The men are sweet when they talk to me, like boys eager to please the teacher. These are BMX riders — current and former, amateur and pro — mourning Dave Mirra, the Michael Jordan of their sport, who committed suicide in February. He sat in the cab of his truck near his home in Greenville, North Carolina, and shot himself with his own gun. He was 41 years old, with two young daughters and a wife. Mirra had recently been feeling lonely and lost, his friends tell me, but it never occurred to them, or most of them, to worry for his life.
“These are grown men on little bikes, hucking themselves 40 feet in the air,” says Jason Richardson, a pro BMX racer turned sports psychologist. The chance of death is a fact of life for all extreme athletes, but the whole point, the job description, is to defy or outwit it — certainly not to just surrender. “At some point in every rider’s career,” says Richardson, “the only way to get better is to accept the real risk that you’ll get bleep-bleep-bleeped up. That’s the choice. To me, it’s a special choice.”
BMX riders have a word for this choice, which also denotes their highest value: passion. In the idiom of BMX, passion is the degree to which an athlete’s desire to pull a never-seen-or-done-before trick (or string of tricks) outweighs any conventional calculation of risk. This is, in part, why it’s a young man’s sport, undertaken by those with underdeveloped frontal lobes. “When I first started, I couldn’t even imagine getting hurt for real. I broke my legs real bad, and I was like, Damn, I didn’t know we could slam like that,” says T. J. Lavin, who retired from BMX in 2010 after a crash required him to be put into a medically induced coma. And among the most competitive riders, the explicit aim is to maintain that adolescent mind-set, that intensity and daring, long past the age when other men cede to their limitations. But even within this adrenalized world, Mirra’s brain chemistry was special; his genius was to be able to stay, consistently and for 20 years, just at the razor’s edge of what he might not be able to do. A BMX blog said he was “trick horny.” Mark Eaton, a friend from adolescence, said his mind was “so trigger.” His nickname was Miracle Boy.
Like all warriors and macho-sports superheroes, extreme athletes are expected to be unfazed by danger. “If you crash, it’s probably because you’re going for something you want to learn and, whatever, accidents happen,” Mirra told a filmmaker in 2001. He’d been in hundreds of crashes himself, and his hunger for the abyss remained persistent and real. Throughout his short life, Mirra talked about his passion for BMX directly in terms of wanting to die, which makes him not so unusual among danger hunters, for whom the relentless pursuit of heights, speeds, and hazards is a kind of addiction and the daily activity of teasing death becomes the material of life itself. Better, even: a more vivid, enhanced reality — functioning as a salve, an opiate to numb the agonies of encounters with the ordinary world.
“If something happens, oh well,” explains Kevin Robinson, a retired BMXer who knew Mirra well. “You get that little bit of a pit in your stomach, and that tingle. You turn that fear into fire. That’s the feeling I love. It’s not something you can turn off and on like a switch.” For all of these men, retirement is a critical test. Mirra left BMX in 2011 after a competition in Ocean City, Maryland, when he saw that the younger men with whom he was competing were hungrier than he was. “I could see it in their eyes, man, they’ll do whatever it takes to win,” he told Fat Tony, a podcaster and former BMX rider, in an interview last year. “They’ll die. Just like I would when I was younger. I would have died to win.” But approaching middle age, he found he had lost the will to die — to shoot down a two-story vertical ramp at 25 mph, then straight up the other side, then up, out, above, dismounting from his bike, cradling it even, flipping and twirling, before landing on two wheels. “They say don’t mix business and pleasure, but that’s exactly what I did … It’s what I died for.”
“Dave was a lot like me.” This is Dennis McCoy, still competing in the X Games on vert at age 49. McCoy met him at a competition when Mirra was about 13 and tiny for his age, a pipsqueak. McCoy was older and already famous, getting regular coverage in the fan magazines. “Dave had this sort of wide-eyed, ‘It’s Dennis I’m talking to’ look. He wanted me to help him learn a trick” — a two-step maneuver called a G-string — “and he was saying, ‘I think I might be leaning too forward.’ ” In those days, there was no YouTube to help kids learn tricks, and so, even more than it does today, the sport rewarded a cultish and monomaniacal zealousness.
