VICTORY OVER PARALYSIS

Man who learned to walk again plans cross-country bike journey

By LAITH AGHA

Herald Staff Writer

For 45 seconds, the pneumonia appeared to be winning. For 45 seconds, Aaron Baker thought he was going to die.

Immobilized, but fully conscious, the young man from Carmel lay motionless in a hospital bed, his 20-year-old body too weak to battle the infection attacking his lungs. A rising star in the professional motocross circuit, he had become paralyzed from the neck down six days earlier when he crashed his motorcycle while in Simi Valley practicing for an event.

"I just remember hearing the flatline," Baker said. "Immediately I was just connected with everything. There was no fear. I was in a state of complete bliss."

And like that, after a medical staff resuscitated him, being paralyzed no longer mattered, he said.

"Taking breaths, enjoying and sharing time with the people around me was what was important."

With three broken vertebrae, one shattered, his original prognosis was bleak. The doctor who operated on Baker told his mother that he had a "one in a million chance of walking again," Baker said.

That was eight years ago.

Now Baker is planning to ride across the country on a tandem bicycle with his childhood buddy, Adam Zerbe of Carmel. Their goal is to raise awareness about debilitating injuries and give hope for those who have suffered fates similar to Baker's.

It will be a big test for Baker, who has been competing in bicycle marathons over the last few years, riding in tandem with his mother, Laquita Conway. Baker and his mother competed in a 50-mile race near Solvang earlier this month.

Across the South|

Baker and Zerbe plan on leaving June 10 from San Diego and arriving two months later at their destination, 3,182 miles away in St. Augustine, Fla.

"It's a journey," Baker said. "We're going out to experience the U.S. from the seat of a bicycle."

They will get their work in, projecting 60-mile days as they ride through the South during the summer. To avoid the brunt of the blistering, humid days, Baker and Zerbe will ride early and late, but not at high noon.

"We'll split it up to avoid the heat of the day," Baker said.

The tandem is not going alone. Friends Brad Smallwood, 27, of Pacific Grove and Miles McBreen, 19, of Monterey, will be following in a recreational vehicle, providing support such as water refills and tire changes. The RV will be their home on the road.

Before they hit the road, though, they need to raise $30,000 to cover expenses. Baker said that there are people interested in donating, and he is waiting for a confirmation on a title sponsor, who would give $10,000. The Christopher Reeve Foundation is one of the organizations Baker is speaking with.

Zerbe plans on holding a fundraising barbecue on April 28 at Carmel Beach.

The slim chance Baker was given to ever walk again did not deter him from trying -- in part because his mother forbade the doctor from telling her son that he would likely never again use his legs.

Committing himself to success at a difficult task was not unfamiliar ground for a professional athlete such as Baker, who had achieved a lot at a young age. Baker had turned pro after twice winning Loretta Lynn's National Motocross Championships, the sport's most prestigious amateur title.

"He was well on his way," said Donovan Mitchell, 26, a friend and fellow motocross racer who was also paralyzed by a motocross accident. "The right things were happening as an amateur. His injury happened just as he turned pro. Before that he was working his way up the levels."

The first five months after the injury were spent in hospitals, followed by seven months of outpatient care and rehabilitation. A year later, following an intense training regimen and drawing on emotional support from family and friends, he was walking again.

When the same doctor who operated on him saw Baker walk into his office two years after the accident, "he was floored," Baker said.

Motivational talks|

Baker plans to stop in towns along the way and give motivational talks to groups and speak with media outlets, while drumming up interest in a concept he and his personal trainer, Taylor Isaacs of Northridge, are developing.

They want to establish a franchise of fitness facilities for people with spinal injuries and other debilitating conditions.

"It's a place where a specific population can go for treatment," Baker said. "It will be like Curves. They're everywhere."

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