This article was originally printed in our November 2017 issue of TransWorld Motocross.
To Hell and Back
Ken Roczen's Own Nightmare, Relived
By Mike Emery
It was 9:30 p.m. on a brisk January evening at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California. The collective roar from the crowd erupted as the 30-second board went sideways and the revs increased for the gate drop of round three's 450-class main event. Ken Roczen entered the race undefeated, but on lap 10 the unthinkable happened as America's favorite German charged toward the front of the pack. The stadium gasped in horror as they watched Roczen get ejected from his Honda CRF450R and launched high into the air in what would be the costliest mistake of his young career. His year ended the instant he made impact, and the weeks that followed were suspenseful, to say the least. The severity of Roczen's arm injury could have resulted in amputation, but thanks to the swift action taken by him and his team within the minutes, hours, days, and months that followed, his career hopes were saved as well as his ability to function—not just as an elite athlete but as a normal human being.
If there's one thing that we've learned, it's that Ken Roczen doesn't accept defeat. He has spent the last eight months defining himself as a fighter. The German has overcome the odds no matter how badly stacked they are against him. This is Ken's account of that life-changing night and of the recovery that's followed. He's already been to hell and back, and he's just getting started.
Roczen's dominance during the summer of 2016 set the tone for what many predicted would be his most impressive year yet. After inking a multi-year contract to Team Honda HRC, he lined up for 2016 Monster Energy Cup with only a few days' worth of testing on the new red bike and won two of the night's three races with ease. Although the overall victory escaped him due a strange crash that sent him flying over the bars, he and his team weren't fazed. The success of that night was just more proof that he was going to be a title favorite in 2017.
Things started well at Anaheim I, as Roczen went unchallenged and won the race by a staggering 16-second margin. "Everything was going really well. I loved my bike, I had so much speed, and I was hitting my marks," Roczen said. "Going to Anaheim I, I was like, 'You guys better bring it,' because I knew I was going fast. When I do my work and I'm fit, I don't expect myself anywhere but the very front."
Roczen went into San Diego on the high from his showing at the opening round, but things wouldn't be so easy this time. "You're not going to win by 16 seconds every weekend, but I went into the main feeling good. Dungey and I found ourselves in first and second, so I tried hard and I had to ride hard," Roczen said. "I made the pass and tried not to worry about where he was at." With this strategy, Roczen was able to maintain his lead over Dungey and take his second victory. With a two-for-two record, the season couldn't have started any better.
It was undeniable that Roczen had become the guy to beat in just two weeks' time. Things were at an all-time high for Ken and his team, but that all changed at Anaheim 2.
The enormous crash was captured from every angle, and every second of the brutal get-off can be found on the Monster Energy Supercross YouTube channel, where it has almost a million views. "There were two different ways you could go," Roczen said, describing the section where he crashed. "It was step-on/step-off/triple or you could go over the table top/triple/double or whatever. I was going on-off and everything was perfect.
"It's not that I overshot it. I landed right where I wanted to and tried to push the bike forward. But there was a kicker on the bottom and it just unloaded on the rear and right there it was too late. I had hit that line multiple times that race."
Roczen was launched nearly 75 feet without his bike before smashing into the face of a jump. Somehow, he remained conscious through the entire incident. "I've had gnarly crashes, but never going that high or not landing on my feet. I basically jumped three and a half and landed right on the fourth rhythm," Roczen said, recalling the terrifying incident. "I braced myself for the impact. I was thinking in the air, 'Loose, loose, loose, then brace yourself for the impact.' That's just an automatic thing.
"I know I hit my head really hard because my helmet was broken, but I was completely there," Roczen said with a tone of resentment. "I was breathing, and I knew my arm was fucked up really bad. The pain was in my arm right away. It was so bad that I couldn't even sit myself up, so I just waited for someone to give me some support for my back. When things are broken that badly, you can hardly move."
What goes through a rider's head in a moment like this? "My first thought was, 'No, everything just washed down the drain,'" Roczen said with disappointment in his face. "Everything was working so well and I mostly felt like I let people down, like they wanted me to win that championship. But at the same time it's not like I was slacking off. I almost like internally pinched myself, 'Is this a real thing right now? Did that just actually happen?'"
