Local triathlete’s film on cycling accident to premiere in SBIFF
Neil Myers had one request: “Don’t make this a hero story.”
The 61-year-old triathlete and marketing company owner didn’t even want to tell his story at first.
But when the Santa Barbara resident saw the impact his story could have on the community, he turned it into a documentary in just two years.
The film, which explores his recovery from a traumatic bicycling accident, is called “Climb.”
It will premiere at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Mr. Myers directed and wrote the film.
Before the accident, Mr. Myers participated in individual triathlons and biked on a relay team that won the New York City Triathlon with 4,000 participants. Mr. Myers often rode up and down Gibraltar Road to find peace — “often” being at least 100 times, he said while he sat down with the News-Press at his home.
The challenging mountain road in the Santa Barbara area was quite familiar to him. In fact, he was one of the fastest bikers in the area coming down the mountain, typically making it to the bottom in 12 minutes.
However, on Aug. 4, 2018, as he was coasting down Gibraltar Road at around 25 miles per hour, in two-tenths of a second, Mr. Myers collided head-on with a truck and his face was shot through the windshield.
The accident broke 11 of his bones in 26 places, took 10 pounds of blood including from his brain and ripped his forehead off. Seven of his ribs broke, along with both of his wrists, one tibia and his nose.
“Do you feel like a pretty self-reliant person? Me too, but when you wake up and you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are, and you don’t know why you’re there and you’re bleeding out but your cortex doesn’t even know that … Guess what? You’re not self-reliant,” Mr. Myers told the News-Press. “There’s nothing you’re going to do to save your life — you have no hope unless the community saves you.”
Eleven first responders arrived on the scene and flew the injured biker to Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital’s level one trauma center within 30 minutes. Mr. Myers was able to hang on, and he spent three and a half weeks in the hospital, recovering and rehabilitating.
The hospital had just been certified as a level one trauma center, and it is the only one of its kind between San Jose and Los Angeles. This was critical to Mr. Myers’ survival, as he was just a few minutes away.
“The community just forms up behind you,” he said. “You can’t even ask for it because you’re not even in the state to ask for it.”
It was this communitywide support that Mr. Myers said practically nursed him back to health — so much so that a mere four weeks after the accident, he was back on a training bike. And a little more than four months after the accident, he was back on a regular bike headed up Gibraltar Road, alone.
“I didn’t want to see it any other way than the way I know it,” Mr. Myers said of the mountain road. “There was nobody on the road — no cars, no trucks, no bikes, no pedestrians. Just me.”
The triathlete said he doesn’t remember the accident itself because of his body’s fight or flight mode. However, his amygdala (the part of the brain that recalls emotions) still remembers every detail and can’t shake it, so whenever he relives the accident, he feels the emotions he felt at the time — otherwise known as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I just went right by it, actually,” he said about the first ride back. “It was disappointing. I was hoping for some sort of catharsis … but the more I thought about it, I was thinking about it wrong. The accident was in the past. That’s gone. I needed to think about that catharsis being in the future.”
That first ride, he said, was the turning point for him, marking his transition from surviving and rehabbing to training. Exactly one year after he got out of the hospital, Mr. Myers and his triathlon relay team won the Santa Barbara Triathlon by a substantial 41 seconds, a dream of the team’s for many years.
Because “Climb” manages to cover 54 weeks of his life in 52 minutes, Mr. Myers wasn’t able to include the part of the story that he felt was most important to him at the time. That was his childhood best friend, Jack, having a dramatically different but difficult journey right alongside him. He shared with the News-Press that Jack was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2017.
Mr. Myers said the two friends lost touch because Jack “was tired of telling people all his problems.”
On Aug. 3, 2018, Jack had a transplant that Mr. Myers said was his “absolute last hope,” and Jack and his family learned the cancer had spread. The very next day was the day Mr. Myers collided with the truck on Gibraltar Road.
“His brother and sister, who I’m super close with, said, ‘For the year and a half, he (Jack) had never once broken down, but when he heard about your accident, he just lost it and said, ‘I can’t do this without him,’” Mr. Myers said. So, in a fateful reunion, the two reconnected and began sharing their ailments and hospital experiences “like two old ladies” over the phone.
Then, just one day after Mr. Myers returned to his real bike after the accident and took that “turning point” ride up Gibraltar once again, Jack died.
“The stories are so intertwined,” he said, adding that his final race in his hometown of Santa Rosa was one day after Jack’s celebration of life, and it was “the weirdest race I’d ever ridden.”
“It just felt not right because of what I was dealing with,” Mr. Myers said, filled with emotion. “It ended up being a really weird race. Someone got hurt and there were sirens, and my whole family and other team members thought it was me.”
This, he said, determined that his competitive biking career was over and he’d never race again, especially when he saw his wife, Leigh, afterward. She was devastated at the thought of him hurt again.
Now, he continues to bike recreationally, and while the accident damaged his ability to remember some people’s names and causes painful core spasms every so often, amazingly, he doesn’t feel much more pain than that. He’s able to enjoy the company of his three sons, two daughter-in-laws and three grandchildren.
In addition, he has now ridden up and down Gibraltar Road more times after the accident than he had before.
Cottage Hospital showed a short video on his story at the Tiara Ball fundraiser a few months after the accident. The response from the donors in attendance — a standing ovation — solidified his lifelong dream of creating a documentary.
“I think, honestly, it was living proof of what their donations had done, so I decided this could be a story not about me but about the community,” Mr. Myers said. He hopes to bring his documentary on the road and raise money for trauma centers and rehab facilities all over the country.
“I didn’t have to ask any of those people,” he said, referring to the medical professionals who helped him at each stage of his recovery. “They’re just here.
“We hear every night on the news about how America hates itself and we’re always arguing.
“Bull. We are a community … That’s what I took from the accident. That’s honestly what makes me cry more than anything is just remembering that.”