JAMIE NICOLL TURNED PRO TWO YEARS AFTER HE WAS GIVEN A 10-PERCENT CHANCE OF SURVIVAL
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CAMILLA RUTHERFORDJamie Nicoll’s emergence at the sharp end of the 2013 Enduro World Series has all the makings of an underdog story for the ages. Nobody expected Jamie to recover so fully from the crippling injuries he sustained three short years ago. Nobody expected his riding to progress and mature to the level where it is now. Nobody, that is, except Jamie.
It would be all too east to paint this as an analogy for a phoenix. Little known athlete nearly dies in a horrific accident that leaves 35 percent of his body covered in third-degree burns. Little-known athlete is back on his bike three months later–riding himself to and from physical therapy. Little-known athlete decides, in his mid-30s, that his skillset is suited to the enduro circuit. He funds his own way as a privateer, leaving his New Zealand home to race in Europe, a little more than a year after getting out of the hospital. Little-known athlete becomes known for his strength, his determination and for some truly epic crashes, resulting in repeated visits to foreign emergency rooms and stitches to his already massively grafted skin. Little-known athlete finds himself a season later clutching a bouquet of flowers in his scarred hands–hands that are so scarred, their skin so tight, that it is difficult for them to grip around handlebars. The skin on those hands cracks open and bleeds often, as the healing continues. But there he was, standing on the top step of the Mountain of Hell race podium in Les Deux Alpes, France, in 2013, having gone up against the best in the world and beaten them all.
It would be very easy to say that injuries as severe as those which Jamie Nicoll survived, injuries that left him so completely and irreversibly marked, would be the kinds of things that could shape a person’s will. One could easily extrapolate that Jamie Nicoll has a steely resolve because he has been tested in The Flame and has come through the other side, that this fiery brush with death has hardened his resolve, and that from this he draws his power and his motivation.
But that would be bullshit. The simple truth is that Jamie Nicoll has always been hard as nails. Still, the analogy is a tough one to shake.
First off, Jamie didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. He has been riding since his early teens, and was a successful junior XC racer. He had the misfortune to be racing in New Zealand at the same time as the emerging Kashi Leuchs, so far (barring the current looming shadow of Anton Cooper on the horizon) that country’s most successful international XC racer. He came in second two years in a row at the New Zealand National Junior Championships, and found himself representing New Zealand at Worlds in 1995. “You have no idea at all what you’re doing, really, at that age … so you have chains snapping at national races and things like that because you’ve run everything completely into the ground,” he recalls. The following year, 1996, in an abrupt change of heart, he quit racing and headed into the bush. “I didn’t go to the Cairns World Champs that year, and wanted to go climb mountains instead. So I went to the west coast and did an outdoor-recreation certificate … there was a big period there where it was all mountaineering, rock climbing, things like that. Back then, I got put off bike riding quite a bit.
Which is how he came to be operating a gas-powered hammer drill on a rock ledge, somewhere in Patagonia, on the morning of October 7, 2010. He was roped in, since the ledge was narrow and some distance above a ravine next to a creek. The fuel cap of the hammer drill was leaking. Thinking that maybe the cap was cross-threaded, or that perhaps some grit was caught in the cap gasket, he stopped, killed the motor and unscrewed the cap to see what was happening. Pressure buildup in the tank had been the cause of the leak, Jamie found out, as he became enveloped in a plume of atomized fuel. His co-workers said that it was a huge cloud of gas, maybe 30 feet high. Then it ignited. He retells this with a methodical calm. It is a story he has told many times, so there is familiarity with the details. But it is also an indication of his own thought process, how he solves problems, how he learns, how he handles crisis. He is deliberate and detail-oriented, and not given to easy panic.
“This massive cloud of white atomized fuel just went up … all over my T-shirt, my chest, my eyes were stinging, it was in my mouth. I was just about to open my mouth to say ‘get me some water,’ and then it ignited somehow. I just leapt away from it, to get away from the machine and the fuel and everything, but as I leapt away I realized I was mostly that fire as well. As I jumped off the ledge, I just remember being this big fireball, all the noise of the fire. In that moment I was thinking ‘Whoa, this could be a time that you die’ sort of thing, ‘Wonder how this is gonna turn out?’ I swung down, and then was calling to one of my mates for help. I was just pounding my face with my hands, trying to keep the flames away from my face. Then just thinking I needed to do something… .”
“Something,” in this case, meant trying to get out of his harness, get out of his helmet, and remove his burning, fuel-soaked T-shirt with his hands, his hands which were on fire, while he hung in mid-air.
“So I hung down, went in and undid the buckle of my helmet. And by the time I did that, the flames just suddenly went out. We’re probably talking 30, maybe somewhere around 35 seconds that I was burning, you know? I swung across to a slightly more gentle face where there was a bit of dirt so I could take the weight off my harness. My T-shirt was gone, the top of my shorts were melted back, and my skin was just sort of a grey color–no hair, bits of it slightly rolled up. I was thinking, ‘This isn’t good.’”
He undid his harness and jumped into the creek flowing with snowmelt. “I’ve done plenty of first aid, and that was the best thing I could think of to do. It would take an hour at least to get a stretcher to me, I was thinking. So I climbed back up and the boys put some shoes on me.”
And then he ran 3 kilometers down the trail with his co-workers trying to keep up while pouring water on him. He remembers saying to one of the shocked trail crew sent to meet him: ‘Oh yeah, got a bit sunburned, ay?’ “I thought that sounded funny at the time.”
He was put in an induced coma for two weeks, then spent the next two months in a hospital in Santiago. “I suppose people have been burned worse and survived,” he said, laconically downplaying the severity of his injuries. The medics tending him at the time of the accident, taking into account how badly burned he was, the remote location, the time taken to get to help, put his odds of survival initially at about 10 percent.
Being cut from tougher cloth than most, Jamie survived. Losing track of the number of skin-graft surgeries, he tracked his recovery by noticing when finally there were gaps between operations, or when the skin on his hands got thick enough to open doors without cracking, or the point when he was finally able to hold a knife in his hand and butter a slice of bread. He talks of the fatigue generated by such an expanse of skin growing back, of having to constantly stretch because the scarring on his healing torso was pulling his shoulders inward, of being so emaciated that his calves “looked like boiled eggs flopping around on the back of my legs.”
Back in New Zealand, three months after the accident, he began riding his bike to his daily visits to the hospital. “I still had this feeling that I wanted to race. It was something I had wanted to go back into before the accident, and after the accident it was still there. When I came out of the coma I had this dream, but couldn’t really remember. When I woke up, one of the big memories was of being on top of this high mountain, and I had just won this race, and I had blue clothing on.”
The following summer, a year later, he started racing downhill, and won the national masters series. “Ridiculously huge learning curve there. Going from never having considered attempting a double and then having to pull it together and learn to jump these–whatever they are–30-foot gaps and stepdowns and things. It was all new!”