He Suffered 'the Games's Worst Injury.' Is He Recoverable?
Connor Fields' brutal collision on the Olympic BMX track left him with severe brain injuries, a broken memory, and numerous unanswered questions about his future.
A laundry area is located adjacent to the upstairs room where Connor Fields displays the finest memorabilia of his BMX racing exploits - framed jerseys, championship trophies, and the 2016 Olympic gold medal. It contains a different sort of memento, the polar opposite of success.
A ripped, discolored United States racing jersey hangs from a hanger. It is torn over the shoulders and back from an accident Fields has no recollection of. It is slashed open in the front, the result of paramedics' brutal efforts in attempting to save his life.
On another hanging are his chewed-open Team USA racing pants.
Down in the garage, where the walls are so densely packed with gigantic novelty winners' checks that they are now hung from the ceiling, lies a plain brown box. The red, white, and blue helmet worn by Fields when he collided headfirst in the type of life-altering disaster that every racer fears is included in the box.
Fields is positive that the helmet saved his life. It is complete, but the chin and forehead are grated, and a piece is missing.
"I'd sooner tear every ligament in my body than suffer a horrific concussion," Fields explained. "This was my nightmarish experience."
A catastrophic brain damage is the nightmare. Dr. Jonathan Finnoff, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee's top medical officer, attended to Fields in Tokyo and guided him through his early care.
"It was the most heinous injury the Olympics had ever seen," Dr. Finnoff explained. "It is not just Team USA. It was the most serious injury sustained during the Tokyo Summer Games."
Fields, 29, is peacefully recovering at home with his fiancée, Laura Gruninger, and their two dogs, and all indicators point to a favorable outcome. He is mobile, capable of driving, conversing, and even making public appearances. He has the ability to deceive people into believing he has returned to normal. That he is not. He is aware of it.
The words that have been lost or become muddled. The exhaustion. Alternating moods. Background noises are an inconvenience. The constant desire for naps. The occassional requirement for silence and darkness.
The unanswerable and unsettling question is if his brain will ever revert to its former state.
"The way I feel right now is not the way I want to feel for the remainder of my life," he explained.
Doctors noted that the majority of progress following a brain damage occurs over the first three months. And no one understands how to precisely quantify any of it. Is Fields at 50%? 80%? Will he ever realize he is completely healed?
For the time being, he is not permitted to do anything remotely dangerous, even riding his bike around the neighborhood. His long-ago purchase of a season pass to snowboard this winter is going to go unused.
"We're discussing the remainder of my life here," Fields stated. "I'm willing to wait a few months if it means no longer injuring my brain."
'There Is Nothing We Can Do'
Fields' only view of the crash is from replay video. From several hours before the wreck until about five days afterward, he has a blank space in his recollection.
He has no recollection of his first two semifinal runs on July 30, in which he placed third and then first. He has no recollection of the third run, during which he was hurt. However, fragmented recollections are returning. A footage of him washing down his tires with a towel during the rain delay that morning flashed into his memory recently, like an unearthed Zapruder film.
Fields sat at his kitchen table last weekend, watching the race on television on a laptop.
"At this moment, me and the two Frenchmen are quite evenly matched," Fields remarked as the video paused after the race's opening seconds.
The race was held at Ariake Urban Sports Park on a serpentine course that had three banked turns and four straightaways lined with rolls and jumps. The top competitors crossed the finish line in roughly 40 seconds, uninjured.
BMX racing is both exhilarating and hazardous. As with NASCAR, the stakes are raised by speed and tight maneuvering, but other racers are the wild cards. BMX riders weave and dip like flocks of birds. One rider who is out of sync with the others might create havoc.
Fields had his pick of paths for the third run due to his victory in the second. He chose Lane 1, the inside track leading to the first large bend.
Romain Mahieu, a 26-year-old racer with a reputation for being too cautious, was in Lane 8, opposite the starting gate.
The two sprint to the front. They took off from a jump with a large lip and a small landing area that had frustrated riders during workouts and races.
Fields had a little advantage but flew a little too long – a costly error. On the outside, Mahieu landed smoothly on the downslope and gained speed. He instinctively angled left, toward the inside, just as the riders approached another jump.
"Right now, we're both in the air, and there's nothing we can do," Fields explained, pointing to the screen and playing one clip at a time. "He falls directly in front of me and — bang — his tire collides with my tire, and his hip collides with my hand. I'm going down just by looking at how my bike is positioned. I am powerless."
He speaks in an analytical tone, not an angry tone.
"I don't believe it was a deliberate act," Fields stated.
He retains the confident tone of a salesman, and he may be selling himself forgiveness. He expresses the inescapable what-ifs via the lens of happenstance, not intent. What if any of us had landed an additional inch or two in one direction or the other?
Probably no crash. Perhaps a gold medal. When Fields was hospitalized, Mahieu sent him a note of well wishes. They have not been in contact since. Fields have been advanced to the next frame.
