Sports

Injuries keep him seated while others stand, but Palmer motocross champion Robert Graeber gets the job done

Sometimes Robert Graeber takes off the braces that help support his legs and he walks around the Palmer home he shares with his wife, Ashleigh. He balances himself by putting a hand on the nearest wall.

“The wife loves it,” he said. “I leave handprints all over.”

Graeber, 31, is leaving his mark all over the place these days.

Despite legs that are essentially powerless from the knees down, Graeber wrapped up a superb season of motocross racing this month by winning state and city championships in two divisions, including the pro class, home to the most elite riders.

He dominated the 450cc class at both the state and city level, winning 13 of the combined 19 races. In the pro class, he won eight out of 19 races and was in the top three 14 times.

He did it while remaining seated most of the time, lap after lap. Other racers routinely stand on the balls of their feet so they can absorb bumps and shift their weight for improved maneuverability, but not Graeber. Unless gravity separates him from the seat of his bike, he is almost always sitting.

“In a sport where standing up the majority of the time is crucial for success, he’s developed a style in which he sits down almost exclusively, yet has figured out how to make it work,” said Jim Stewart of Anchorage, a longtime Anchorage Racing Lions motocross racer.

Ask Graeber how he does it, and the answer is almost a shrug.

“I’ve just kind of become accustomed to it now. It seems so easy,” he said. “I’ve got friends who are super fast and they try sitting down and they can’t do it like I can. It takes a certain finesse, and it’s second nature to me.”

Motorsports have been in Graeber’s blood forever. His mom, Chris, is the general manager at Hatcher Pass Polaris and a former race marshal for the Iron Dog. Snowmachining was a way of life for Jim and Chris Graeber as they raised their only child, who proved to be a natural when it came to making sleds and motorbikes go fast.

Graeber was so good that at age 17, he was racing snowmachines professionally. He qualified for the 2008 Winter X Games in snocross, and although he didn’t contend for a medal, he left Aspen with a growing reputation as a rising star.

A few weeks after his X Games debut, Graeber was racing in a snocross race at New York’s McCauley Mountain when a snowmachine behind him went airborne on a jump and landed on top of Graeber and his machine.

His injuries were extensive. It broke his neck and his back. He landed face-down, and his aorta was ripped by the 1.75-inch carbide studs in the tracks of the other machine.

“It ripped my chest protector off and ripped a bunch of skin off my back,” Graeber said. “The best way I’ve heard a doctor describe it was like a bear attack. I had claw marks all the way down my back.”

Today he has a plate and four screws in his neck, two plates and six pins in his lower back, and calves that are skinny and weak.

“My left foot I can kind of twitch about an inch up or down,” he said. “On my right leg, there’s no movement at all from the knee down.”

Graeber spent weeks in New York hospitals before returning to Anchorage to continue his rehabilitation. As the months passed he graduated from wheelchair to walker, all the while thinking about a return to riding, if not racing.

“I ended up riding a dirt bike around Kincaid that summer with some help from some friends,” he said.

By the summer of 2010 Graeber had a new Yamaha 450cc dirt bike and was racing at Kincaid Park’s Jodhpur Road motocross track.

“That first time riding, even the first couple times, I wasn’t even worried about trying to race,” he said. “It was more just the freedom and the happiness of being on something. I’ve grown up around dirt bikes and anything motorized.”

Graeber raced dirt bikes for a couple of summers, and at a race in Kenai in 2012, he broke his arm and wrist, leading to another plate and 12 more screws in his body.

“I thought, do I really need to be doing this? I was just doing it for fun, and now I have another surgery and more screws,” he said.

Soon he stopped racing and started gaining weight.

He and Ashleigh married in June 2019, and Graeber began shedding pounds by improving his diet and spending time on rowing machines and bikes. He lost about 100 pounds, he said, and in 2019, with renewed fitness and interest, he entered one or two races with Ashleigh’s support — she’s able to jump in and out of their truck easily, so she helps load and unload the bike on most race days.

In 2020, Graeber became a regular at the track and won city championships in the pro class and 450cc class. Then came this year, which ended with two state championships and two city championships — a standout year for anyone, but especially for a racer who has a hard time standing on his bike.

Stewart is 62 and has spent countless weekends racing dirt bikes. His knees were sore after the first moto at an August race at Kincaid Park, so he sat out the second one and watched Graeber.

“That’s when I really got the sense of what (he) has accomplished,” Stewart said.

Sitting allows more control when going around corners, Stewart said, but after exiting a corner racers are typically back on their feet, where they can move their weight around to improve maneuverability.

”Picture virtually every athletic position,” Stewart said. “Baseball fielder preparing to field a ball, wrestler preparing for an attack, basketball player on defense.” They are all bending forward with their weight on the balls of their feet — just like a motocross racer standing on his bike.

Graeber, who works for Kendall Volkswagen of Anchorage, said he rides a “pretty much stock” 2019 Yamaha YZ450 that has a bump seat to help him stay forward. He squeezes the machine with his knees when approaching a corner, while everyone else stands.

Graeber’s success in motocross hasn’t led to a return to snowmachine racing, at least not yet. He said he would love to do the Iron Dog, but he knows the 2,600-mile race across Alaska might be a stretch.

“If my sled breaks, I can’t really walk on snow too well,” he said.

But last winter he entered the Mayor’s Cup in Valdez, a 200-mile cross-country race.

“Because I hadn’t done any cross-country races since my accident, my No. 1 goal was to have fun and finish, and I did that,” Graeber said. “I did really good the first two or three laps and then I started getting super tired.

“My calves are tiny — they don’t really exist. So all of my strength in my legs comes from my quads. I did 200 miles in five hours, and after an hour or so my legs were just shot.”

After four laps (100 miles), Graeber was in second place, 91 seconds behind leader and eventual winner Robbie Schachle. After the final 100 miles, he was in eighth place, more than 30 minutes behind Schachle.

Such a result might have been shocking back when Graeber was a 17-year-old racing professionally and competing at the Winter X Games. Thirteen years later, with screws and plates keeping his body in working order, it was a glorious finish.

“I try to enjoy every day. No matter what happens,” Graeber said. “They weren’t too sure if I was going to make it through the night (after the accident). ... When I first woke up I couldn’t move from the waist up. So I’m just super happy and blessed with what I do have. That’s the way I try to look at it.”

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