Larger than Lav
TJ Lavin knows he can’t be a BMX champion forever, and hopes that his latest crazy stunt—music—pays off
Thu, May 28, 2009 (midnight)
Photo: Beverly Poppe
TJ Lavin walks across the cement foundation in his sprawling back yard with arms raised and palms facing out, like a mime pushing against the walls of an invisible box.
“It feels like you’re going 10 miles an hour,” he says, a light wind picking up at his back. Lavin is no Boy Scout, but behind his Las Vegas home, the wind is a constant nemesis. In a city with little precipitation and hardly a cloudy day, it’s the wind that determines when he can and cannot ride “the yard,” the BMX trail he’s built behind his house. The air flowing across the course is barely worth the inevitable, “windy today, huh?,” but even a gentle breeze can throw the bike off-course as it flies off the homemade jumps that arch out of the dirt.
“It can feel like 20, 30 miles an hour when you get out there,” Lavin says, squinting against the sun as he contemplates the sporadic gusts.
An X Games champion with a handful of medals to his name and a legend in the BMX world, Lavin is a sort of self-taught meteorologist—his sport requires it. But when the wind picks up, the Las Vegas-raised athlete doesn’t sit at the window mourning a lost day of riding. He’s not devastated—or “devoed,” as Lavin, 32, would put it. When he’s not taking spins around the yard, traveling to exotic destinations to host MTV reality competition Real World/Road Rules Challenge or criss-crossing Lake Mead on a wakeboard, the biker is in a low office chair in a small room surrounded by recording and producing equipment, a home music studio he refers to as “Lav’s Lab.”
Today, however, the sun is shining, and the breeze seems to be tapering off. A friend is hosing down the jumps in preparation for the day’s first ride, and Lavin heads inside to rub veterinarian-grade muscle relaxant on sore legs and an aching back.
The cause of his back pain isn’t riding, exactly. Rather, it’s the yard itself, the constant maintenance it demands, evident in a collection of scuffed shovels that lean up against a post in the middle of the backyard course.
“I spend at least two hours a day out here, minimum,” he says, surveying the dusty humps that he and his friends have built out of the desert and dirt. “Some days are 12-, 13-hour days out here just digging. It’s like having a normal trench-digging job, like a construction worker. I love it. It’s home to me.”
Home also includes the sprawling expanse where Lavin lives with his girlfriend and her 10-year-old daughter. With just a few houses on either side and scrub and baked land spreading out behind him, this son of Las Vegas has carved an enviable niche out of the city that raised him.
“We built the whole spot,” Lavin says of his home and backyard course. “It was an acre-and-a-quarter lot; Decatur was just a dirt road, and Southern Highlands was just a thought. I came out here and just started from scratch.”
In the years since then, a lot has changed, but his decade-old backyard course is still a private playground for BMX riders capable and brave enough to give it a try.
“The yard is, like, way more technical than a Dew Tour or something like that,” Lavin explains as a friend flies around the course for the first run of the day. “Most sets of trails you just go on them and hang on, and it’s no big deal, they just ride themselves. But here is a little different.”
Obscenities punctuate the air as Lavin’s friend flies off the jumps so tricky only four or five local riders can handle their curves.
Standing at the top of his 20-foot roll-in ramp, a rickety homemade structure that looks and feels like it might splinter apart at any second, Lavin straps on a black, sticker-spackled helmet and fiddles with a mouth guard. He straddles his bike and prepares to drop into the yard, laugh lines creasing the well-tanned skin around his eyes as another burst of cursing echoes from across the course.
“When you get to the level where you can ride here, it’s 90 percent mental,” Lavin says, before plummeting down onto the course, a big smile stretched across his face.
Lavin is a child prodigy of the rarest kind—one who has managed to transform a childhood talent into an adult career.