His handlebars twisted, and the front wheel swiveled in the opposite direction. Fields flipped forward in an instant, landing solidly on the right side of his face.
"What made it so painful was that I had no time to brace for the contact," Fields explained. "It happened so quickly that I didn't have time to reach for my hands. I was pressed for time to tuck. I didn't have time to prepare."
France's Sylvain Andre and the Netherlands' Twan Van Gendt collided with Fields. They rose to their feet, untangled themselves and their bikes, and continued riding.
Mahieu won the semifinal by a comfortable margin and placed sixth in the one-race final.
Fields, his body striped with road rash, sat up briefly before becoming unconscious. He was surrounded by medics. Fields lay motionless on the track for several minutes before being escorted away on a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance. Additional delays occurred as a result of uncertainties regarding which hospital would accept him.
Fields's brain was bleeding the entire time.
Subarachnoid hemorrhage and subdural hematoma were the official diagnoses - bleeding and pooling of blood on the brain's surface. Numerous contusions and axonal injuries — shearing or ripping of nerve fibers — were found throughout the brain, ranging from the tip of the right frontal lobe to the deep depths of the corpus callosum.
The spectrum of memory loss he experienced prior to and during the accident places his traumatic brain injury in the "moderate" category. However, moderate better characterizes an injury that occurs to another person.
'He Was Powerless to Inform Me'
Due to the Covid-19 protocols, the Tokyo Olympics lacked spectators, and international athletes like as Fields lacked friends and family in Japan. It was late morning in Tokyo when Fields crashed, but prime time in the United States.
Gruninger was at home with her folks, watching. All they knew, nor did anybody else in the United States, was that Fields had been struck unconscious and rushed away in an ambulance.
"I recall your father contacting me, Connor, and he had received a call from someone on-site there," Gruninger explained, relaying a portion of the incident that Fields was unaware of. "'Connor is not breathing,' he stated. They needed to establish a path for him to breathe.' And then your father says, 'Wait a minute, they're phoning back.' 'I have to leave.'"
Dr. Finnoff was at the Olympic Village in Tokyo when the texts arrived.
"When I saw the event on television, my immediate thought was, oh my gosh, he not only rammed his head into the asphalt, but I'm wondering whether he fractured his neck and is now a tetraplegic," Dr. Finnoff explained. "Learning that he does not have a broken neck and is able to use his arms and legs was truly wonderful news."
Dr. Finnoff first encountered Fields at St. Luke's International Hospital's emergency room.
"I had to yell at him to open his eyes," Dr. Finnoff explained. "I could coax him into saying his name, but he'd quickly close his eyes. He had no idea what was happening. He had no idea where he was. He was unable to inform me of anything."
Having any response, Dr. Finnoff stated, was a positive sign. A CT scan and MRI were used to determine the extent of the injury. Dr. Finnoff was relieved to learn that no internal bleeding had occurred outside of the brain. Fields sustained a fractured rib, a damaged lung, as well as other scrapes and bruises.
"He could have had so many other things," Dr. Finnoff explained.
The first few days were terrible for Gruninger. She made a conscious effort not to consider the worst-case scenario – death, paralysis, or lifelong brain damage.
Three days after the wreck, her phone buzzed with a message from Connor Fields requesting FaceTime. She had no idea what to anticipate. She discovered him staring back at her.
"I could see you were drowsy and exhausted," Gruninger stated in their kitchen to Fields. "However, I could tell you were you."
Fields inquired about her intentions to see a friend before he fell asleep in the middle of the talk, a detail she was shocked he would retain.
"For the first time in a long time, I felt a sense of relief," Gruninger explained.
Fields spent a week in a Tokyo hospital before returning to Las Vegas with the assistance of a coach and Team USA trainer. His stay at home was brief; he was referred to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City for evaluation and rehabilitation for around three weeks.
"The first thing that came back fully was the physical aspect of it — my balance and coordination," Fields explained. "Within three weeks, I was able to balance on one leg and perform tasks that had previously been difficult for me."
Much attention is currently being paid to processing speed and recollection. Fields participates in video sessions with a therapist in which they work on cognitive teasers.
"They'll give me two seven- to nine-letter words," Fields explained. "One of them was 'quizzes' and 'accidents' yesterday. And I'm required to spell them alternately. Thus, Q, A, U, C — back and forth, as if multitasking and spelling two words simultaneously. That is difficult for everyone. What will happen is that I will perform admirably for a few words and then collapse due to exhaustion."
He conveyed this above the quiet din of a midday gathering in a nearby eatery. He was astute, quick, and amusing. He winced occasionally at the background noise. He dozed for a couple of hours in a dim, silent room once he returned home, his energies depleted.
"I don't feel completely normal, but I feel quite normal when I'm fresh," he explained the following day. "However, when I'm exhausted, I revert to my earlier state."
Fields is not in a hurry to make a decision about his racing career.
"No one close to me is interested in my return," Fields stated.
Perhaps his final race will be one he forgets.