Words by Brett Smith | Photos by Aaron Brimhall
If you don’t already have a nickname, Ernesto Fonseca will give you one. In some cases, two are required. Nicknames are more than handles; in his eyes, they’re an identity, a badge of honor doled out only to those who are a part of his crew. When Fonseca came to Florida from Costa Rica in 1992 to race in the Mini Winter Olympics, he remembers, he saw a blazing-fast redhead whose Fox boots were so tight at the calves that they were held together by duct tape. The rider’s butt patch said “Chubbs.” In later years the two became friends, and even though Ricky Carmichael became a lean and chiseled champion 10 years after their first meeting, to Fonseca he was still just Chubbs.
Nobody is spared a jocular moniker. Alex Ewing is Cheddar Bobby, often shortened to just Cheddar or Bobby. Next Level Management’s Tony Gardea became Spermie and Panzon (Spanish for potbelly); Andrew Short: Whitey; Nathan Ramsey: Jimmy Neutron; Erik Kehoe: Peter North; Lars Lindstrom: Sars. Travis Pastrana was Pastrami and Cheese, a name he didn’t even know he was given. Although the nicknames have nothing to do with the level of respect Fonseca has for you, mountain bike legend Brian Lopes may have the most desired: Chingon (a Mexican colloquialism for badass).
Entertaining has always been part of his personality. Fonseca is the type of instantly lovable person who makes one feel they’ve been best friends forever, even if they’ve only recently met. It’s for that reason people like Debbie and Robert Pastrana took him in for extended winter visits over 20 years ago to ride and race with their son, Travis; why Yamaha chose him to go to Japan to develop their new YZ250F and be one of the first to compete on it; why American Honda honored his two-year contract that ran through 2007 even though he suffered a career-ending injury in March 2006.
Fonseca lightens moods, brightens rooms, and makes people laugh. Travis Pastrana particularly recalls Fonseca’s quick wit. In the mid-’90s, Fonseca spent winters in the Pastrana family motorhome at the Tall Pines RV Resort in Brooksville, Florida. They raced and practiced at Croom and other motocross tracks. Fonseca is two years older, so for Pastrana, an only child, it was like having a cool older brother to hang around. When the 1994 punk-rock hit song “Come Out and Play” by The Offspring aired on the radio, Fonseca, still learning English, liked to use an alternative version of the track’s most popular lyrics, “You gotta keep ’em separated.” Instead, he’d say, “You gotta clean your carburetor.”
While Fonseca was fiercely competitive on the track, Pastrana said he was extremely polite and gracious, always using “sir” and “ma’am” around adults. At 13 Fonseca traveled alone to America, and it was quite apparent that he was raised well. “He was very unassuming,” Pastrana says. “He was humble.”
Years later, Fonseca befriended American Honda engine builder Alex Ewing. Ewing had developed a drinking problem, was hemorrhaging cash and running up debt buying rounds at the bars and purchasing toys at home. Fonseca noticed and asked questions. The joking stopped, the conversations turned serious, and the empathy was real.
“He wanted me to be a better version of me,” Ewing says. “He was telling me to grow up. I think he knew I needed that. Even though I didn’t change right then, I had someone asking me and trying to help me. I had somebody in my corner.”
Ewing is two years sober now and cleaned up his financial life. When Fonseca checked in via a telephone call, Ewing, who now lives in North Carolina, broke the good news. Fonseca said, “I’m so happy for you, Bobby.”
Problems come and go, but the nicknames live forever. To American racing fans, Fonseca became known as The Fonz. The industry affectionately knows him as Ernie. Close friends have personal nicknames for him: Carmichael calls him Smooth, Ramsey refers to him as Fuzz, and to the nearly five million residents of Costa Rica, he’s Lobito (Little Wolf).