“I was a neighborhood BMX bandit,” he says of his early years on the bike, which he began riding without training wheels at just 3 years old. By the time he was old enough to begin competing, he’d caught the attention of Nick Herda, of the now-defunct local store Herda Discount Appliance. In Herda, Lavin found a mentor and, just as importantly, his first sponsor.
“He really took me under his wing, and he financially helped me get to contests,” says Lavin, who started traveling to competitions at age 15 for both racing and BMX trick events. The budding talent’s busy schedule left little room for more normal teenage activities like attending dances at Clark and Durango high schools or racking up varsity letters on school athletic teams.
Lavin did wrestle for one year of high school, weighing in at a grand total of 103 pounds.
“I was like 5-foot-2, 5-foot-3, 100 pounds,” Lavin recalls, laughing. “I’m 6 feet tall, 180 now. I look the same, but I’m a lot bigger.”
Even the featherweight Lavin was good on the bike, though. By his senior year of high school, he’d gone pro.
“My last year of high school I realized [BMX] was a possible profession. But even then I had no idea I was going to make real money. Money has never been an object and never been a driving force. As long as I didn’t have to go clock in somewhere, that was all that mattered.”
At 32, Lavin has managed to avoid the time clock for nearly 16 years, not only as a biker, but also as a musician. He has produced music for local rapper Big B and for television shows and commercials, as well as releasing The First Set, an album that he produced and rapped on under the name “Lavs.”
“I didn’t want people to be like, ‘Oh, he thinks he’s a rapper now.’ It just sounds dumb,” Lavin explains sheepishly. “I like being behind the scenes, ’cause I like making the music, but I don’t like all the criticism that comes with being in front.”
The man who has taken home seven X Games medals and counts an MTV show among his day jobs is scared of the spotlight?
“If I was on American Idol, I’d just be crying. The dude would be clowning me, and I’d be like, ‘Really? I suck?’”
Lavin’s voice comes over the speakers as he plays a track off The First Set, the rider sinking lower into his chair and staring off into space as if contemplating his own words for the first time. Rapping, his voice sounds like it belongs to someone else entirely. Lavin switches to a song he produced with an up-and-coming rapper that samples a few bars of opera layered over a hip-hop beat.
“It’s sick, right?” he says, nodding enthusiastically.
So far, Lavin has only put out a single track under his full name, “Soldier,” a song he wrote for friend and fellow BMX rider Stephen Murray.
In June 2007, Murray, a well-known British rider, was competing in the Dew Action Sports Tour in Baltimore, when he suffered a devastating crash while attempting a double back flip. Even today, a YouTube search for footage of the terrifying accident comes up short, with numerous clips that cut off just before Murray’s horrible landing.
The website for Stay Strong, an apparel company overseen by Murray, spells out in terrifying clarity what the videos skip: “Doctors would later report Stephen had crushed his 3, 4 and 5 cervical vertebrae, suffered severe damage to his spinal cord, and the front of his vertebrae had been shattered.”
Lavin was in Mexico at the time, but news of his friend’s accident spread quickly. “I was so freaked out and so scared,” he recalls. “It was touch and go if he was even going to be alive.”
As Murray’s condition slowly improved, Lavin drew inspiration from his friend’s struggle. “I realized that he made it and that he was so strong, so I just wrote him a song. I don’t really know why.”
While Murray did survive the accident, he is now a quadriplegic, and has had to fight just to regain his ability to speak.
“That’s the most feared thing for any athlete … is [being] a quadriplegic,” Lavin says. “It’s worse than dying, and he’d tell you that himself. He is a soldier; he’s one of the hardest people I’ve ever known. Even before he was hurt he was one of the toughest people I’d ever met.”
Four months after Murray’s accident, Lavin endured one of the toughest moments in his own career. On his last jump at the Dew Action Sports Tour in Orlando, Florida, Lavin lost control of the landing while doing a trick called the “decade.”
