Mat Hoffman

Mat Hoffman is at the Playstation Skate Park in West London for a photo shoot. It’s mid week but there’s a few young kids in amongst the hard core skaters using the park. “That’s Hoffman”, “Matt Hoffman, look!” The whispers start, half an hour later the ranks have swollen and he’s surrounded. Shouldn’t these kids be in school?  The man in black looked a little uncomfortable with all the attention. He smiled shyly as the reporters asked questions and the kids crowded round for autographs. You’d think he was used to it all by now, that maybe he’d feed off it – play to the crowd. He doesn’t. He’s calm, polite and friendly; he’s not ego driven, boistress or petulant. He not the marketing man’s manipulated image of a Xtreme sports star, dude.

Mat Hoffman has been riding BMX bikes professionally since he was thirteen years old. He’s been the Daddy for more than a decade, and now, at thirty he’s the Grandfather of the sport. Mat has gone higher than anyone else. He’s beaten everyone else. He owns a BMX manufacturing firm, has his own highly successful Playstation game, with the follow-up, Mat Hoffman 2, due out in the autumn. He started the Bike Stunt Series, sports media giant ESPN saw it, got involved and now broadcast the competitions to 35 million viewers worldwide. Mat’s events ran so well ESNP got the Hoffman Sports Association to organise the X Games. In BMX terms he’s Beckham, Beckenbauer and John the Baptist all rolled into one. The adulation he humbly handles, but is still bemused by. All Hoffman wants is to ride his bike and jump high. Really high. Mat holds the world record for jumping on a BMX, fifty foot, six inches. That’s about the height of a five-storey building while riding on a munchkin sized pushbike for Christ sake. But that wasn’t enough, he’s B.A.S.E.-jumped by riding a BMX off a 3200foot cliff. He loves his wheels but what he really wants is wings. He’s bloody lucky he hasn’t got them already.  In ’92 he built a twenty one-foot vert quarter pipe just too see how high he could go. He set a world record of twenty foot out of the pipe, that’s forty one-foot off the ground.

“It’s a beautiful view, you’re looking down and it’s like ”WOW”. You’re in control most of the time but if you’re not it’s pretty scary ‘cause it’s hard to survive a crash from 41 feet.”

A year later that same view nearly killed him when he tried to break his own record on the same ramp.

“I slammed, I burst my spleen, I had internal bleeding and I lost a lot of blood and by the time I got to the hospital they gave me twenty minutes to live. I had emergency surgery. It was a very close call.”

And not his only close call. The man is an organic testimony. He is an advert for modern medicine.

“I’ve had14 operations, I’ve been knocked unconscious 50 times, I’ve been in a coma, I’ve flatlined, I’ve broken 50 bones (51 know, he broke his arm again the day after we talked), I’ve had over two hundred stitches. But all this has happened over thirty years so it spreads thin.”

When you consider that bones take around six weeks to heal, that adds up to a full six years of pain, just for skeletal damage. But then Mat seems to have a rather strange attitude towards discomfort.

“I’m writing a book at the moment and one of the chapters is titled “sound of a bone saw” ‘cause there was one time I was having an operation and it was kinda experimental. I didn’t have any painkillers and had the operation done while I was watching it. There was a drill twelve inches through my leg into the bone. It was pretty gnarly.”

When Mat recounts these stories his voice isn’t boastful, he has a surprised urgency, as if writing the book has really made him think if all the injuries for the first time.

Mat Hoffman is understated. He isn’t an evangelical guy. Sure he has his passions, and he pursues them harder than most. But he’s not the preaching type. Yet he feels strongly that BMX opened avenues and attitudes that could well have gone untapped. At school he was pushed into the usual handful of traditional team sports, but none of them held much appeal. His elder brother had a motorbike and would take Mat to motor-cross events. When he was nine he got his first motorbike and started racing, but it was jumping, not speed that he loved. At twelve, he saw BMX and it all clicked.

“It was great. You didn’t have coaches telling you what was possible and what was not, what you could do and what you couldn’t.  You defined that; you decided what was possible and what was not. It became a reflection of you; it became a sport as an art rather than sport as competition. That really attracted me. From there I was totally dedicated, it just grew for me.“

Extreme sports are often called free sports. Self-expression, individuality, freedom are themes that recur when Mat talks about riding his bike. They also punctuate the language of other people who take part in extreme sports, from the top athlete with their own manufacturing firm and Playstaion game, down to the kid at the local skate park or vert ramp. Mat feels rules; regulations, teamwork and tradition are bad when they stifle individuality. He wants to see kids getting the option of BMX or skateboarding instead of football or athletics.

“I think it’s something that should be in schools, because with these kinda sports you don’t get a template of what you should do. They are “Hey use your own mind, you tell us what’s possible. Don’t let someone else define the limits for you, you define the limits for yourself.” Most sports don’t encourage that and the so-called extreme sports really do. It gives you a constant challenge. It’s a reflection of you; it’s like talking without saying anything. It’s a different definition of sport.”