Even by these standards, Mirra’s obsessiveness was over-the-top. One summer during junior high, he persuaded his father to drive him from near Syracuse, where they lived, to York, Pennsylvania, so he could hang and ride with a bunch of high-school graduates who called themselves the Plywood Hoods. Just a kid, he wound up staying with Mark Eaton at Mark’s parents’ house. “I worked loading vans at UPS,” Eaton remembers. “I would get home around 8 a.m. and Dave would be, like, ready to go. Like, Let’s go do something. He’d be up working on his bike, singing songs about his bike. We’d be out late the night before, too. He’s just wired. We would ride all day and into the night, in parking lots — just ride and ride and ride.”
Mirra came up in freestyle BMX in the ’80s, when it, like skateboarding, was a haven for punks and misfits. It had a gritty, improvisational vibe, a sport without grown-ups or coaches or rules, invented by suburban kids who transformed their own neighborhood streets, parking lots, and sidewalk curbs into playing fields. Vertical ramps in ever-higher heights came later — as did the rich sponsors, the BMX video games and branded merch, all enabled and then juiced by the X Games, which were established by ESPN in 1995 to make extreme sports, in some sense, “legit.” People loved Mirra because he was “core”—a natural BMX super-talent of the old school. But they knew about him because, by the late ’90s, he was everywhere; he, and other X Games superstars like Tony Hawk, made generations of teenage boys breathless.
BMX riders hate the tag “adrenaline junkie,” preferring to think of themselves as accomplished athletes whose mental discipline allows them to visualize, in advance, the geometry of a stunt in the sky and whose strength, long years of training, and agility enable them to pull it off. Mirra, in particular, fits this description, having made his first mark in “flatland,” not vert — performing exacting bike gymnastics on the pavement. But they are also junkies, in that they are single-minded in their craving for that temporary, brain-altering feeling of pure, selfish joy. Landing a trick “is incomparable, like floating, for real,” says Lavin. “It really does feel like flying. The self-satisfaction that you get out of riding — it almost lasts all night. I would be so happy, I would buy people dinner — it didn’t even matter what happened after that. You knew you were the only one in the world who could do that trick at the moment.” For BMXers, riding is not, ultimately, self-destructive, since it settles and feeds them like nothing else can: On the brink of a trick, McCoy explains, “there’s a sense of calm and shit sort of quiets down and it’s time to focus.” And, having discovered that, they don’t want to — or can’t — do anything else. “I’m more comfortable on my bike, jumping, than I am walking down the street,” says Ryan Nyquist, 37, who still competes.
All kinds of people — hedge-fund managers, matadors, war-zone photographers, poker players — find fulfillment living high-stakes lives, and BMX riders insist that they’re no different. Their vocation marries their temperament so neatly that they don’t regard it as a choice. Mirra had two modes — on and off. When he was on, “he had this determination and this drive that was out of this planet,” says Robinson. He had to win at everything: playground basketball, dice, even beer pong. But this fierceness, so raw it could be infuriating, was combined in Mirra with qualities both boyish and charming: This is what helped make him a superstar. He constantly expressed a simple wonder that he’d been able to come so far on his little bike — 24 X Games medals and sponsorships from bike companies, drink companies, Puma, and Slim Jim. “I was willing to make $30,000 a year just to do what I’ve always wanted,” he told Fat Tony, but at his peak he was clearing $2 million a year in sponsorships alone. In so many of his public appearances, on MTV Cribs, he seems just grateful — psyched that his passion afforded him a gigantic house, psyched that anyone should care about Chittenango, New York, where he grew up. He was radically generous, and he liked to stay up late and drink and talk with anyone, really, about the meaning of life, giving lots of people the feeling that he cared about them most of all.
Everyone who knew Mirra well said he had another side, too. He would go “off” for any reason, or for no reason at all. He was thin-skinned, defensive, and, sensing any insult or bad juju, “he would literally say, ‘Just fuck it,’ ” says Eaton. “He would make these rash, random decisions”: get into it with a rival over a perceived or real slight; or get in his car and drive away in the middle of a competition because he didn’t like the weather or the attitude of a particular sponsor; or bail midway through a run because he wasn’t “feeling it,” Eaton says. “There’s one story where he flew into Raleigh instead of Greenville, and instead of waiting to get on the plane, he took a cab to a car dealer and bought a car and drove home.”
Urgency can’t be a permanent condition, though, and Mirra sometimes had trouble with what his friends call “motivation.” In 1993, he was crossing the street when he was hit by a drunk driver; he was hospitalized for ten days with a torn shoulder and a broken skull. Even after he recovered, his mood couldn’t rebound from the setback and the time off. “I just wasn’t into it,” he told the Albion, a BMX magazine, in 2013. “I was off my bike for six months, and over that time you begin to change your thinking … If you don’t do something for long enough, then you’re not gonna miss it … I moved into an apartment with a friend, and I started drinking a lot. I gained 30 pounds. I was really confused at the time.”