Ernesto Rodriguez Fonseca was born in 1981 and raised in Heredia, a Costa Rican province seven miles west of central San José. Raised by his mother, Catalina Rodriguez, and stepfather, Edwin Lobo, he played youth soccer and rode a Honda QR50 when he was 5. Lobo raced motocross and owned a bike shop. The Costa Rican motocross community is small, and Fonseca estimates that maybe 350 riders belong to the federation, Moto Club de Costa Rica. Motorcycles are costly—a used 2015 Honda CRF450R sells for $10,000—and the tracks are poor by United States standards. Since Costa Rica has two seasons, rainy and dry, optimal riding conditions rarely exist. Fonseca spent the majority of his early youth riding the same “boring and crappy” course.
“When I first got into it, nobody knew who I was, but they knew I was Lobo’s kid,” Fonseca says. That’s how he became Lobito. (“Lobo” is Spanish for “wolf.”) In the early 1990s, a huge opportunity materialized for the more talented racers of the era. The Costa Rican Kodak film importer was a fan of motocross and he started a team to support young riders. Fonseca was one of the athletes invited. “My mom and dad were not wealthy,” Fonseca says. “If I hadn’t had that sponsor, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did.”
In 1992, wearing neon-yellow Sinisalo gear with red Kodak logos, a contingent of Costa Ricans popped up at the 21st annual Winter Olympics in Florida. They were hard to miss on the track, and Fonseca (listed as Ernesto Rodriguez in the results) won five of the seven overalls in the 65 7-11 classes, besting riders like Ivan Tedesco, Jeff Gibson, and Jonathan Shimp. Carmichael remembers noticing them and thinking to himself, “This is a legit team!”
Fonseca found ways to keep returning to America. He met benefactors who wanted to help: the Pastrana family, Scott Taylor, former champion Johnny O’Mara, Beach Sportcycles Yamaha (BSY), and others. “I just took advantage of the opportunity,” he says. “When you’re good at something, there are people that want to help you.”
He flew back and forth from Costa Rica to America to race in select events, juggling his schoolwork and somehow keeping his talents on pace with his competitors in America, who had access to better tracks and faster competition. While simultaneously stacking up professional Costa Rican and Latin American championships, he won four titles at the Amateur National Motocross Championships at Loretta Lynn’s and many other big U.S. amateur events. At the end of 1998, Fonseca signed with Yamaha of Troy for $30,000 plus $500 a month to pay rent for the room he occupied in mechanic Kenny Germain’s house.
In 1999, Pro Circuit Kawasaki’s Nick Wey was the expected favorite in the 125cc SX East series. Carmichael had moved to the premier class and Wey was entering his sophomore season. Nobody, even Fonseca himself, expected him to dominate the series. Fonseca was more than just a skilled rider; he studied, made inquiries, and, in short, was a team manager’s dream rider. “He’s eager to learn,” Erik Kehoe told Cycle News in 1999 when he was the YoT leader. “When all the other guys are out there, he asks questions, he watches different things.”
That year, Fonseca won not only the first supercross race of his career on his first try, but the first four—something no 125cc (now 250SX) rider has ever been able to do since the support class was formed in 1985. Eddie Warren (1985), Damon Bradshaw (1989), and Trey Canard (2008) were all stymied after three in a row. Fonseca was 17, a kid far from home, learning a second language and living out a fantasy.
“It was easy once it started,” he says of winning. “I would have been happy with top-five finishes, but I did work hard and I just loved it. It felt like a dream.”
Carmichael and Fonseca hooked up and trained together in Florida in the summer of 1999. The Pro Motocross series wasn’t as easy for Fonseca, and he didn’t crack the top five at a single race that first year, but Carmichael liked Fonseca’s story. Even though RC ran a guarded program throughout his 10-year-long professional career, he and the kid from Costa Rica remained uncommonly close.
“I really respected that,” says Carmichael of Fonseca’s ability to beat the odds. “A lot of guys can’t answer the bell in all sports. He answered the bell and it opened opportunities. There was only one person who could do that. It was himself.”
