From a young age, Connor Fields remembers being competitive—very competitive. He played in a lot of team sports as a child growing up in Las Vegas and always wanted to win. But that was challenging as a kid because not all the other 6-year-olds on his soccer or baseball teams cared quite as much about winning, and he got frustrated when others didn’t want to match his effort.
His parents saw his frustration and steered him toward individual sports where he would have more control. His mom saw a flier for BMX racing at a local racetrack, and he decided to give it a try. He was 7 years old when he first raced and, around 11 years old, started really focusing on BMX racing competitively.
“I loved [BMX racing] because it was something I could control,” Connor said. “It was exciting because every race was different, every track was different, and I got to race against different people each time.”
When Connor was 15, he watched the first-ever BMX racers compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and he set his sights on qualifying to race in the Olympics one day. Over the next several years, he split his time between Las Vegas and Southern California, where he trained with top athletes at the Team USA Chula Vista Olympic Training Center.
He qualified for his first Olympic competition in London four years later at 19 years old. That year, he took seventh place, which only fueled his desire to work harder and get back to the Olympics in four years. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, he took home the first-ever gold medal for a Team USA BMX athlete. He started planning his competition in Tokyo in 2020 knowing it might be his last opportunity. Like many Olympic sports, BMX requires intense training and takes a toll on your body, so competing after age 30 is difficult to do.
As we all know, the Tokyo Olympics did not happen in 2020. The competition was delayed a year because of COVID-19, which meant another year of grueling training and competitions to qualify. Connor made it to the Games, won his quarterfinal round, and entered the second day of competition as the number one seed. He competed in two of the three semifinals and was sitting atop the leaderboard. All he had to do was finish in the top half of his final heat to get a chance to race for another gold medal.
What happened next was definitely not part of the plan. Another rider collided with Connor while landing a jump just nine seconds into the third (and last) semifinal qualifier. Connor went headfirst over the handlebars and hit the track hard. In an interview with The New York Times, Team USA chief medical officer Dr. Jonathan Finoff called it “the worst injury of the Tokyo Summer Games.” Officially, Connor’s diagnosis was a subarachnoid hemorrhage and subdural hematoma—bleeding and pooling blood on the surface of his brain. Multiple nerve fibers in his brain were torn, along with injuries to several other parts of his body that included a collapsed lung, torn shoulder ligaments, a torn bicep, and broken ribs. He even stopped breathing for a short time on the track and emergency crews had to open an airway. The only good news at the time was that Connor wasn’t paralyzed.
Connor was unconscious as they transported him to a hospital, then in and out of consciousness for several days following the accident. When he woke up in a Tokyo hospital three days later, his memory was very fuzzy. He didn’t remember much the morning of the competition, and definitely didn’t remember the accident. To add to his confusion, nobody around him at the hospital spoke enough English to provide him with clear information about his condition, diagnosis, or treatment. (Team USA doctors were able to eventually get into the hospital to help him understand what was happening.)
After a week in Tokyo, Connor was transported back to the U.S. He was taken to University of Utah Hospital because it’s part of the Team USA partner network of hospital facilities. Then, he checked into the Craig H. Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital. It wasn’t the first time he had worked with doctors in the Team USA network, having broken his wrist a few years prior.
“I had full trust and faith in [the Team USA] medical network, so when they said I would go to U of U Hospital, I trusted that I was getting the best possible care,” Connor said.
What surprised him most about his time in the rehab center was the number of specialists he met with—experts in motor skills, verbal skills, audio, and visual. “I felt very supported,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but it would be a success with all these people having a role in my recovery.”
As a BMX racer, Connor was no stranger to injuries. He had his share of bruises, broken bones, concussions, and torn ligaments over the years. But with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), the recovery process was much less clear. Nobody could give him a specific recovery timeline or even tell him how much of his brain function would return as he worked through rehab. He had always trusted his training and medical professionals in the past, though, and this time would be no different.
“I was going to do everything they say, and more,” Connor said. “If they tell me to do something three times, I’ll do it five.” He also took it on himself to do some additional research into nutrition and how that could improve his chances of recovery. He consulted with his therapists and doctors from U of U Health and Team USA, eliminating things like processed sugars and alcohol that might delay or harm his recovery chances. He shared his research with therapists and doctors in the hopes that they could use it to help other patients in the future.
But recovering from a TBI is hard, even when you’re used to grueling training as an Olympic athlete. The process wasn’t linear by any means—more like a consistent positive trendline with plenty of ups and downs along the way. At first, he couldn’t do more than about an hour of rehabilitation before he needed to rest. Then, that would progress to two hours, then three, until he could make it through the day without a nap.
“It was never a question of whether I would do it,” Connor said. “Of course, I had doubts and insecurities along the way, but I never wavered in my commitment to recovery.” A lot of that came from his experience training at the highest level of sport. “As an Olympic athlete, you can’t have any doubts that you can win. You don’t say, ‘Hopefully I make it and maybe I get lucky.’ You put in the work to make it happen.”
After about a month at Neilsen Rehabilitation Hospital, he was discharged to continue virtual therapy at home. Over time, he has made a full recovery, something doctors were not sure would happen. In fact, most medical professionals who see his brain scans and MRIs from those early days are amazed at where he is today. He completed his final therapy session in May 2022 and is now completely recovered.
Connor was invited to give a keynote speech at the Brain Injury Alliance of Utah Wellness Fair in May 2022. Several of his U of U Health therapists were in attendance to hear him give the hour-long inspirational speech, which was a special way to close the chapter on his recovery almost a year after the TBI left him and his doctors unsure of whether he would ever be able to speak properly again.
He also got back on his bike this year to see if he wanted to return to competition, but ultimately decided to retire.
“When you go through something like that, it’s impossible for it to not change your outlook and perspective,” Connor said. “At 10:30 am [on July 30, 2021], the worst thing that could happen to me was getting fourth place at the Olympics. Today, I would give anything to finish fourth place at the Olympics. In that split second, it changes everything. I’m just thankful I’m okay and that I had a full recovery despite the long odds.”