From a BMX hero to a heroin addict and back again. The story of American racer Steven Cisar is one of extraordinary extremes.
As a young rider, Steven was one of the best in the world. In 2008, aged 23 years old, he came second in the World Championships and was expected to represent his nation at the 2008 Olympics before a crash in the qualifying stages denied him the chance. It was after that crash that things started to change.
A marijuana habit lead to pills, which lead to rehab, heroin, the loss of a once accomplished career, a family, and so much more. But that wasn’t the end of the story…
When I speak on the phone with Steven, he’s just arrived for morning training practice ahead of some upcoming competition. A few years earlier this sort of stability would have seemed unthinkable.
A quick scan of Steven's story highlights his crash in 2008 at the Olympic qualification trials as the stand-out moment when things took a turn for the worse.
"It’s easy to use the race as an excuse as but that really wasn’t it. It was just bad decision making."
“Looking back at it, I could’ve been more prepared," admits Steven. “But I was young and didn’t how much hard work you can or should actually put into it."
Steven went higher than he would normally go in the first turn, which meant too much speed and resulted in his disastrous crash. But did he blame that race for his downward spiral to addiction afterwards?
“No, it was more the age I was at. I was young, making good money, and I was always into smoking weed. I had moved away from my parents and was down to experiment at the time. It’s easy to use the race as an excuse as but that really wasn’t it. It was just bad decision making."
The First Step Below
One bad decision lead to another and things got serious fast. Racing BMX took a back seat to the drugs, and the life of the rider began to swiftly unravel.
“I was not putting as much hard work into winning races. I was losing interest," he told me.
The prescription pills Steven was taking at this point to relieve the pain from his injury meant he was often too ill to race. It soon got to the point where it was clear that rehab was essential.
“The first time I went into rehab, I still had my parents support. I had a girlfriend of seven years and siblings who were supporting me. Rehab was about trying to show them I could do it, but at the same time, I didn’t want it myself at the time.
“I wasn’t ready for it. I loved how the drugs made me feel. I was insecure and they made me feel not so."
In retrospect, Steven explains that he wasn't fully committed to healing himself the first time he went into rehab.
After leaving for his addiction to prescription drugs, Steven was offered heroin by friends he'd met there. “Obviously if they suggested anything, I was interested."
What started with one pill had ultimately lead to an addiction to prescription drugs and consequently something far worse, heroin.
By this point the BMX was gathering dust, and Steven had inevitably begun to get into trouble with the law.
“After I got arrested the first time I was a little more serious about it, but my parents were still showing me support, so I thought I could still get away with little things here and there. That’s what led to the second arrest."
The Fated Fall
After being caught smoking heroin and arrested for a second time, Steven was given two options: go to prison for five years or enter a restricted rehab programme. He took the latter.
“I needed that second arrest to kick me into another gear," the rider admits, taking a moment to gather his thoughts.
“My parents and family were over me. You feel like you have nobody... Man, I had sold all the clothes on my back and I was going into rehab with barely any clothes to take. I started thinking ‘this is not the life I want to be living’. I knew I could be so much better.
What brought about that change? “I would see the look on my parents face, their disappointment, and the struggles they were going through because of me, and I couldn’t take it anymore. I needed to change."
Even throughout his addictions, Steven still knew at the back of his mind that there was still sport and his talent on a BMX bike.
The Road To Redemption
Certainly, while love for his family may have given Steven the drive he needed to get sober, his bike gave him the vehicle he needed to get back to where he wanted to be.
Unfortunately, many people in BMX and his personal life still remained unconvinced that Steven had truly ditched his addictions for good and wiped the dust off the BMX.
“When I first made the decision [to get back on the bike], I still didn’t have any support. Everyone wanted me to get a regular job and live a regular life. They didn’t believe in my abilities anymore, and I understood that, but I had to show them, and prove to myself that I could still do this.
“When I started riding again everything started coming together. I got invited to a race which was great exposure, and even though I didn’t do that well, I met my coach there, and that got me to the level I’m at now."
Even today, Steven still faces some doubt in the face of people who think he could go down that path again.
“It’s a struggle to have people believe in me again though because my past always gets brought up. It’s always going to haunt me, but I’m good with it now, and I’m going to keep pushing forward now to reach my goals."
It’s a path that Steven has fought hard to return to, having battled to reclaim his life. It has an Olympic qualification race as a defining moment on its timeline, and now, this path is one that could have a place at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro waiting in the future, alongside a full-circle redemption for Steven Cisar.
“That goal is always going to be there in my mind," he admits. “I can’t overthink it though. I’ve just got to work hard and do my training and if that’s meant to be, it’s meant to be."
Apart from his Olympic dream, what else has Steven got assigned for the future? “I’m just looking forward to riding, being in the sport of BMX again and growing with it. It’s what I want to do and where I want to be."
It’s certainly been a long time since Steven has been able to say that he is where he wants to be in life.
After a past term that was turbulent to say the least, the rider has commendably fought back from unthinkable depths to take back the life he always knew he could have.
Now, the future holds anticipation instead of abyss, and podium riding is very much back on the cards for the athlete, who is once again riding amongst the best BMX racers in the world.
The road right back to the top of BMX racing will be a tough one still, but if there is one man who knows a thing or two about defying the odds, it’s Steven Cisar – the man who fought back from the brink of oblivion.