Concerned by the prospect of Mirra, then 19 years old, languishing in “off,” some friends began urging him to return to competition, and in the fall of 1994, he did, entering a meet in Chicago called Scrap. McCoy remembers Mirra standing at the bottom of the ramp, filled with self-doubt. “I was going through a really good progression phase,” McCoy remembers — nailing sequences of fresh tricks — “and Dave was watching me and he was losing confidence in being able to keep up, saying, ‘I’m not feeling this, D., everybody’s pulling new shit.’ ” But when it was his turn, Mirra executed a perfect Fufanu — balancing his bike on a high, thin sliver of rail — and the crowd erupted. He was back on.
All professional athletes talk about the loss (of strength, stamina, attention, income) that comes with retirement — “athletes die twice,” as Mirra quipped to Fat Tony — but extreme athletes are distinct in their retirement as well. The thrill-seeking engine that has propelled them forward suddenly goes silent, and they’re left trying to figure out how to reignite. Retired riders talk about searching for something — anything — that will give them the old feeling. “I tried riding street bikes a little bit,” says Lavin. “I figured it would give me the thrill, but it’s super-boring. I just ride to the coffee shop.” At 39 years old, Lavin is in training to become a firefighter. Robinson struggled with depression and painkillers and now does motivational bike shows for schoolchildren. Another retired BMXer, Kenan Harkin, now 41, is starting a small business breeding exotic reptiles in captivity in Florida. “We are not normal people,” he tells me. “In the best sense of the word, we are childlike. We’re not happy idiots, but as I talk to you, I’m standing among giant tortoises.”
Some riders find that without BMX, they’re unable to live. Such was the case with Colin Winklemann, a BMX stuntman who, in a spectacular crash from “too high, at least 25 feet in the air,” says Eaton, crushed his heels to smithereens and was grounded for life. He began a spiral and, in August 2005, took his own life. He was 29 years old. After BMX, “your heart’s a little homeless,” Mirra told Fat Tony. “You’re like, ‘Wow, this is what I’ve done my whole life. What can I do to top that?’ Sometimes you want to give up.”
In 2014, three years into his retirement and shortly after turning 40, Mirra set his sights on triathlons. He decided, in an almost explicit repudiation of the super adrenalized, quick-twitch nature of BMX, that he wanted to become an Ironman — to climb to the top of an awe-inspiring but also excruciatingly boring endurance sport. Mirra started training, in earnest, for the 2015 Lake Placid Ironman (a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon-distance run), in the hopes of qualifying for that year’s world championship in Kona, Hawaii.
A vert run takes 30 seconds from beginning to end; an Ironman takes ten hours on a good day. Mirra was a diligent student, but he was not, temperamentally speaking, well suited for the sport, which requires pacing, patience — and solitude. In Mirra’s interview with Fat Tony, you can hear both enthusiasm and ambivalence in his voice. The training “is sick,” he says. “It’s gnarly, man. But I love it. It’s a love-hate. Sometimes I go, Dude, why am I even doing this?” On Instagram last summer, Mirra was transparent, toggling openly between love and hate. One day, he’s cheering himself on (June 28: “Get it done and be proud of yourself”), posting photos of his red bike, his yellow triathlon shoes. Another, he’s struggling with his mood: “Am I weird, but does anyone else get depressed after a huge day of training?” he wrote on June 13. “I seriously don’t want to get out of bed.”
Lake Placid turned out to be a disappointment. “I’m so stoked on today on a very tough course in some very tough heat,” he posted after the race, attempting to sound upbeat. But Mirra finished in more than 11 hours, coming in 109th overall and 24th in his age group. Only the top six finishers in his category qualified for Kona. Determined to improve his time, Mirra entered another Ironman just a month later. Exhausted, he didn’t finish.
