THE GRAVITY OF GRIEF
Out of all the kids, Casey and Sam were the most alike, Lou said, in their fair skin, spirited personality and exceptional athleticism.
Liz concurred. The fact that Casey followed in his footsteps wasn’t surprising. “He was an amazing older brother,” she said. “They were very similar in the way they thought.”
Even now, Casey’s unwavering admiration for Sam surfaces often in casual conversation–she mentions how he wanted to try BASE jumping with a mountain bike, laughs about how he used to clap his feet over his bars mid-wheelie or talks about her desire to finish a complicated wooden feature he had started building in the forest near Revelstoke. Mostly, she respects his legacy by living her life in a way that reflects his carefree and charismatic personality–posting grinning selfies with her missing front tooth or landing herself on the cover of The Ski Journal by launching a massive spread eagle in a retro one-piece ski suit.
“From what little I knew of him, he was a charming, very likable guy,” says Bruno Long, a mountain-bike photographer and Revelstoke local who’s known Casey since she was a young teenager. “He was the kind of guy you wanted to be around. You look at Casey and she’s very similar. She’s got that same personality, she’s someone you want to be around and I definitely think she got that from him.”
In the early 2000s, Sam rose to freeride fame from a segment in “New World Disorder III” that featured him riding his ‘disconstructed wheel,’ a kind of wooden hamster wheel he built in the forest near Nelson, B.C., that required precise balance to stay upright as it turned. He quickly became disillusioned with the ‘go-bigger’ mentality of filming and started heli-logging, then parlayed those skills into the lucrative marijuana-smuggling business. In early 2009, Sam, then just 24, was found hanging in his jail cell in Spokane, Washington, four days after U.S. drug agents arrested him for flying a marijuana-laden helicopter across the border.
Sam’s death and the questions surrounding it shook his family to its core and Casey’s grief-stricken reaction was to turn to the bike. She quit competitive skiing and focused her attention on riding professionally.
“I wanted to carry on what he taught me,” Casey says. “I don’t think I’d be doing World Cups if he didn’t die. It brought our family closer together. We ended up spread out as a broken family and his death taught us the value of being together.” Casey returned to New Zealand in 2011 for the first time since she had left a decade before and reconnected with Liz, and has stayed close with her sisters and her dad.
For the first years of her professional downhill career, Casey didn’t have a set training program and her grief sometimes manifested in painful ways–she pushed herself too hard and ended up in the intensive care unit for a week with a potentially fatal lacerated liver after crashing on her trail bike in a downhill race–but she also started showing promising results. It was enough to catch the attention of trainer Todd Schumlick at PerformX, who offered her a program that included two World Cup downhill races. After training all winter, she placed 6th at her World Cup debut in 2012 at Mont-Sainte-Anne, followed by a 7th place at Windham, then capped the season with a win at the Canadian National Championships, a Queen of Crankworx title and a 7th at Worlds.
Casey was hooked.
That winter, she worked 85 hours a week as an electrical engineer apprentice to support a second season of racing. Under Team Dirt Norco, she competed in most of the World Cups in Europe in 2013, before breaking her collarbone at Canada’s National Championships. That injury barely slowed her down–she was back competing at Crankworx two weeks post-surgery. Norco folded its team the following year and Casey joined the Bergamont Hayes World Team, where she stayed for two seasons. During that time, she solidified her position as a talented World Cup racer, but faced challenges riding for a team that operated on a shoestring budget. The first year, the team traveled and slept in a dilapidated bus they nicknamed ‘Black Pearl,’ which yielded numerous absurd stories. Like when the team donned their full-face helmets as the bus squealed down steep European mountain passes, black smoke from the burning brakes filling the inside, just in case they had to bail out of an uncontrollable death machine. Or the time they installed vice grips to control the bus after the steering wheel broke off.
It was entertaining, but perhaps not conducive to the mental focus and preparation required to podium on a world stage. And with a UCI rule change planned in 2017 that only guarantees TV time to top-five female racers, Casey’s vision for her competitive future started shifting.