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Christian Bagg was an avid outdoorsman when a 1996 accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. As a mechanical designer, he spent years attempting to create a wheelchair that could withstand the rugged trails of the Canadian Rockies near his home in Alberta. Then two years ago, his experiments finally paid off. NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker reports.
According to the World Bank, one billion people – that's 15 percent of the world's population – experience some form of disability, with one-fifth experiencing significant disabilities. As the population continues to age, this number will rise, and so will demand for technology that allows the disabled to live the lives they want to live. Tonight, the story of one Canadian outdoorsman shows that sometimes the same person who has lost a physical ability is the one who creates a machine or device to find it again. PBS NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has his story.
This trail in the Canadian Rockies is known to locals by the name "Bragging Rights" — and it's not hard to see why. Riding it takes a mixture of stamina and creativity and a tiny pinch of crazy doesn't hurt either.
The trail is nearly 2 heart-pumping miles of rocks, roots and narrow passages through the foothills of the Canadian Rockies just outside of Calgary, Alberta.
But for Christian Bagg, riding these trails is something else entirely: freedom. And it's all because of his basement born invention that he calls the Bowhead Reach.
I could exercise every day, like I could go to a gym and exercise, I could get exercise, but I struggled finding something that was just fun.
As a young man, the Alberta native took full advantage of the outdoor wonderland that is the Canadian Rockies. Summers spent biking, winters spent snowboarding.
Then came a catastrophic day during the winter of 1996.
I was in a big air competition and I landed the wrong end up in Banff. I knew instantly that I was paralyzed. I couldn't walk, I couldn't feel anything.
The fall had broken 3 of Christian's vertebrae and partially severed his spinal cord.
The nerves were connected in such a way that– like, my legs– my legs thought things were going on. So they would spasm, like, wildly all the time, like, to the point where it would pull my hips out of their sockets. It was horrible. So for about two years after I broke my back I lived a life that no 21-year-old should live. Like, I couldn't work.I couldn't work. I was on tons of drugs. I had to sleep in the fetal position. Otherwise, my legs would, like, kick out and shake.
This agony lasted two years, until a surgeon made a dramatic suggestion – he could sever the remaining part of Bagg's spinal cord, the procedure would end the muscle spasms, but also eliminate any chance, however small, that the young man might ever walk again.
He really got me, like, really understood me as a person and what I wanted to do with my life, which was just be a normal 22-year-old at that point. So we did it and I woke up and no spasms and I started my life– my– my new life that day. All that was wrong was me was that– was that I was paralyzed. And it was, like, amazing.
Bagg spent his new life much as he did the old. Outdoors. Immersing himself into the world of adaptive sports. He learned how to cross country sit-ski, he went sky diving and became an avid rock climber.
But he says he longed to be back moving through the mountain trails on his own.
I would be supported by people, inevitably– so that we could get to do these crazy things and I– like, I was just getting tired of– I didn't want that. It is a less raw sort of experience and I wanted that raw experience. I wanted to– I wanted to be able to venture and adventure, as opposed to knowing that something was always going to be okay for me.
At the time of his injury, Bagg was training to become a professional machinist – learning how to build custom parts for the University of Calgary's Engineering department.
But he also brought these skills home – setting up his own personal workshop in his basement.
I could have been a multimillionaire and that wouldn't have helped me as much as having a skill as a machinist. There was nothing to buy.
So when did you start thinking about the Bowhead?
Uhm, pretty early. Like–five years after I was injured I started thinking about how to get back mountain biking.
For years, he built different iterations of what would become the Bowhead Reach. Nearly 25 different versions of the bike – all performing with limited success.
But two years ago, his basement experiments took giant leap forward with the arrival of a 3D printer. It dramatically accelerated his ability to prototype and test new components – What used to take weeks to build by hand, could now be printed in a matter of hours.
All these pieces here have been 3D printed?
Everything black, yeah, which is everything. We– we put these just for some contrast. We threw the orange on there just so could sorta see.
And is this mat– is this a carbon fiber? Is that–
Yeah, so it's– it's– a carbon filled nylon.