Starting last fall, Mirra’s Instagram becomes a painful historical record, the diary of a discontented man endeavoring to find contentment in life’s ordinary pleasures. It’s as if he understood — clearly — that his wife, Lauren, and daughters, two young girls with his brown eyes, ought to provide reason enough to live. “These little monkeys need me now, not when they’re 18. TIME = LOVE,” he wrote after Lake Placid. In earnest tributes, he posts Thanksgiving blessings and a family photo with his brother Tim (“pretty stoked cause we had our share of disagreements throughout the years”). With the hashtag #beadadnotafad, Mirra seemed to be telling himself, again and again, that the joys and responsibilities of fatherhood would supersede the euphoria of his previous life. There are pictures, too, of Mirra with weaponry — at a shooting range with a semi-automatic rifle and with a bow and arrow (“great for the mind,” he wrote). And, simultaneously, Mirra begins dwelling on his former glory: “I love going down memory lane on some of my original ideas I put in motion,” he wrote next to a black-and-white poster of himself in an ad for DC Shoes, one wheel touching the backboard of a basketball hoop.
In those last weeks, Mirra’s friends say, he was not himself. (Lauren Mirra did not respond to requests to talk for this article.) He could be as jacked as always — reaching out, voluble, making plans. A fishing trip with Kenan Harkin would be fun; a BMX reunion in California was in the works; Kevin Robinson was looking forward to a summer vacation with Mirra and his family. Greenville mayor Allen Thomas says he got a call sometime last fall, and it was Mirra, out of the blue, wanting to brainstorm things the city might do for kids — maybe something really major like build a velodrome. But Mirra was also talking candidly about feeling depressed — his head was not feeling right, as he put it. Some friends mention a possible pain-pill addiction, while others suggest that a traumatic brain injury might have been the cause of Mirra’s disorientation. No one will say for sure whether he sought any treatment for substance abuse or depression. But it was as if Mirra could find no purchase on his own future. Back in November, he momentarily seemed to have rediscovered himself. With the help of friends, he was building a vertical ramp inside a warehouse near his home. “Starting to look like a badass vert ramp,” Mirra wrote on Instagram, an exclamation he punctuated with a fist-bump emoji. The BMX world reverberated, briefly, with the prospect of a Mirra comeback. Mirra, according to friends, was seriously considering it.
But Harkin says that in a conversation he had with Mirra about a week before his death, his friend said he’d abandoned the idea of a comeback on vert. “Ah, no,” Harkin remembers him saying. “I’m really not that passionate about it.” “I was absolutely worried about him at the end,” Harkin says. “He told me that it sucked getting old. I knew that he was feeling lost.” Hanging up the phone, Harkin began making calls: What can we do about Dave?
On February 4, Mirra posted an old photograph of himself and Lauren, each holding a Champagne glass. “My rock!” he wrote. “Thank God.” And at around 1:30, he and four or five friends, his usual crew, headed to the restaurant A Tavola, where he was a regular, and ran into Mayor Thomas just outside. Mirra and Thomas spoke for about 20 minutes, Thomas recalls, “kind of kidding around.” Mirra and his friends had been out late the night before, partying — he had been partying a lot — and the two laughed about it, saying they were “too old to be behaving like we’re 22,” Thomas remembers. Again Mirra raised the possibility of a velodrome, of doing something for kids. Nothing about the conversation struck Thomas as unusual. “He looked a little tired,” Thomas says, “but he still had that grin.”
What came next is murky, disputed. Mirra’s friends are fiercely protective. By one account, there was friction in the restaurant, an amped-up, combative conversation; another person in the restaurant says that was not so unusual for this rowdy, ego-charged crew. Perhaps the fractiousness continued afterward at their next stop, Scott Ashton’s house on Pinewood Road. In a press conference after Mirra’s death, a police spokesman said the men were talking about where they should go next, but it sounds like tempers were running high. Then Mirra received a call or a text, according to another account, and got up from where he was sitting. “I’m leaving,” he allegedly said, then turned to his friends. “If you want a ride, you better come now.” Another says it didn’t happen exactly that way. But whatever went down, by the time the friend arrived at the truck, parked just outside, Mirra was already dead, a suicide, the police established, with no room to hope it was a mistake. When Mayor Thomas arrived at the scene, the front door of the truck was open and family members were beginning to arrive. Mirra’s friends and the cops all stood around, “staring at the rain, like, What in the world has happened?”
In the tiny, tight-knit clan of 40-something BMXers, many could not believe that Mirra intended to commit suicide. “His mind works so fast that when he went to go do that, the second he pulled the trigger, he regretted it,” speculates Lavin. The people who knew him best were shocked, but not surprised. His mind was a pressure cooker.
In his conversation with Mirra, Fat Tony asked this question: In a movie about your life, what would be the No. 1 challenge your character would have to overcome? “Yourself,” answered Mirra, “the war inside your head. To be the best at something, you’re going to have that.”
*This article appears in the April 4, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.