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The Performance Life

Riding Strong at Age 70

Sandy Scott riding along the water.

Five years ago, Sandy Scott broke his C-1 vertebra in a cycling competition at the age of 65. Most people who suffer such a broken neck die instantly or shortly thereafter. Scott not only survived, he refused to undergo a recommended surgical procedure that would have killed him or severely restricted his mobility. Instead, he underwent physical therapy and got back on his bike. He has not lost any masters cycling race he has entered since 2007, winning not just his age group but routinely finishing ahead of all competitors within 20 years of his age (70).

Scott, a former commercial airline pilot who lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., chronicles his remarkable comeback in his new book From Broken Neck to Broken Records and recently spoke with CorePerformance.com.

Core Performance: Most people can’t begin to comprehend how painful your recovery was. Can you put it into words?

Sandy Scott: It was pretty grim. A C-1 fracture is immediately fatal in 50 percent of cases. It’s not the thing you want to fracture because it’s near the breathing apparatus. That’s what I had to deal with and I went through an excruciating period of healing. This process went on four or five months in a neck brace and wearing an itchy thing on my neck that supposedly was going to help me grow bone. It was just a long, excruciating process.

CP: You write about how you refused to accept the diagnosis that you needed this risky surgery. How did you know there were other options?

SS: The lesson there is you have to be your own medical advocate. My board-certified surgeon said I was in grave danger and that any fall would render me dead. His recommendation was to have the C-1 fused to C-2 or the C-1 fused to the base of the skull. That renders you with guaranteed 50 percent minimum loss of mobility, perhaps more. You’re out of sports for starters and a lot of people don’t even make it through the surgery. He said he couldn’t even do it, but he’d send me to a neurosurgeon. The neurosurgeon hadn’t done it either but he at least had experience in that part of the anatomy. So I set out to find other answers.

CP: Remarkably you didn’t take up cycling until your mid-60s. What’s the key to getting up to speed, no pun intended, so quickly?

SS: Genetics is part of it and hard work is the most important part of it. As a runner back in my late 30s and early 40s, I won three national running championships in three different events so I had genetics for aerobic sports. The difference is I love to ride. When I was a runner, I hated it. I found it painful but I did it because I was good at it; it was a means to an end. With cycling, I love every stroke of the pedal and I’m able to train harder. I love to win and put in 27 hours a week, which is like a full-time job.

CP: Do you have lingering pain from the injury?

SS: There are considerable issues: scar tissue, arthritis from being in a stiff neck brace for five months. I train with a younger guy who is my guide dog. I can’t readily look back since I have a difficult time turning my neck, which I have to ice down after rides. My neck hurts every day but that’s just part of life.

CP: You continue to win state racing titles. What are your goals now?

SS: I want to win at nationals in Houston in 2011. I competed in 2007 and had what I thought was a sure-win in the time trial. I closed in on two former national champions, was holding over 30 MPH, just kicking butt when I went off course. I got into la-la land when I’m on a time trial and just went off course. It cost me 30 seconds, but I still wounded up seventh out of 59 competitors. That day I made a pact with myself that I will not lose another race, and I haven’t in the last three years. I want to get redemption in 2011 and I’m going to do it.

About The Author

Pete Williams – Pete Williams is a contributing writer for CorePerformance.com and the co-author of the Core Performance book series.

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Tags: Cycling, Goals, Success Story, Motivation, Outdoor Recreation, Longevity, Injury