Making Texas Proud at the X Games

By Leah Fisher Nyfeler – May 1, 2014
Photography Brian Fitzsimmons

Morgan Wade is an artist, and right now, his paintbrush is a BMX bike. That’s not to say his medium one day won’t be welding, monoprinting, or oil painting, but these days, he’s content to find his bliss sighting new lines, making incredible transfers, mastering back-to-back moves, and finding big air. His next canvas will be the Freestyle Park course and the MegaRamp at the X Games at Austin’s Circuit of The Americas in June.

Wade is the kind of rider who makes the crowd gasp. He goes big and all out, driven by a sincere and encompassing desire to experience something new and to provide a great show in the process.

“As long as I go out there and have fun—and it shows—that’s what matters to me, and that’s honestly what people want to see,” Wade said.

Since 2006, Wade has garnered four X Games medals (one gold, two silvers, and a bronze) and, if all goes well this year, he might just set a world record for height on the MegaRamp in front of his home state crowd.

Born to BMX

Wade grew up in Tyler, Texas. His parents, Sally and Leigh, moved there in 1983, the year he was born. All three of the Wade boys (Jon, Ben, and Morgan) were active, and their parents encouraged a sense of healthy exploration, both in their free time and in their education. “I always coached the boys to come up with something new, something creative,” said Sally, a well-known artist who creates original silver jewelry. The boys were homeschooled in order to “make the most well-rounded children God could give us,” and that educational structure provided a unique opportunity. His parents ascertained that Wade studied best from about 9 a.m. to noon, after which time he needed to get outside and move. Each of the kids was encouraged in activities, and Wade took gymnastics lessons; the trampoline out back was a favorite. He had an innate sense of where his body was in the air and quickly mastered flips and other more advanced moves.

Wade got his first bike at age 5. “That’s the starting point, in my opinion,” he said. “I kind of got the itch.” He loved it and spent some six hours a day riding. He and his brothers built dirt jumps in the field behind their house; they pulled each other behind their bikes (often on top of various auto parts), in the field and on the road, and crafted ramps out of plywood. “I didn’t actually start riding freestyle BMX where I was trying to do tricks until I was 14 years old, and that was when I got my first real freestyle-type bike,” Wade said. Sally remembers that, by then, they had realized that their youngest had a special talent.

Around 1999, the city of Tyler built a skate park, where Wade found a like-minded community. “It was a huge boost,” he said. “I could go riding multiple times a week. And there were some older riders out there, and we’d kind of learn together. I guess you could say they fit that ‘mentor’ role.” Those older guys, part of the original BMX scene in Tyler, introduced Wade to various competitions around Texas, and they traveled to Austin and Dallas for street rides and to visit BMX parks and trails. 

Making the Leap to Pro Rider

Camp Woodward, in Pennsylvania, was a turning point for Wade. “It’s literally a hillside full of skate parks, but it’s a summer camp,” he explained. “They have instructors there who teach you stuff. Typically, they’re veteran riders who already know how to do the stuff that kids are trying to learn to do.” Wade went to Camp Woodward when he was 18; later, he’d go as a visiting instructor. The action sport camp (which also includes a gymnastics/cheer camp and digital media camp) provided instruction plus unlimited time to ride and play.

“That was a very, very good place to learn, and I learned a lot there,” Wade said. “Basics, fundamentals, and then those are all building blocks. Once you get the fundamentals of riding down, it’s really open. And that’s the beauty of freestyle BMX; it’s exactly what it says, it’s freestyle—you can do whatever you want.”

Wade was exploring his creative, artistic side and had earned a scholarship to Tyler Junior College in art. He was showing work with other students each semester, but he was also making a name for himself in BMX freestyle park events. “Morgan got a gig with the bike circus,” said his dad Leigh, construction supervisor, Marine, and motorcycle aficionado. “He’d come out, get on a box jump, and the announcer would ask the crowd, ‘Do you want to see him do a back flip?’ The crowd would cheer and Morgan would do a standing back flip and act surprised: ‘Oh, you mean on my bike?’ And I think he had an epiphany in his approach to riding…he realized he wanted to give the audience a good show.”