“You jump around the front of the bike, [and the bike] stays exactly where it is, so your body goes around the front of the bike and lands back on it. Your body’s doing a 360, and the bike’s staying still.
“I thought it was perfect, and everybody on the deck thought I landed it,” Lavin remembers. “I just overshot the jump so far that my back foot fell off. You’re moving so fast that it just dragged me off the back of the bike, and I sat on my leg, and that was it.”
“It” was a shattered leg that required multiple surgeries, a small hardware store’s worth of rods and screws inserted into his fibula and tibia and extensive rehabilitation with local physical therapist Tim Soder.
“As a physical therapist, when you take a [professional athlete] who can’t throw or TJ who can’t get back on his bike and take him back … it’s one thing if you or I get injured and we can’t have fun on the weekend, but for them it’s their income,” Soder explains. “Anything you ask them to do, they’ll do it.”
When he first began his training sessions, Lavin joined a group of professional athletes at Soder’s office including Chicago Cubs center fielder Reed Johnson, the San Francisco Giants’ Aaron Rowand and MMA fighter Frank Trigg. Soder says he had to keep the BMX rider from trying to take on the MLB-level workout before he was ready.
“He was working out with some guys who were real strong, and he just wanted to jump right in. He’s like a cat,” says Soder. “His balance is outstanding. I’ve never really worked with anyone that has his kind of balance.”
Murray’s accident also helped Lavin put his own pain in perspective.
“The whole time I was going through [my injury], I just thought about him, and I thought, ‘It doesn’t matter how bad mine hurts; I don’t care. I can feel it, and someday I’ll be better.’ And here’s someday, and I’m okay.”
What started as recovery for Lavin’s leg has now morphed into a lifestyle focused on high-level fitness. These days, he works out with Soder four days a week starting at 5 a.m., doing plyometrics and working on fast-twitch muscles, agility and strength training.
“It’s developed into being just a better all-around athlete,” Lavin says. “BMX is No. 1, of course, but riding motorcycles or four wheelers, whatever I want to do, as long as I’m strong I can do it.”
Zipping around the yard in the afternoon sun, Lavin looks more than okay, but, he says, he’s still working to get back to where he was before the crash. And the echoes of Murray’s crash and his own are lingering. Mentally, riding BMX is a delicate dance between self-assurance and self-awareness. To stay competitive, riders like Lavin must be willing to try ever more complex and dangerous tricks, but those come with implicit dangers. While Murray’s accident has prompted the adoption of new protective gear, with jumps constantly growing toward the sky and bikes reaching speeds of around 30 miles per hour or more on the course, BMX remains an extremely risky profession.
“You definitely think twice before you do anything really, really dangerous. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t,” Lavin says. But he adds, “If I think about the consequences when I’m riding, I would never ride again.”
After taking a few laps around the yard, Lavin takes refuge in his cocoon-like music lab. Visually, at least, it’s here that his passions intersect.
There is the evidence of a successful 15-year career in BMX in the form of framed X Games medals that line one wall. There are signs of its risks, too. Next to his music rig is a dirty jersey that Lavin was wearing when he crashed during the X Games doing a double flip—the same trick that Murray was injured on—and was knocked out for about six minutes. It could serve as a talisman or a solemn reminder that things don’t always go as planned. There are masks from travels to Africa with MTV, a pair of keyboards and photos of his girlfriend and her daughter. Rather than seeming cluttered or disjointed, the different pieces fit together easily, complementing each other instead of competing for attention.
Lavin pictures his life functioning much the same way. He imagines a second home in Queensland, New Zealand, working as a producer with artists like Justin Timberlake, and riding—always riding.
“My perfect world would be to just come in here, make music and sell it to television, so I never have to worry about a real job, so I can just ride whenever I want. I’m 15 years in the game with no real job yet. So I’m ahead of the game.”
Lavin laughs and seems to take in his good fortune in one slow breath. “I already stole 15 years, so lock me up now, it’s all right.”