In the winter/spring of 2000, Fonseca struggled in supercross after a crash the previous November left him mentally unprepared. At A Day in the Dirt, Fonseca was airlifted from the event following a multiple-rider wreck that left him with nerve damage in his left shoulder and a concussion, but no broken bones. He won only a single main event in 2000. In 2001, riding Yamaha’s new YZ250F, he won five supercross races and the championship. In 2002 he moved up to the premier division (now 450SX) and signed with Honda, joining his old friend Chubbs. He finished third in his very first race for Honda, the 2002 season opener. While he didn’t win a premier-class main event or overall, he finished on the podium 18 times in his four-plus years with Honda, taking third overall in the 2003 supercross championship and also the 2005 motocross championship, despite being one of the few riders still competing on a two-stroke 250.
The insurance papers sat in his garage, waiting to be signed. “I know, I know,” he said in response to his agent’s pleas. It was the winter of 2006 and Fonseca, slightly obsessive-compulsive about neatness, order, and organization in all parts of his life, knew that he had to finish this unpleasant but necessary piece of business. The supercross series was young, but Fonseca was having a mediocre year. At Round One in Anaheim, he pulled up to his mechanic, Jason “Gothic Jay” Haines, and said, “I think it’s time for me to retire. I feel like a squid!” He was competing on a 450 four-stroke for the first time and trying to find harmony between the bike’s explosive power and his smooth, scrupulous riding technique. “I wasn’t having any fun anymore,” he says today. It was a recurring feeling that started months prior, in preparation for the 2006 season. The night in Anaheim improved, however, and Fonseca qualified well and then led the first four laps of the main event. But instead of focusing forward, he felt like he didn’t belong there. “That’s when you know something isn’t right,” he says. On lap five, with a nearly three-second lead over Chad Reed, Carmichael, and James Stewart, he went over the bars; he finished sixth. The following races were worse: seventh, sixth, 17th, seventh, and ninth, finishing behind even the semi-retired Jeremy McGrath.
Fonseca was only 24, but “what’s next” was already on his mind. He was committed to Honda until the end of the 2007 season, but the future beckoned. He had already inquired about becoming an Oakley distributor in Costa Rica. This was pure Fonseca, always planning, saving, preparing.
“I just pictured myself and I knew it was coming to an end,” he says. “I was training super hard and the results weren’t really there. When you’re as competitive as I am, that takes a toll on you.”
The papers in waiting were for a catastrophic-life-insurance policy. From 2000 to 2003, Fonseca carried Lloyd’s of London insurance that would pay him a one-time lump sum of $1 million if his career unexpectedly ended. The premium was $35,000 a year and Fonseca said the brokers wanted to raise it to $70,000 for the same payout. “That’s just dumb,” he says. “You’re betting that you’re going to get hurt.” He let the policy run out.
When Fonseca started working with Tony Gardea in 2005, he asked him to find an alternative policy. Through an investment colleague, Gardea located one designed for geriatrics who require long-term care. The policy had narrower limitations than the Lloyd’s, but Gardea remembers the premiums being very inexpensive—about $2,000 to $3,000 a year—because his client wasn’t even old enough to rent a car without special provisions. For Fonseca to receive payout, incapacitation would have to be his outcome; receive payout, incapacitation would have to be his outcome; that was fine. He had been wise with his earnings, but the catastrophic policy brought more peace of mind; the payouts would be monthly and he wouldn’t have to worry about money. In February 2006, he signed the policy and got it back to Gardea. When the series shifted east late that month, he broke through in St. Louis and scored a third place behind Reed and Ivan Tedesco (nickname: “Poison Ivy”). Momentum was shifting and he was adjusting to the bike.
On Tuesday, March 7, 2006, Fonseca was preparing for the Daytona Supercross at a private Murrieta, California, track he had rented with his teammate Andrew Short. They paid $10,000 for unlimited and exclusive access between January and May for a short and tight track with dark, rocky dirt; it was something different and fresh. It was a pleasant day in the low 80s and Alex Ewing remembers wearing short sleeves and shorts. The agenda was testing header pipes. Fonseca’s motor had been detuned, but he was still looking for mellower power delivery, so the goal was to find a suitable header-pipe length that paired with the engine settings; the longer the pipe, the less abrupt the power. Changes were made in 20mm increments. Testing started at 10 a.m., and by 1 p.m. they had tried four different pipes. For each test segment, Fonseca would run five to six laps and come in for adjustments. Between 1 and 2 p.m., Fonseca felt he had made his selection, and he headed back onto the track to confirm his pipe choice to pair with the engine setting, a completely normal procedure. After testing several variations of a single part, riders will look over their notes, reapply the setting they liked best, and retest it.