Day and night, Bragg's basement serves as a printing facility – using spools of carbon fiber, his 3 printers translate computer drawings into useable, 3-Dimensional parts. But the real breakthrough wasn't printing, it was design. For years, the problem had been flexibility. To endure the moutain terrian, the bike had to be rigid, but hitting rocks and stumps with a stiff frame, Christian often ended upside down. Developing what he calls an articulating framework , something that allows the bike to lean as the rider moves their torso, the front wheels function like knee joints. So if one area of the ground is higher than the other, the bike maintains its balance, so If you hit a tree stump or rock the bike won't tip over. Coupled with a battery and small drive motor, Bagg's bike was nowready for the mountain terrain.
That was the eureka moment and when when I had that breakthrough of it working, then other people started to sorta recognize that this was cool and neat.
One person who noticed, was J.P. Middleton. Last March Middleton went skiing in the very same mountains were Christian had crashed all those years ago.
I went off a cat track at pretty high speed and there was a little lip at the end of it that I didn't anticipate and shot my legs out in front of me and I landed right on my bum. When I came to a stop, I, you know, couldn't feel my legs anymore, so.
The 36-year-old EMT and volunteer firefighter had shattered parts of his vertebrae and severed his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
First couple of weeks were, you know, really, really tough.– you know, I could see the mountains from my hospital room– and I thought, "There's just no way I'm going to be able to make it back there." You know, "I'm in a wheelchair. How can I possibly live in the mountains?"
But one day, while looking out his hospital window, Middleton saw something….it was Christian Bagg, who had gotten a job at the very same hospital and was commuting to work on his now entirely functional bike.
The next morning I was in rec therapy and I said, "Hey, Kim, there's this amazing bike I saw." And she goes, "Oh, that's Christian. He just works downstairs in the hospital. I'll have to connect you guys."
With the help of a GoFundMe page Middleton was able to remodel his house – making it wheelchair ready….. and to purchase one of Christian Bagg's bikes.
When I saw the sticker price on the bike, it's– it's high. It's an expensive bike. It's custom made. There's a low production run right now. It's a cost of a Toyota Corolla, basically. But it was worth every penny of it. It has been the most amazing tool I could think of having. When I came home for a visit back in May, I was in our backyard. And Evan, my three-year-old son, went from our backyard into the woods. And he said, "Daddy, come play." I look beyond, and there's stumps and roots and grass and rocks. And I sat there and– you know, a tear rolled down my eye. And I thought, "There's just no way I can get out there." When the bike arrived, the first thing I did is I put Evan on my lap and I bombed out the backyard through the woods, over the stumps. And it was just the most phenomenal feeling.
You know, when you're first in a wheelchair you think, "This is my life until I'm gone. I'm gonna be in a wheelchair. It's gonna be tough, but with the bike I can get out and about. It has given me freedom."
This trail system is right behind your house? How often do you come out here?
Every day. Yeah, with Evan. He loves it.
So every day you are out here with your son?
Everyday I am out here with my son, yeah you bet.
As a local, Middleton was lucky, able to get his bike in just a few months. Bagg's bikes – having only been on sale for the last year, are still constructed by hand in his basement. He currently has 6 orders to fill.
If this had existed when you were injured, how do you think it would've changed– the way you viewed recovery and post-injury life?
I don't know. I– I– I was dying for something like this, dy– to the point where I dedicated my adult life to trying to create it. So it would've– I would love to go back and have it. Like, I took a 20 year hiatus from doing what I loved.
Does it still feel strange to be– be out here?
No. No, it doesn't feel strange anymore. I'd say, like, it's pretty easy to fall back into this. 'cause it's so amazing and it's– and I think it's pretty natural, like, for– from being a human, wanting and– and needing this. You can't overdose on this.
Watch the Full Episode
Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
Mori Rothman has produced stories on a variety of subjects ranging from women’s rights in Saudi Arabia to rural depopulation in Kansas. Mori previously worked as a producer and writer at ABC News and as a production assistant on the CNN show Erin Burnett Outfront.
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