January 13, 2015
After the Fall
By Brittany Ghiroli
Matt Chan talks about his recovery from a near-fatal mountain biking accident, and his return to CrossFit competition. 
Matt Chan talks about his recovery from a near-fatal mountain biking accident, and his return to CrossFit competition. 


Photos courtesy of Cherie Chan. 

"There's a voice in the back of my head that says, 'Keep pushing, keep pushing, keep pushing.'"
 

On July 4, 2014, Matt Chan and his wife Cherie set out for a quick bike ride.

It was a short drive from their Boulder, Colorado, home to the East Magnolia Trails, and the Chans—passionate riders long before they were big-name CrossFit athletes—were hoping to check out a new route before Matt’s parents came over for a barbecue later that day.

As has become tradition, Matt raced ahead. A four-time top-10 CrossFit Games finisher—including a second-place finish behind Rich Froning in 2012—Matt slowed down at intersections and waited for Cherie, who was unusually stubborn about not wanting to bike that morning. It was raining, it was a holiday, and Cherie every bit as adventurous as her husband had one of those unexplainable feelings about the ride.

Three miles in, Matt’s bike stopped and the Chans' lives began to play out in slow motion.

With a pool of blood in his groin, Cherie tried unsuccessfully to use her search-and-rescue background to help carry him out. Matt tried to stand several times, thinking he could shake off the freakish fall that caused his bike chain to get caught and his handlebars to be forced into the ground and pressed into his right hip. It was not happening.

He lay down and put his hand on the huge lump by his hip, noting the one-and-a-half liters of blood that had started to accumulate. Matt, who retired from a career as a firefighter several years ago to become a full-time CrossFit athlete, was an EMT basic. He could recognize emergencies. This was a field emergency.

Matt partially severed his femoral artery, one of the largest arteries, which provides blood to the lower portion of the body. One inch down and it would have been totally severed, meaning he would have bled out in a matter of minutes. Seven years of training as a high-level CrossFit athlete, putting in hours of Olympic lifting and metabolic-conditioning work, and it was a log on relatively flat terrain that caused a life-threatening injury to one of CrossFit’s most consistent competitors.

There’s no way of knowing if Matt’s physical condition and all the muscle tissue in the area kept the artery from totally severing. But it’s what got him back on his feet weeks later and what has him—after sitting out the 2014 season with a back injury—hitting personal records again, spending four grueling hours a day training for a return to this year’s CrossFit Games.

“I celebrate (my recovery) every day,” said Matt, who will be 37 in February. “I go skiing once a week on a leg that I may not have had. I CrossFit with friends and I don't have a ton of pressure on myself, because I’m using a leg I could have lost. But, at the same time, there’s a voice in the back of my head that says, ‘Keep pushing, keep pushing, keep pushing. Keep working on your weakness.’ So when the time rolls around, I am competing at the highest level and I’m competing (with opponents) at a high level.”

"One Miracle On Top of Another"

 

But getting where Matt is now hasn’t been easy. The potentially life-saving surgery that would occur after the accident wasn’t a sure thing. Once Cherie realized she needed help, she tried to use her cell phone. No service. About a quarter-mile away, it looked as if there was a campsite so she sprinted over.

“Leaving Matt there, that was probably the hardest part,” said Cherie, who returned with two female campers after calling 911.

Within a half hour, someone from Boulder Search and Rescue rode up on a bike, radioing in an assessment for the next wave of help. A doctor and several police officers showed up next, starting IVs in both of Matt’s arms for pain medication and getting him onto a single-wheeled backboard.

An ambulance drove him to an open field where Matt—still in mind-numbing pain despite the narcotics—was picked up by Flight for Life and taken to St. Anthony’s Central, a Level 1 Trauma Center that serves the Denver area. Matt’s bloodied leg continued to swell, but flight nurses couldn't put any pressure on the wound because there was a chance it could puncture and rupture enough to kill him.

“(It was) one miracle on top of another,” friend and endurance coach Chris Hinshaw said. “That’s the part that really resonated with me. Matt is a phenomenal human being and he’s a true contributor to this world and nothing but a positive force. It was this series of events; if any one of those things didn't happen, he wouldn't be here.”

The surgery was underway almost immediately after landing. Matt sent a text message to his family and several friends to tell them he was having his femoral artery repaired and he wasn’t sure how things were going to go. Cherie, who drove an hour-and-a-half to meet her husband at the hospital, got the message and sprinted into the emergency room, leaving her car running in the parking lot. She saw her husband for about 30 seconds before he was taken in for surgery, assured at least that he was stable.