At the end of his confirmation-test segment, Fonseca came up short on a rhythm section triple jump. End to end, the lane was four single jumps, a tabletop, then six single jumps. Lap after lap, Fonseca’s line was to roll the first jump out of the corner, double the next two, triple completely over the tabletop, and triple then double the remaining five jumps. It was automatic on all but the final lap. Fonseca cased the third-from-last jump in the section. The bike punched him in the rear end and he was ejected over the handlebars. He lost his air awareness and didn’t get his hands out in front of him. As his body flipped, moving forward the entire time, the back of his head drove into the tall berm at the end of the lane and his neck pressed into his chest. He settled at the base of the 90-degree corner, his hips pointed toward the clouds, his body shaped like an upside-down U, face in the ground. Ewing was 15 feet away and witnessed the crash. He was the first person to reach Fonseca, but he didn’t scramble with anxious urgency. Even 10 years later, Fonseca remembers it as a rather minor get-off, not violent at all. It took only a few hastened steps for Ewing to get to the corner, but the crash he saw didn’t prepare him for what Fonseca said:
“I don’t want to end up in a fucking wheelchair. I’ve crashed a million times, but I’ve never felt like this.”
The circumstances punched Ewing. Fonseca wasn’t moving and he wasn’t getting up. Although twisted in a heap and not in control of his own body, he stayed calm and even took charge of the situation. He told Ewing to call his wife, Carolina, then started doling out orders to others: call 911, call his doctor, make sure his truck is taken care of, etc.
“I wasn’t too scared, but I was in shock,” Fonseca says. He had no feeling from his nipples down, and that remains the same today. What he did feel was a burning sensation. When his body started shaking, his trainer, Michael Johnson, tried to gently soothe him with his hands. Fonseca screamed; the touch made him feel like he was on fire. He was taken to the Riverside County Medical Center; the call from the field was a cervical spine injury with neurological compromise.
The human spinal cord consists of 33 vertebrae stacked on top of each other like building blocks. They’re divided into four sections from top to bottom: cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral. The cervical region comprises seven vertebrae, with C1 being closest to the head. The spinal cord is protected by the spinal column, which houses the pairs of nerves that branch out through openings and carry signals and information from the brain to the rest of the body (e.g., feeling, movement, breathing).
The trauma to Fonseca’s spine was actually a pair of injuries, as are most spinal injuries: bony/ligamentous and nerve damage. According to Dr. Paul Reiman—he wasn’t the surgeon, but provided oversight and communicated with Fonseca and his family—Fonseca’s C5 vertebral body 100 percent dislocated over the C6 vertebral body, caused 100 percent dislocated over the C6 vertebral body, caused by the abrupt flexion of his neck into his chest. His nerves below C5 were disrupted. “Around every nerve, there is a coating called myelin,” Dr. Reiman explains. “It’s a little bit like the plastic coating around a copper wire. His myelin sleeve was disrupted. The nerves were stretched so much that their continuity, although still there, [was] essentially non-functional.”
Fonseca’s C5 nerve is intact, which gives him the ability to flex his elbows and extend his wrists. The fine motor movements that would allow one to spread fingers and give a thumbs-up gesture are below C5, which are both minimally functional and non-functional. He has some use of his triceps, and his shoulder movement is good. Fonseca says his hands feel and function like big mitts and his right works better than his left. He has very little grip, but he can handle light objects up to 2.5 pounds. He types and texts with his thumbs and he drives a Mercedes SUV in Costa Rica that is outfitted with hand controls. Categorically, he’s a quadriplegic and requires daily part-time care.
When Fonseca went into surgery at Riverside, he was talking. When he came out, he was intubated because he contracted pneumonia. For six weeks, he was in the ICU on a ventilator with a tracheotomy. A dire situation became worse and Gardea remembers watching one of the fittest athletes he’d ever worked with seem to wither away. “I literally watched the muscles melt off his arm,” Gardea says.