And it’s a definition that Mat is constantly refining. Even though the attempt at going as high as he could nearly killed him once, Mat couldn’t let it go. It took eight years before he attempted it again, mainly because his family and friends were always stopping him from trying. They were understandably nervous. One day, Mat was trying out a new half pipe that he had built, it was thirteen foot high, big but not huge. He was riding the pipe, getting fifteen foot of air above it’s lip and he just got thinking. Mat’s into physics. He claim’s not to be an expert, but he has a curiosity for the forces that let him feel like he’s flying and the ones that grab him like a mailed fist and snatch him back to earth. He started working out what would happen if he made the ramp bigger.
“The physics said that if I hit it at 60mph the G force is going to be the same so the ramp is going to feel similar but it’s going to give me twice as much vertical speed so I can bust out 30 feet. I just thought, “It’s possible. I’m doing it.” I knew I could be done but my friends were like “you’re biting off a lot and there could be fatal consequences” so that’s why they were a little paranoid when I went for it last time. But you have to keep your blood pumping, to do risky things is what makes you feel you are alive, so whenever you feel dormant you have to go out and wake yourself up.”

He built a new ramp, a twenty four foot quarter pipe, was towed by a motorcycle to 55mph, hit the ramp and jumped twenty six and a half foot clear of the lip, that’s fifty and a half foot off the ground, breaking his own world record.

Mat Hoffman is an existentialist who defines his life by defying the physical law of gravity. He seems to be on a constant crusade to push the boundaries of his own abilities, to gain new experiences, to go higher. But these experiences are dangerous; they induce fear, yet Mat sees fear as a hindrance. He has learnt to manage it, to block it out. The more risk the more his mind fights the fear.

“If you let fear into your head and there’s fifty percent fear and fifty percent focus there’s only half your mind that you can use to concentrate. So you learn to butt out that fear fifty percent.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was wrong when he said “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. OK, fear can be debilitating. It can cause you to freeze up when what you really need to do is react, quickly. But fear is there to tell you something. It is there to warn that your health, well being or life span is under threat. Being able to block out fear and just focus allows Mat to pull of the outrageous stunts that have become his trademark. But it has also shut out those psychological sirens.

“That’s what happened recently when I crashed on the big ramp. I slammed and I was in and out of consciousness for three days.”

The same ramp that sent him so high almost put him six foot under. He’s dismantled the ramp now and swears he won’t go that high again. It’s not because of fear. For most people that would be reason enough and no one could call him a coward if it was. The ramp was pulled down because Mat has a baby daughter. He remembers looking at her during the days after that crash, when his mind was slipping in and out of consciousness.

“She was starting to become interactive and smiling and I thought, “now I have a second passion and my first passion nearly took everything away from me.” I’ve always believed that if you want to experience all the pleasure and success you have to be able to willing and able to take the pain and failures. I wanted to experience everything that life has to offer so I was willing to risk it all. But now I want to be here for my daughter.”

So now Mat’s playing it safe. He’s taken up B.A.S.E. Jumping. Not only that but he threw himself off a cliff that three days earlier killed a woman who’d made 2000 jumps, way more than Mat – and he jumped WITH his bike.

“My passion is to go through the air with my bike. I wanted to see what it felt like to go off a 3200foot cliff with my bike and how long I could hold onto it. I held onto it for about five seconds then I was picking up speed, I got to about 110mph and it flipped me upside down. I was getting faster all the time and then my pant leg got caught in my chain. Luckily I got my leg out of it and managed to track away from the outcrop. It woke me up. There’s no gimmick in B.A.S.E.-jumping. There are no injuries in B.A.S.E.-jumping. You don’t get a second chance. It’s focus, altitude aware and time aware. You don’t get to count; you just have to know. It’s intense, but it’s very challenging. It’s very fun and it’s the thrill of a lifetime. It’s peaceful in a sense too. You’re in a place where not many people have been. When I landed I was the most alive I’ve ever been. I was like “This is great. This is life.” It was nice.”

A few years ago, to look at Mat Hoffman was to see a dead man riding. His chances of survival seemed slim. He lived life like burning magnesium, searing with intensity but with an energy that could not be sustained. Now when you look into his eyes you see a man that wants to live a long time. He still wants to stuff every second he can with sensations from the edge, but his priority now is survival. He wants to live to see his baby grow into a woman.

“I’ll never kill myself. I may have if I didn’t have a baby. If there’s a risk that’s has enough of a fatal chance to it I’ll second guess that and look at it through my baby’s eyes before I look at it through my own. I’ll make sure I’m safe and sound. When I do die I want to come back as a soaring bird. I have to be something that has great views, I love views.”


Esquire, 2002

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