars and I could just not feel any connection with the bike. My arms were so far from ever being, I thought, able to work again, that being able to ride that snow skate down the hill, emotionally it lifted me up so much and it got me so pumped. I was like, “Well, if I can never ride again and if the arms don’t come back like they say they won’t come back, then I can always chase the snow and I can fuel my passion and pursue something on the board.” So that was really a huge moment.
I guess it kind of gave you a silver lining. You still had something to look forward to “I can still do this.”
Exactly. That’s exactly right. It made me able to not sit and dwell on the fact that my arms aren’t working good enough to ride. The crazy thing is that the muscles still that don’t have the connections are the muscles that you need for riding the most. Your pecs, your triceps, and your hands. They’re like riding muscles. I was really beating myself up over that, like I lost the main muscles I need to ride. Then I actually now have seen that as a blessing even because the fact that I lost the muscles that I need to ride, riding is the thing that is actually reconnecting those muscles to my brain. It’s almost like another sign. I’m meant to get back on a bike because I lost those muscles and that connection from the brain to the muscles, but it’s riding that’s going to bring that back, I feel. Kind of speechless on the whole deal. It’s crazy.
We’re talking about where you’re at almost a year from the crash. In your mind, what’s your goal and where do you see yourself a year from this conversation right now?
Holy cow, you just blew my mind. [Laughs] I haven’t thought that far ahead yet. To be honest, my main goal has been to as soon as I found out there was the Nitro show on the one-year anniversary of the crash at the same spot, my goal was to get back on a bike and ride that show. Literally that has been one-track mind only really thinking about that. I haven’t even gone that far into the future, but I can do it quickly for you. One year from now I would like to be back performing… I can’t speak to what exact level I’ll be at, whether I’ll be the same, worse, or better than I was before, but I want to be able to do enough on a trials bike to perform at a similar level to where I was last year and be back to doing Smage Brothers riding shows again. Also, I have a goal to go and travel and speak at schools because now my story is actually more powerful than my riding was before. I’m going to use that and travel around to schools and speak and ride in front of the kids. The better I can get my riding, the more likely they’re going to listen to me. If there’s even the slightest chance of getting back to back-flipping in gymnasiums, I’m going to work my hardest to make that happen. That would kind of be the ultimate goal to be back traveling and performing on my bike again. Heck, if my hands and arms start working there’s no reason why I can’t go do some extreme enduro races or something in the future. I know I promised you and Travis I would try a GNCC. The ultimate goal would be to be back performing shows and racing the events that I want to race and that I physically can race.
Is there anybody you want to give a shout out to, give a thanks to before we say bye?
If I thanked everyone, this interview would go on for another hour. I would love to thank Road 2 Recovery though, because those guys have literally… When my life changed for the worst, those guys did everything they could, more than I thought possible to change it for the better. They have helped in so many ways. I’m not even just speaking financially. I’m speaking on a personal level. Calling and speaking to me and speaking to Sarah through this whole thing. All my sponsors that stuck with me through this whole process. Wienerschnitzel, Nitro Circus, Dang Shades, EVS, Black Rifle Coffee. I’m really surprised GasGas, even when I couldn't ride a bike again they still said that they’d have a bike waiting for me. I want to thank everybody that watched a single one of my videos. If you laughed, if you loved it, if you hated it, whatever, if it made you feel feelings, then that’s what I was trying to do.