With One Fully-Functioning Arm, Cody Schafer is Probably Still Faster Than You

A traumatic dirt bike crash took Cody Schafer out of the race and paralyzed his left arm. Thanks to an uncommon surgery and discipline, he's back on the podium.

Cody Schafer was going about 25MPH down a dusty service road on his dirt bike when he and another rider collided in September 2019. Schafer had done this race, in Los Alamos, New Mexico before. This time, he’d missed a course marker to veer left and sped straight down the road toward two riders, going about the same speed, who had missed the same marker and turned back around.

The next thing Schafer, 32, remembers is being woken up by the third rider who witnessed the crash. “Cody, wake up!” He was on the side of the road, his legs above his head. He had a broken wrist, broken bone under his face, his knee was hyperextended and he couldn’t move his left arm.

Back at base camp, Schafer’s wife and father were cooking breakfast at their Sprinter van. Someone walked down to their camp to tell them Cody had been in a crash and though he would be coming down on a backboard, not to be alarmed. Then, they heard three ambulances with their sirens blaring, speeding up the mountain. Schafer’s father and wife quickly realized this wasn’t an ordinary crash.

Schafer estimates it took roughly an hour from the collision in Los Alamos for him to see first responders, then the back of an ambulance, the belly of a helicopter, and the bright interior of a hospital hallway in Albuquerque.

The doctors started on CT scans to monitor his bleeding brain and every three hours he went back into the tube. Schafer’s shoulder screamed and he told doctors to pop it back in the socket, but that wasn’t their concern, nor the problem, as they focused on his brain. As his internal bleeding slowed and his injuries turned from life-threatening to stable, he learned his left arm had been paralyzed in the crash.

In the collision, Schafer’s head was pulled so violently one way that it separated the nerves in his arm from the vertebra in his neck. Some of the nerves had been pulled completely and others were “seriously stretched.” Oddly, he still had function in his left hand, but between his hand and neck, his left arm was dead.

After three weeks in two different hospitals, Schafer packed up his belongings and left the hospital to start a much different life than before he became a patient.

“[I was] questioning, how am I going to live now? It’s not just bikes being part of my life and that being gone, but the bigger things. How am I going to work? How am I going to do that kind of stuff? And thinking that hope was gone,” he said.

Life on two wheels

Schafer got his first bicycle at three-years-old. The pedal bike was a prerequisite for him to get a dirt bike, his mom told him. Before he twisted a throttle, he had to turn some pedals without training wheels. Bicycles and dirt bikes “were two things that went together perfectly,” said Schafer.

When he wasn’t dirt biking, he was BMXing or building dirt jumps for his pedal bike. One hand washed the other and time on two wheels helped the rider develop into a professional athlete. His parents recognized his passion for both and it became a way for the family to bond but also a tool to keep the fast-paced kid out trouble.

“I think for them, it was just a really cool thing for us to all be together. It worked great to keep me out of any trouble growing up. It was real clear—the expectations. You [mess] up, your dirt bike is gone.”

Schafer competed in technical and endurance-based dirt bike formats; six day stage races with eight-hour back-to-back days in Central and South America and Europe, uphill enduro races, and 12-hour races, trading laps back and forth with a partner. In 2013 and 2017, Schafer and his team won his class in the Baja 1000 on dirt bike.

Photo courtesy Cody Schafer

Back and forth, he’d go between the dirt bike and the mountain bike. “That whole time, the bicycle was a training tool,” he said. “Not something to go do just for fun.” The skills between both were fluid. On the dirt bike, he learned line choice at speed, helping him get faster on the mountain bike, and on the mountain bike, he learned crucial bike handling skills that transferred to the moto.

“The terrain you’re reading directly crosses over. You have so many neutral bike skills and feel what the bike is doing underneath you. It crosses over so easily.”

In 2017, he took on his first enduro MTB race, the Santa Fe round of the Big Mountain Enduro series. The course was lauded by many as one of the steepest and most technical rounds of the series. He snagged 16th in a tight field, one minute behind the winner of the amateur division.

Whether racing on his mountain bike or dirt bike, Schafer found his passion and purpose gripping handlebars and churning dirt under his tires. The result; an incomparable feeling of clarity and sense of freedom.

“I don’t know where else to find that,” he said.

A new life, a new hope

Photo courtesy Cody Schafer

After his crash, Schafer went home to Colorado and completed physical therapy to the extent doctors thought it would be beneficial. When he graduated, he was told that his arm, hanging heavily at his side, was as good as it would get. Schafer felt defeated. As an athlete, he’d always been able to improve his physical shortcomings through work and discipline. How was that not a possibility anymore?