As severe as the crash was, it was what unfolded in the hours following that proved to be the biggest challenge of all. He was transported to a nearby hospital for a night of chaos and pain. "It was a fucking nightmare. My fingers were numb and everything, and two of my wrist bones were compounded out," Roczen said. "I'm in the hospital and they're trying to get my elbow back in place and they're pulling on it and I'm screaming. They ended up giving me something [pain medication], and that was the gnarliest ride that I've had in my entire life. I had noodle arms and I wasn't mentally there. I literally thought, 'Am I dead?' I was full on-spaced out and it was the gnarliest thing. I remember waking up thinking, 'What was that?' My wrist was out of the socket too."
A surgery was initially scheduled for the next morning, but that changed quickly. The extent of the injuries was initially unknown, but early on Sunday morning Roczen and his supporters made the decision to visit Dr. Randy Viola, who specializes in wrist, elbow, hand, and orthopedic trauma in Vail, Colorado. A private jet was ordered and soon Roczen was en route, albeit in extreme discomfort.
"I remember being on the plane and being really tired. So I tried to sleep and was in massive pain. My wrist was all wrapped up and my elbow was in the socket, but my wrist was still dislocated. I was in so much pain. I was ready to kill someone, it was that bad," Roczen said. "From the moment when we got to Vail, I don't remember anything. They knocked me out. I remember a little bit after the first surgery or two, when the doctor came in and said that it was a very, very severe injury. He mentioned compartment syndrome and how they cut the whole arm open."
From Bad To Worse
Roczen quickly learned about the destructive effects of compartment syndrome. "Dr. Viola explained how my muscles swelled up so badly from the impact that the blood supply was cut off. And when the muscle starts turning gray, it dies. They basically said this surgery could not have been any later than it was to open it up and alleviate the pressure. I had four wound vacs in it. They had never really seen anything like it," Roczen said. "There were compressors attached to it and I had to walk around, try to shower, and everything with that all attached.
"The reason for having so many surgeries was that, piece by piece, they were trying to get the arm closed up where they opened it up for the swelling. I basically had surgery, then a day off, then surgery, then a day off. It had to breathe, but with every surgery they only get to do a little bit. At one point, my arm was completely open and covered up, and they had rubber bands around it." After seven surgeries, which included extensive cleansing of dirt from the wounds, the swelling receded enough to close the relief incisions completely. A massive scar that runs down the center of his forearm is a reminder of the procedures.
Roczen was allowed a 10-day recovery trip home to Florida for his body to rest, but in that time, he fell ill with the flu. "Nothing was fixed yet, and we came back here to Florida. The flight was terrible with pain, and when we got back here I was sick as a dog. It was awful. I had a fever, was in so much pain, and my entire arm was like a glow stick," Roczen said. "I kept in contact with the doctor and was like, 'I don't know if this thing is infected or not, but it is on fire.' The splint and everything was bugging my finger and hand, and I had a pressure point from all the nerve damage."
Now thousands of miles away from Colorado, Roczen and his fiancée, Courtney Savage, had to tend to the wound. "We had to take everything off and clean it," Roczen said. "I was scared shitless and held it like, 'Please let's get this stuff back on.' The first time we might have gone to a care place, but after that Courtney pretty much did everything."
Roczen admitted dirt bikes weren't on his mind at that time. "I was just kind of like, 'I don't know if I'm even going to be able to ride again.' At this point I was pretty over dirt bikes, if that makes sense. I was like, 'I don't miss it at all right now.' I was so far away from riding that my mind wasn't even on dirt bikes or racing. Our focus was, 'Let's try and keep the arm.' The second was, 'Let's see when we can roughly get it working again to where I can do normal life stuff.' Those first five weeks were absolute hell. I'm normally around 157 to 160 pounds, and I was down to 144 pounds."
Amid the outpouring of support from the sport for Roczen at the time, he stated one competitor specifically reached out: "Ryan Dungey called a couple times, texted a couple times, and he was the one person that continuously checked in. Ninety-eight percent of the people were unbelievably supportive. I'm really pumped with how people were so positive to me."
Not Out Of The Woods Yet
With the arm saved from compartment syndrome, Dr. Viola and his team still had to repair the elbow and wrist. "At first, they were like, 'Everything is going well and we hope to get you back on the bike in a few months.' It started out positive, but then it turned worse," Roczen said. "At one point they were like, 'People sometimes can't even use an arm like this to eat dinner.' That was a tough, tough time."
The damage in the wrist required multiple surgeries, including a bone graft from his tibia and the temporary installation of an external fixator. "My scaphoid was shattered and the bone was pretty much gone, so they basically had to reconstruct most of that. My leg was hurting too, so Courtney had to wheel me around in a wheelchair after that. I couldn't walk on it, it was that bad."