Another thing Wade realized was that BMX was where he wanted to channel his creative force, and he dropped out of college. “When you can go out on a weekend and make $10,000, it’s hard to argue with that,” he said. In 2002, he turned pro, and by 2003, Wade had his first magazine cover (December issue of Ride BMX US, doing a superman-whip at Camp Woodward) and took seventh place in Pro Park at L.A.’s X Games.

In 2005, he moved to Austin, staying with a friend who lived near Oltorf and Lamar, to take advantage of all the great places to ride. “The way Austin’s set up, there’s stuff to ride everywhere,” he said. “I loved how I could just walk outside, ride downtown, get some food, and ride my bike. I hardly ever drove my car.” Some of his favorite places were the local skate parks (one near House Park) and the 9th Street dirt trails. 

“There’s street riding everywhere—stair rails and fun stuff to ride across the whole city,” Wade recalled fondly. What he truly enjoyed was the scene: “There are so many riders [in Austin]; it’s really a hub for BMX, for freestyle BMX riders in general. There are hundreds of riders in Austin. I have tons of friends down there, so there’s always someone to ride with and have a good time with.”

Riding Tandem

Natalie Wagoner was riding a BMX competition in Vancouver, Canada when she met this other rider, a guy who was in the pro class. “I didn’t know who he was,” she said. “I’d been riding competitions and traveling, but I never really paid any attention to the pros.” He told her, “I’m kind of a big deal.” She wondered if this guy was in any of the BMX magazines she owned; when she looked, Morgan Wade was on the cover of the most recent one. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve been looking at him this whole time. So then I went and cut out all the pictures of him,” she said, playfully rolling her eyes.

The two were married in 2007. “Natalie gets it,” Wade said. “She has the same understanding because she rides. She understands very well what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. It helps, and she’s very supportive, and that’s a big plus.” 

A former college athlete who competed in the javelin throw and discus, Natalie is studying for medical school and working as a scribe in the emergency room, a helpful profession considering Wade’s proclivity for crashing. She’s brought him into two worlds that are having a profound impact: healthy nutrition and CrossFit.

Natalie has embraced a Paleo diet. She pointed out that this was not due to any food allergies but simply out of a desire to “eat cleaner” and get leaner in the process. She’s having to work on her husband, though. “Morgan is getting better,” she said. “It’s hard to eat well on the road, and he’d have corn dogs, pizza, and Dr Pepper. I kind of have to introduce him to things.” Lately, she’s experimented with baking and has developed some killer pumpkin pie muffins.

She also brought Wade to her CrossFit workouts. Natalie began going to Cune Peña’s Premier CrossFit in Tyler almost two years ago. Peña is a fitness veteran, a former bodybuilder (NPC Mr. Texas, 1993) and trainer, with more than 20 years of experience. He’d owned a traditional gym for years; when he needed a change of pace, he opened Premier CrossFit in 2009. When Wade’s in town, he and Natalie exercise together: “It’s so fun for me to work out next to him,” she said. Peña describes Wade as “naturally strong,” and the training plan he developed is designed to increase Wade’s endurance. “Morgan is great to work with,” he said. “He’s disciplined and knows the importance of core-based training. We’re also working on flexibility; his forearms are particularly tight from gripping all the time.” 

Travel also takes a toll. In just one year, Wade got status on United Airlines through frequent flights to places such as China, New Zealand, London, and Singapore. He likes having the workout of the day (WOD) from Peña because he can do those on the road using body weight. “I work out when I’m at home,” Wade explained. “When I’m in Tyler, I’m probably at the gym three times more than I’m on my bike. When I’m away, I’m riding my bike every day.” Endurance is a big factor in successfully pulling off one huge move after another in competition.

