HAMPTON—Staring up at the sky as he writhed in pain flat on his back, Johnny Culbreth tried everything he could to catch his breath. Five minutes passed, then 10, then 15, and nothing was getting any better.
Culbreth, a Hampton native, was experiencing the ultimate nightmare for an accomplished BMX rider. Right there on a dirt track in Louisville, moments before the most prestigious BMX event of the year, Culbreth was completely helpless after crashing during warm-ups.
He clipped the back tire of a fellow competitor that had come up short on a jump, sending Culbreth tumbling over the handlebars of his Addison bike and directly into the front lip of the next jump.
The disaster last September didn't result in your garden variety BMX injury, like a broken collarbone or broken wrist — both are considered rites of passage in the sport. This time, the damage was much more serious.
His spleen was toast. His pancreas had ruptured. Though Culbreth said doctors at the University of Louisville Hospital shielded him from reality as best they could, he knew his injuries were life-threatening.
As doctors prepped him for surgery to remove his spleen and place a drainage tube in his pancreas, Culbreth revealed his biggest concern.
"The first thing I asked was, 'Is my bike OK?'" said Culbreth, who was seventh in the nation in points in the A Pro class — the sport's second-highest division — entering his ill-fated weekend at the Grand Nationals in Louisville. "Typical BMXer stuff."
That's the nature of the beast.
Culbreth spent three days in the intensive care unit, two weeks in the hospital and lost 30 pounds. But it's still bike-before-body in this world.
Hampton will get a chance to see that world this weekend.
From Friday to Sunday, the BMX horde will descend upon the track at Gosnold's Hope Park for the Old Dominion BMX Nationals. Event organizers hope the event will attract several hundred riders in all age groups.
It is the first American Bicycle Association national staged in Virginia. It's also the first time in more than 25 years Hampton has hosted a BMX national event associated with any official sanctioning body.
In just nine months, Culbreth, 20, has made a near-full recovery from the injuries that convinced his doctors he'd never ride competitively again. Since, he has gotten back on the bike competitively a few times in Reno, Nev. and Atlanta. He also broke his right wrist in May during a practice run at Gosnold's Hope Park, which is operated by his father, Johnny Sr.
The broken wrist couldn't have come at a worse time, just four weeks away from the nationals on his home track. The injury isn't going to stop him.
He plans to compete this weekend in the A Pro class. He wants the local kids he stages clinics for to see him in competition.
"Everybody has been like, 'Find a new hobby'" said Culbreth, who spent two years at Kecoughtan High before turning pro at the age of 17 and finishing up his last two years of high school in home-schooling. "It's so hard to explain to these people that it's something I've done since I was 8 years old. What I do is I sleep, get up, ride my bike, go back to sleep and do it all over again. It's something that I'm used to. I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have it."
He's not the only area BMX enthusiast who can't comprehend life without the sport. It's apparently something that gets into the blood. Just ask Kelli Townsend, the president of the Hampton BMX track at Gosnold's Hope Park, and matriarch of a BMX family.
Culbreth identified Townsend's 15-year-old son, Andrew, as one of the up-and-coming young riders from the area, but Kelli is an utter devotee to the sport. For years, she has shuttled kids all over the east coast for BMX events, footing the bill for gas and cramming as many as nine kids in a hotel room.
"It's just how I roll," said Townsend, who added she has worked for years alongside several members and friends of the Gosnold's Hope Park track to bring a national event to Hampton, and she anticipates as many as 1,000 riders and family members of riders to attend the three-day event.
"We've embraced the whole thing. I guess it's the same for anybody else that competes at a high level in any other sport, but it's still a great deal of entertainment for people who can't travel to see their kids competing and having fun in this sport. It's so much fun for everybody involved and I think it provides really valuable experiences for these kids."
While Culbreth is set to enter this weekend just 40th in the nation in points in the A Pro class, he's willing to take this year as a rebuilding experience. By the time he turns 21 in January, he wants to make it to the AA Pro class, something no other Virginia rider has done. He also hopes to qualify for BMX events in a future Olympics.
"Anybody can get hurt in any sport," said Culbreth, who has also broken his collarbone three times. "Really, BMX isn't any more dangerous than a lot of other sports. I mean, when you're riding a bike, you're going to fall. It's just part of it. It's what you get out of BMX that makes it so worth it to me."
OLD DOMINION BMX NATIONALS
WHERE: Gosnold's Hope Park, Hampton
ENTRY FEE: $50/day for each competitor; $125 for entire weekend
PARKING: $5/day; weekend parking pass can be purchased for $15
SCHEDULE: Friday (practice begins at 2 p.m., racing begins at 6 p.m.); Saturday (practice begins at 7 a.m., racing begins at 11 a.m.); Sunday (no practice; racing begins at 8 a.m.)