The extent of the elbow injury was discovered during what was supposed to be the only surgery. The radial head was sheared off in the crash and they managed what they could during the operations. "It was a big procedure and I had to have two surgeries. We were there again for like two weeks," Roczen said. "They basically fixed up my elbow with the ligaments, they put anchors in it, and fixed it up as much as possible." The reality of the recovery process came when it was decided that a new radial head section of bone taken from a cadaver would be needed. Roczen had to wait for an organ donor who fit his bone frame, but there were no guarantees of when that could have happened. Because the patient and the organ donor need to be roughly the same height, weight, age, and the same blood type for the body to accept the new material, it's possible that the wait can easily take weeks or even months. The call finally came in April that a suitable match had been found and it was back to Vail for his final elbow surgery that completed the adaption of the donor radial head to the arm.
Light At The End Of The Tunnel
After months of recovery, Roczen was due for good news. He had grown impatient from sitting idly at home, as his days were a mix of workouts and rehabilitation sessions that improved the motion of his elbow and wrist with a personal therapist. "I knew that at one point that I needed my own physical therapist," he says of the decision to hire a full-time caregiver. "The team wants me out there racing, so I have to make this commitment on my end."
It was only a matter of time until Roczen returned to riding. "It went from being down to looking back up again. The doctor basically said, 'We can have you back on the bike at this time.' It just needed time, especially getting everything moving and seeing how things went with the elbow," he says. "I didn't go out to the track for a long time, but then I went again to watch those guys and I thought, 'You know what? I'm just going to sit on a bike.' Then I rode down the driveway and I did a wheelie, and I noticed the pulling part wasn't that bad, but the braking was where a weakness was." Although Roczen was not cleared to ride at his normal pace, this was a major breakthrough. "From then on, my everyday activities were the same. I worked out and was out on the boat a lot, but there wasn't a lot I could actually do besides working out."
Hopes were high as Roczen continued to work. "I kept getting X-rays and CT scans, and we got a phone call at like 9:00 p.m., and the doctor was like, 'Dude, you're a freak of nature. The healing is going really, really well. Let's get you riding on a turn track.' So I was freaking out, 'This is huge!' And I made like 10 phone calls to Dan [Betley], Oscar [Wirdeman], and Beeker [Chris Onstott]. I'm like, 'Get me the stuff next-day!' And I started riding," Roczen said happily. "My dad came over [from Germany] because when I started riding again he wanted to be here. We had a pretty good system going on. I was riding two to three times a week and started doing motos—like four 15-minute motos with no jumps."
There was one final setback in the recovery process, but when compared to the other complications of the injury, it was rather minor. "My wrist started getting sore. We had X-rays done and found some of the metal was getting in the way and unscrewing itself," Roczen said. "So Dr. Viola said, 'Come back in and the surgery will remove some of those screws.' Once he opened it up, he took everything out because he saw that everything was basically healed. I asked him, 'What's the recovery time?' He said, 'Oh, nothing—you're good. The bone is healed, keep the incision clean.'"
Now cleared to ride and jump as much as the pain permits, Roczen is back on the track and looks as skilled as ever. When asked to describe the feeling of riding again, Roczen responded, "It was kind of weird. I had to be careful not to open the throttle too much. The finesse went away. But sitting on the bike, I felt like I had never been off of it! Just smiling, but it was hard at the same time. I am nowhere near 100 percent and am basically using it as a training tool. Sitting on the bike is huge for me, so I'm just following the doctor's lead. Anytime I can ride and it's not sore, I'm going to be out there to ride. It's not about pushing or doing sprints. I'm doing 20-minute motos and keeping a flowing, solid motion."
With his recovery still in its earlier stages, a return date to racing has not been confirmed, but it's obvious Ken's personal sights are set on the opening round of the 2018 Monster Energy Supercross Series. His attitude remains one of the most confident we've ever encountered, and the simple fact that he has overcome multiple career-threatening injuries appears to be just the beginning of his legacy.
"I'm a pretty motivated person in general, and for how much fun I had riding that first day it just got me that more excited for the next day to come. I know I'm going to have to go through tough days, though. But I'm a winner, and I don't want to be anything else but the best. I have a very strong mental side. Right now, I'm like, 'You guys are lucky I'm not out there,'" Roczen said with a smile on his face and excitement in his eyes. It won't be long, Ken.