“We went from, ‘Is he going to live?’ to ‘Is he going to have both of his legs?’” Cherie said. “We didn't know that for a good seven or eight hours.”

Matt had branches off the femoral artery and several veins repaired, as well as a limb-saving fasciectomy in three places to relieve the pressure associated with compartment syndrome. Because he had no pulse in his lower leg, three large incisions—one down his quadriceps and one on both the lateral and medial side of his lower leg—were made and left open, with the gruesome injury site already closed with 26 staples.

Five days later, Matt pleaded to avoid skin grafts and doctors were able to close the leg incisions with a two-hour surgery using massive amounts of stitches. Just bending at the hip caused excruciating pain. In the days to come, four shaky steps with a walker was enough to bring one of the world’s elite CrossFit athletes to tears.

“At that point, I wasn't worried about dying or losing my leg, but ‘what am I going to be capable of?’” said Matt, a Level 4 CrossFit coach who travels around the world teaching and certifying others as part of CrossFit’s Seminar Staff. “My leg was so messed up. I was thinking, ‘How am I ever going to be able to do what I do again?’ I was thinking about my career as a CrossFit athlete as well as my career as a CrossFit trainer. It was a tough position because I've never felt as messed up as I was.”

Ninety Percent

Matt was discharged the following week, using the first level of the couple’s home as a makeshift bedroom since he couldn’t walk up the stairs. He had to be waited on hand and foot, helped to the bathroom and with changing his clothes. Still, it was mid-July and Matt had been to every CrossFit Games since first qualifying in 2008. He wasn’t about to stop now.

“I thought it was a horrible idea,” said Cherie, who had to work the week-long event and knew what an additional burden her husband would be less than three weeks after the accident. “But, he’s like, ‘I’m going to do it, I’m going to figure it out.’ And it was the turning point.”

Once he got to California, Matt had second thoughts. He would be on crutches for just an hour or two before his leg would swell to the point where he’d have to sit down, elevate and re-wrap it. By the end of each night, he was exhausted and his leg was twice the size. But he was making it through, learning how to get in and out of cars and seeing old friends compete.

When the Chans got back from the Games, the crutches were gone. Matt started researching things to do while his leg healed, using a lot of the ideas from friend Kevin Ogar, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a weightlifting accident in January 2014. It was small—things like seated dumbbell power cleans— but it was CrossFit.

Once the stitches were removed, Matt was able to do squats, though there was a lot of caution in ripping open the sutured skin. Cherie and Hinshaw, who is based out of NorCal CrossFit in San Jose, California, worked to put together a programming plan. If things were up to Matt, he’d push too hard, too soon.

At first, Matt’s right leg—which was severely atrophied—couldn’t break parallel. At times, it would swell so much that he would get pain in his knee and ankle. He started with an empty barbell. Cherie programmed a linear strength progression that had him add 20 lb. to his back squat each time.

Initially, the vascular surgeon told Chan he would eventually return 100 percent to his daily life. But then he caught wind of some of the chatter in the hospital.

“He came back the next day to pop in and was like, ‘Hey, you know, I did a little bit of research into what you do and I plugged in your name with CrossFit,’” Matt said. “He told me 90 percent was more realistic.”

Five months post-op, Matt matched a personal record with a 445-lb. back squat. Before 2014 ended, he hit a 300-lb snatch—so much for 90 percent.

 

“I absolutely think it’s attainable for him to win regionals and get back to the Games,” said Hinshaw, who has been instrumental in helping Matt attack his weakness of endurance-based workouts. “Most athletes’ limitation is they don’t have a balanced perspective on their weaknesses and they aren't willing to spend a disproportionate time on those weaknesses.”

Hinshaw added: “The work that I program, it’s not enjoyable. Everyone loves lifting heavy. Who wants to go out and do a gnarly interval workout in the hills for an hour and 30 minutes? Matt Chan does.”

 


Recovery may always be an issue for Matt, who lives in NormaTec boots and sleeps with compression on every night. The doctors told him the swelling might always be part of his life, as they cut through so much fascia, through his lymphatic system. Still, he has his sights set on getting back to Carson, California, as a competitor once again.

“If I had hit my handlebars in a slightly different angle I could have broken the skin and died,” Matt said. “If that had punctured my skin, I would have died and Cherie would have had to been there by herself. That injury could have been the end of everything, not just competing, that was it. I'm reminded on a constant basis when I look down at my leg not just to have it but to be able to exercise and still do what I do.”

He added: “I owe it to myself and Cherie to see this thing through.”