“We basically have a 60-second run in park competition,” Wade explained. “You are at a full sprint for 60 seconds and, when you get to the end of it, if your lungs aren’t burnin’ and hurtin’, then you weren’t trying too hard. I typically feel like I’m going to puke at the end of a run because I push it so hard for those 60 seconds. 

“It doesn’t sound like a long time, but that’s an eternity. You’ll have a run planned out and you’ll be almost to the end of it, and you’ll hear the announcer yell out, ‘You’ve got 20 seconds left,’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, crap.’”

Spills and Thrills

Wade’s dad told one of his favorite stories. “When Natalie and Morgan were on their honeymoon at the X Games in L.A., we were all walking to find a place to eat after the competition,” Leigh said. “We were at an intersection and this big rough-looking guy came over; he stuck his finger in Morgan’s face and said, ‘You! That was you!’ It was a little scary until he said, ‘That was you riding at the X Games!’ and Morgan said yes, and the guy asked if his son, a big fan, could get a picture with him. So he called the boy over for the photo but the kid wouldn’t smile. Morgan loves kids; he talked to him and found out the boy didn’t want to smile because he didn’t have his front teeth. Morgan said, ‘That’s not a problem; look at me,’ and gave him a big smile to show that he was missing a couple of teeth, too. The kid was all grins after that.” Wade’s mom Sally said, “It’s awful. My family is full of dentists. I just wish he’d get a new front tooth—you can put that in the article.”

BMX riding can be hard on the body, and Wade is known for big crashes and walking (or dancing) them off. He ruptured his spleen in Brazil in 2011 after crashing on the MegaRamp. Physically, he came out well; he had quality care in the Brazilian hospital, where surgeons repaired the organ, and he suffered no lasting problems. Mentally, “it was a bit of a game getting back into riding the MegaRamp and stuff. I was pining to ride in the hospital, but when you’re jumping back into something you got physically hurt on a few months back, it definitely takes it’s toll mentally; you have all the ‘what ifs’ going through your head.”

Wade credits his innate sense of spatial awareness, that same ability that made him a star gymnastics pupil, for successfully navigating crashes. “Spatial awareness plays a huge part in crashing because if you know where you are in the air, you can try to figure out how to get out of it,” he explained. “Crashing over and over again by accident, you kind of figure out specific crashes: ‘If I’m gong to fall this way, and I turn this way and I fall this way, I can get out of it.’

“I learned how to crash real quickly, and I’m good at it. I can get out of particularly hairy situations pretty quickly.”

Wade went on to say that he thinks having those numerous crashes and a variety of injuries have made him a better rider. “I’ve been hurt a lot of times, some really bad ones, but I’ve always worked my way back into it, got back on the horse,” he said. “It’s like riding a bike, so to speak; that’s just my mentality and how I’ve looked at it. Getting hurt is not as big a setback for me as it is for some guys who aren’t used to crashing.”

Taking on the MegaRamp

That same mental fortitude that serves him so well with crashing is a huge component in Wade’s success in Big Air.

BMX freestyle park, the discipline in which riders focus on creating moves (transfers, gaps, riding rails, showing flair), is where Wade’s background and expertise lie. Every park is built differently, so there’s no set course to learn. Every ride becomes a reflection of the athlete’s personal aesthetic, and there’s an acrobatic flow to those 60-second rides. Many of the riders who take on Big Air have a vert ramp background; vert ramps are essentially half pipes with an extended vertical portion, taller than 6 feet at each side. Vert riders practice launching themselves into the air to gain great height.

BMX freestyle legend Mat Hoffman constructed the first “mega ramp” in his Oklahoma backyard around 1992. It was basically a vert ramp on steroids, taller than the norm, with no roll-in ramp. That year, Hoffman set the Big Air record at 23.5 feet. Since then, big ramps have gotten even bigger and more “mega.” Now, the official X Games MegaRamp consists of a perch, where riders wait to drop in, some 90 feet above the ground. Competitors hurtle down and then opt for either a 50-foot or 70-foot jump, which takes them over a sizeable gap to a 27-foot tall quarter pipe, gathering some 45 mph of speed along the way.