In the hospital in New Mexico, a close friend familiar with another dirt biker’s injury, mentioned to Schafer that he might have a brachial plexus injury. The brachial plexus is a bundle of nerves sending signals from the spinal cord to the shoulder, arm and hand. Minor injuries are common in contact sports and newborn brachial plexus injuries are somewhat common, according to the Mayo Clinic.

From there, the hunt was on. They found a lot of surgeons for newborns, but finding a doctor who specialized in adult brachial plexus injuries was much harder. Connecting with other physical therapists and surgeons though, Schafer finally got referred to a doctor in St. Louis who would meet with him.

Schafer and his family flew out for a consultation. It went so well, the doctor said she could operate on him the next day. They cut into his arm from a different point on four different surgeries; on the inside and outside of the arm from the shoulder to the elbow, then on his back, and by his rib cage.

Each surgery was about eight hours long, and they rerouted and replaced nerves in his arm with the hope that eventually, he’d regain some function in his arm. When he woke up, the doctors told him they believed it went well and gave him some exercises to work on, but it would be months before he saw any progress.

The ice cream scoop is what would get Schafer’s arm moving again, doctors told him. Grab an invisible scooper, dig your fist inward, and the movement should send nerve signals from his brain to his spinal cord and then to a nerve routed to his wrist that split off at his bicep.

So Schafer scooped and scooped for months and finally one day, seven or eight months after the surgery, he looked down at his arm and saw a flicker in his bicep. A week later in a swimming pool, he moved his arm. Damaged nerves grow back at a slow rate of about 1mm per day, but they did grow, and Schafer put them to work.

 “When you look at it from day to day, I don’t notice the improvement I’ve had, but when you take it from a year ago, I couldn’t even move this thing,” he said.

Back on the bike with a new perspective

Schafer with his left arm at full upward extension.

Schafer didn’t wait long after his surgery to ride. In May of 2020, just a few months after his surgeries and less than a year after his crash, he, his wife and a buddy went to Green Mountain, one of the mellower trail systems near his home on the Colorado Front Range for a mountain bike ride.

“It was a good call to take it slow, but like everything I do, I just want to do it fast,” he said.

His wife and friend made Schafer stay behind them. Schafer’s left hand fell off the handlebars every time he hit a G-out or a big bump. He’d take his right hand, grab his left wrist, and mount it on the grip again. After a few months of rebuilding his abilities, Schafer reached his friend’s pace on rides and then took the lead.

In January of 2021, he had surgery on his knee and repaired his PCL, MCL, LCL and meniscus, all torn in the crash. That summer, after his knee felt stable again, he wanted to race. Schafer raced the Revolution Enduro in Steamboat Springs and Aspen, Colorado and placed 7th in his age group in both, just four to five minutes behind the overall winner.

He’d waited to ride a dirt bike again, thinking the heavier machine would be harder to handle, but it was much the opposite. With more weight on the saddle of the dirt bike he felt more capable handling it through corners and using his legs and hips to control the bike.

With another year’s progress behind him, better grip strength and better control in his arm, he completed two more enduros in 2022. He raced the same two as the previous year, and this time snagged the top spot in his group in Aspen Snowmass, three minutes behind the overall winner. In Steamboat, he placed 3rd in his category, two-and-a-half minutes behind the overall winner.

When we met near the end of 2022, Schafer said he’ll keep racing mountain bikes and dirt bikes, but his main focus for the new year will be UTV racing since that’s where he can race at the highest level still.

He’s still going to physical therapy, scooping imaginary ice cream, and has nerve pain all the time—erratic shocks and muscle spasms—but his grip strength in his hand and the capability in his arm gets better every day.

And though his priorities in competition may have shifted, so has his approach to riding.

“It changed my perspective of doing stuff as a group activity and going for fun,” he said. “You don’t have to go as fast as you can everywhere you can. You can take time to teach [other] people what your brain knows, but your body isn’t letting you do.”

That pressure release from the injury allowed Schafer to take it easier on himself too. He won’t stop trying to win when he does race, but he doesn’t feel the need to race all the time and pursue championship titles on his moto. It’s a gift in itself he says.

“Before I got hurt, I won both the local championships in the pro class for six years in a row,” he said. “And the pressure of it just sucked. I felt like I had to go and win every weekend or people would look at me like what’s wrong with you. Now it’s like I don’t have to win. I have one freaking arm that works!”