Never giving up

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Aaron Baker broke his neck in a motocross accident nine years ago. He will compete in his fourth Los Angeles Marathon on Sunday.

Aaron Baker was on his way to a successful pro motocross career; then he broke his neck. Nine years later, he’s competing for the fourth time in the Los Angeles Marathon on Sunday.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

There are many platitudes in professional sports. It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game. No pain, no gain. Just do it.

Then there’s the athlete who lives those clich├ęs so fully, he redefines what it means to be a champion.

Aaron Baker plans to participate in his fourth Los Angeles Marathon Sunday, with a goal of beating his best time of one hour, 23 minutes. That would slay the marathon world record time of two hours, four minutes, set by Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia last September.

But Baker will be competing in the marathon on a specially designed cycle, called the TRIK. That’s because Baker is a recovering quadriplegic.

Nine years ago, at age 20, Baker broke his neck in a test session for an upcoming motocross race, immediately ending a promising career on national race circuits and challenging his will simply to survive.

Born in Newport Beach, Baker grew up in Carmel, and later lived in Malibu during his last two years of high school education; he was home schooled, as he was training and racing in motocross by then.

He started the sport when he was three years old, with a tiny mini-bike given to him by his mother.

“She was a total motorhead,” Baker said.

By age five, he was racing, and by nine he was already on the mini-bike circuit. A crash temporarily halted his track career, but he was soon back on a bike, winning state and national amateur championships and attracting sponsors.

In 1998, Baker went pro and soon signed a contract with Stiffie Suzuki. With motocross’ popularity exploding across the country, the world was his oyster.

May 26, 1999 was a nice afternoon, Baker recalled.

“It was a test session and my bike had not been running well that day,” he said. “In the middle of a jump, the engine died and I went over the handlebars. I vividly remember the cracking sound of my neck breaking when I landed.”

Baker, though totally immobile, was conscious and alert enough to tell first responders not to remove his helmet. They airlifted him to Las Robles Medical Center where he underwent immediate surgery. His 4th, 5th and 6th cervicals were crushed. Prognosis: he would never move again below his shoulders.

When Baker woke up, he was on a ventilator in a rotation bed. Six days later, his lungs filled with fluid and, with his father by his side, he flat-lined.

“It was the most profound experience of my life,” he said. “My whole reality dissolved into a sense of connectedness with time and space. It was clear, blue, bliss. It was fearless and beautiful.”

His near-death experience was galvanizing. “I knew I had to do whatever I could to recover,” Baker said. “We were going to work toward whatever degree of function I possibly could attain.”

Within a year, he was in an electric wheelchair with tremendous support from friends and family. But the prospect of lifelong helplessness threw him into depression.

“Fortunately, I met Dr. Taylor Kevin Isaacs,” Baker said. “My clinical exercise maestro.”

Isaacs, a doctor of kinesthesiology, put Baker on a grueling training program, with methodologies geared toward pulling everything possible out of Baker’s athletically attuned muscles.

Four years after his injury, Baker was walking with braces and riding a tandem bike. “My mom would ride in front of me,” he said.

In 2003, he tried his first L.A. Marathon, completing the circuit on tandem bike in two hours, 30 minutes. The next three years his times kept improving and, last year, he decided to bike across the country to raise awareness for spinal cord injury research.

“We went from San Diego to St. Augustine, Florida,” Baker said. “The Rise Above Tour. 3,182 miles. We were in Texas for a month alone. I had a great team working with me.”

One of those team members is Adam Bice. Raised in Malibu, Bice has been friends with Baker since before his injury. They pursued motocross together.

“Aaron is the most alive, strong-willed guy I know,” Bice said. “He just doesn’t give up. The tour last year was long and hot and difficult. But Aaron talked to injured people in facilities across the country and they saw what can be done.”

Bice will be part of Baker’s team for the L.A. Marathon on March 2. This year, Baker will be riding a specially designed racing TRIK, developed by KHS Bicycle Company.

“I’ll train this week along PCH, starting at Leo Carrillo Beach,” Baker said.

Baker is working to raise the profile of the Center of Rehabilitative Exercise, or C.O.R.E., which he founded to provide service facilities for injured and chronically ill patients across the country, using Isaac’s techniques.

“There are 11,000 spinal cord injuries every year,” Baker said. “C.O.R.E. can help them lead active and fulfilling lives. I’m doing it. Who knows what you can do if you don’t give up?”

More information on C.O.R.E. can be obtained at the Web site, www.AaronBakers.com