In 2006, the X Games debuted the MegaRamp and only three riders (Chad Kagy, Allan Cooke, and Kevin Robinson) signed up. As a result, X Games officials issued an invitation to the other riders: “Practice it, ride it, and if you want to do it, you’re in the contest,” was how Wade remembered it. “That’s literally how fresh it was,” he said. “So everyone who was there, the BMX freestyle pros—the top of the top that was at X Games that year—a pretty good handful came out and actually tried to ride it. Two guys jumped and even hit the quarter pipe, which is obviously the dangerous and scary part of that ramp. That’s the one you can really biff on and you’re basically falling five stories flat if you mess up.

“Out of everyone who rode that ramp, I was the only one that wanted to be in the competition after I rode it. And I had to be basically forced into riding it.”

At that time, Wade was riding for Etnies Shoes and his manager gave him a figurative push. Their conversation went something like this: “‘I think you should try this; I think you’ll love it. It’s right up your alley,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, dude, I’ve seen that thing…I’m not going to ride that.’ He said, ‘No, dude, just try it; go up there and give it a shot. I think it’s a great opportunity.’” The rest is history.

What’s it like to take on the MegaRamp for the first time? Because Wade doesn’t have access to one on a regular basis (“I live in Texas, which I wouldn’t trade for anything here on Earth”), he experiences this every time he goes to the X Games. A few riders, such as Zack Warden, have access to a MegaRamp throughout the year (Warden uses the Woodward West MegaRamp in Tehachapi, Calif.) but Wade is only dropping in at the X Games. Each time he does so, it’s been a year since he last rode it.

“The best way to do it is to go up there and not think about it. Just roll in and go,” Wade explained. “If you start to think about it, it starts to get in your head and that’s where that mind game comes in.

“It’s a little nerve-wracking the first run, every time. Most guys will go up there and get on the landing of the jump, pedal down there, and hit the quarter pipe a few times, and just go a couple of feet out of the quarter pipe because they’re just starting on the landing and the gap.

“I don’t do that. I go [for pre-practice], get the gear on, and go straight to the top of the biggest jump they have and I just drop in and go. I get it out of the way just right up front; that way, I don’t have to work up to it at every event. From the time I’m on the ramp, I’m riding what I’m going to ride in the event and I’m practicing it, enjoying it, and having fun. Everything’s bigger in Texas, so I gotta do it that way.”

Wade sees the MegaRamp as the perfect vehicle for grabbing some big air. That inaugural year, on his first practice, he hit 14 feet “without trying” (in BMX, height of a jump is measured from the metal coping on the ramp to the rider’s apex).

“Here I was, getting 14, 15 feet without even trying,” Wade remembered. “That’s a dream. There’s no effort, and you get to have all the fun with no effort—that was the way I looked at it, and I was immediately hooked. They had to pry me off the ramp when practice was over. I was scratching and clawing, ‘Nooo, I don’t want to go!’”

Since that first time, Wade has been chasing a BMX Big Air world record. He’s gotten pretty close—the world record is 27 feet, set by Kevin Robinson in 2008, and Wade’s hit 25. Every time he has a shot at the MegaRamp, he gives the record a go. “I try to get a solid run score in so I have one in the bag,” he said. “If I’m going to do a trick on the quarter pipe, the way I look at it, if you don’t go over 16 or 17 feet, it shouldn’t even count as a run. It’s called Big Air; that means you’re supposed to go big, and that ramp is set up for it.

“If I get a good run down, I might just go for the speed jump to get more speed and see how high I can go, and if I can get 27, 28 feet, that’s a world record. That would be awesome.” 

 
 

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