Sport: Excuuuse Me for Living

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1995

Sport: Excuuuse Me for Living

Can Dave Cullinan, cocky heart patient, recapture the worlds?
By Eric Hagerman

"I'm going to serve John Tomac a big can of whup-ass when I get fit," says 25-year-old professional mountain biker Dave Cullinan, miffed by the fact that a rider he once dominated is now the event's U.S. champion. Of course, coming from someone who spent a year on the sidelines after open-heart surgery, Cullinan's boast seems a bit far-fetched. But the way the exuberant, six-foot-one, 190-pound Californian figures it, all that stands in his way at this month's world championships in Kirchzarten, Germany, is a little lung capacity.

"I consider myself a better rider than most of those guys," says Cullinan, downhill's 1992 world champion and a larger-than-life presence in the sport. "But I just don't have the horsepower yet." Indeed, his talent has been lagging a bit behind his talk so far this season, but most observers feel his return to the downhill--in which riders hurtle down ski trails at speeds up to 60 mph--is a miracle in itself.

In March of last year, Cullinan was rushed to a hospital after complaining of severe chest pain, the result of an aortic aneurysm that burst the next morning. Surgeons replaced one of his heart valves with a titanium unit and ordered him to quit his dangerous line of work, because the medication required by the new valve could cause massive internal bleeding in the event of a crash.

The loss of his livelihood turned out to be just the start of an utterly tragic year for Cullinan. He and his wife divorced, and his father died suddenly. Through it all, Cullinan persevered, promising anyone who would listen that he'd be back. Then last November he heard that another racer, Jeff Osguthorpe, had undergone a similar procedure using a valve from a human donor and as a result could resume competing. He immediately chose to go back under the knife.

With the new valve installed, Cullinan soon began to look like his old self, taking second place in a World Cup race last June. At the finish, Cullinan sobbed unabashedly. "I can't believe how good I rode," he explained. "It's so gnarly for me to be back."

But at this year's worlds, Cullinan will find that the downhill has changed with last season's emergence of a host of stronger, more agile French riders. Gone are the days when pure fearlessness--and a little extra ballast--was the hallmark of a champion, and Cullinan, perhaps sensing this shift, has toned down his rhetoric a bit. "Of course I want to win the worlds again," he says with uncharacteristic humility. "But really, anything I do this year is gravy."

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