Tyler Brandenburger always loved riding his bike more than your average kid. When he was 5 years old, the New Athens native got a big-wheeled bike as a gift from his grandparents.
“I never wanted to get off of it and that really sparked my interest,” the 23-year-old Brandenburger said. “I’ve had a bike ever since then.”
At age 16, Brandenburger transitioned to a different, more exciting kind of ride: a dirt bike. That was when he really found his passion.
“Once I had a car of my own and was able to go places with my bike, it was pretty much game on.”
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Brandenburger became a regular at motocross competitions, often placing in the top five.
But during a competition on Sept. 27, 2015, Brandenburger crashed - hard.
Originally told he’d only broken bones in his right leg and that he could wait to see an orthopedic surgeon the next week, Brandenburger and his family noticed something wasn’t right just two days later.
At Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, doctors said Brandenburger’s leg had developed compartment syndrome, which happens when excessive pressure builds inside part of the body. It happens as a result of bleeding or swelling after an injury and affects the flow of blood to tissue.
Doctors told Brandenburger they’d need to amputate his leg. A few days later, they made the cut just above his knee.
“Twenty years old. It sucks,” his mom, Kelly, told the BND at the time. “But we’re not going to say ‘poor Tyler.’ We’re going to say, ‘Let’s go kick ass.’”
And that’s just what Brandenburger did.
Not even two months out of the intensive care unit, and with only one leg, Brandenburger hopped on his dirt bike again, even doing wheelies in the front yard of his house.
“From the first day in the hospital, I wanted to get back on the dirt bike,” he said. “I am who I am on the dirt bike.”
He was fitted with a prosthetic leg shortly after for daily use. But getting back to the motocross level he was at before the accident was a process.
“The first time I got to a motocross track, I had to relearn how to do the jumps and stuff again,” he said. “In my head, I still knew how to ride and how to go fast, but I had to learn how to make my body do that with this new leg.”
For the first two years after his injury, Brandenburger said he would continue dirt biking by strapping himself to his bike with a bungee cord. Though this kept him secure, his prosthetic leg faced a lot of wear and tear in motocross. Brandenburger said rocks would often fly up and break it.
Trying something new — snowcross
Last fall, Brandenburger was on Facebook when he saw a promotion for an adaptive class in snowcross (also known as snocross) at the 2019 Winter X Games in Aspen. Like the name implies, Snowcross is like motocross, but races are held in snow and ice, not dirt. The vehicles are called snowbikes, modified motorcycles fitted with a snowboard in place of the front tire.
Though he’d never raced on ice before, Brandenburger, ever the competitor, said he thought, “Why not?” and drove up to Elk River, Minnesota, to try out. After just five days of practice on the snowbike — “I spent the first hour figuring out how to go straight” — Brandenburger said he felt comfortable enough to compete.
At the qualifiers, Brandenburger learned he’d made it to the X Games.
“It’s a dream come true,” Brandenburger said. “Since I was a little kid, I’ve been watching videos of guys at the X Games and now I’m a few weeks out from doing it myself.”
One of the adaptive athletes Brandenburger will be competing against, an engineer named Mike Schultz, offered to make him a special prosthetic leg for snocross and motocross. Schultz’s company Biodapt serves adaptive athletes and veterans from all over the country.
When the question of price came into play, Brandenburger was set up with a nonprofit named Wiggle Your Toes, that offered him a grant that paid for the new prosthetic leg.
The leg came just in time for Brandenburger to start training.
“It’s been a huge blessing,” Brandenburger said. “It’s changed the entire game for me. This is more durable, way safer, makes everything way easier.”
Preparing to compete in one of the biggest events in winter sports would come as a challenge to most, but not Brandenburger, who said he’s just trying to have fun.
“I’m just trying to stay relaxed and positive,” he said. “I’m not looking at it as being serious, it’s some of the most fun I’ve had in my entire life.”
This year will be the first year adaptive athletes at the X Games will have a chance at prize money and medals.
The adaptive class’ snocross competition will be streamed on Facebook Live on Jan. 26. Clips of the footage will be broadcast at 12:15 p.m. on ABC.
“We’ll be viewed as actual athletes, which is really great,” Brandenburger said.
Brandenburger will have a solid support system tagging along with him for the games, including the grandmother who gave him his first bike.
“I’ve been riding for fun since I was 5 and nothing has changed since then,” he said. “Every time I get on my dirt bike, it’s purely to have fun.”