On top of coping with paralysis and learning to use what movement he had left, Fonseca’s only method of communication was an alphabet board, which required him to spell out words by tapping on letters—an incessantly frustrating task. Ewing, who spent four days and nights sleeping in the hospital waiting room and hanging on every piece of news about his friend, remembers their first “conversation.” Slowly and deliberately, Fonseca tapped on the letters of the board, getting more and more frustrated at how long it took to say what was on his mind.
“M - O - T - H - E - R - F - U-”
Ewing cut in. “Are you trying to say ‘motherfucker?” he asked. It’s Fonseca’s favorite way of starting a sentence when he is annoyed or trying to get a point across.
“T - H - I - S - S - U - C - K - S”
Despite so much loss, his wit and personality were still strong.
“You have to deal; there’s no choice,” Fonseca says. “You give in and let yourself down or work your way around it. It’s not a secret to anyone that being in a wheelchair is not fun. There have been good and tough times.”
David Bailey thought it was a bad idea at first, and he gently tried to talk Fonseca out of it. It took Fonseca over eight years to commit to being an athlete again, and Bailey flashed back to how difficult it was for him to adapt. Bailey’s neurological function is compromised down at T4/T5, and his mobility and strength allowed him to train for—and win—the chair category of the Ironman World Championships in 2000. His function is far greater than Fonseca’s, but that’s the plight of a wheelchair athlete: Their abilities vary greatly, but there are not enough competitors to justify a category for every single level of function. When it’s time for athletes to be classified, it’s up to a committee and a doctor to decide an athlete’s fate. There are very few competitors at Fonseco’s exact neurological level, and he is more active than others with similar compromise. Because of the variances, the classifications become a mixed bag of abilities.
Bailey is a former supercross and motocross champion, paralyzed in 1987. His analogy to understanding the classifications is to picture a supercross main event of 22 riders. All the athletes have different skill levels—a given. But what the fans can’t see by watching on television or from up in their seats is that one rider doesn’t have a front brake; another doesn’t have a shifter or a clutch lever or enough oil in his suspension, or he’s got a moped motor in his frame. That’s the predicament of the wheelchair competitor, even at the Ironman level; to the uninformed, their situations at the starting gate all look the same. Internally, they’re dealing with wildly different circumstances.
“I didn’t think Ernesto would be satisfied with the result versus all the effort, but he proved me wrong,” Bailey says of Fonseca’s current push in wheelchair racing. Bailey and Fonseca first started working together in 2009, when they met at an L.A. Fitness; Fonseca wanted to show Bailey what he could do in the pool. Bailey couldn’t help but think, “How is this going to work?” He demonstrated how to swim using fists; Fonseca asked a few questions and plunged in. “He’s fun to teach because he asks good questions and then he quietly goes home and works on it,” Bailey says. “You won’t hear from him and then you’ll see on Facebook that he went and did a triathlon.”
The outpouring of support for Fonseca in 2006 was enormous. The motocross community camped in the waiting room at Riverside during the first six weeks of recovery. Nathan Ramsey set up his motorhome in the parking lot so Fonseca’s family could be more comfortable and as close as possible to their son. At Craig Hospital, Fonseca engaged the determination and work ethic that made him one of the best motocross athletes in the world in order to try to get back as much movement as he could. Part of him wanted to rest. He had been training his entire life, but he knew he had to take advantage of the early rehabilitation sessions. There were no dramatic gains, but he figured out how to get stronger at using what he did have.
Cards and letters poured in, his competitors ran decals of his signature in recognition—Carmichael still does today, on the right breast of every jersey—and Fonseca was embraced into a large support community. In the fall, Alpinestars sent him and his wife to Valencia, where he watched his good friend Nicky Hayden clinch the MotoGP championship.
August 2007 was the toughest point. He and his wife, Carolina, had been married less than two years, but were having difficulties. Living a “normal” life was everything but normal, and Fonseca sensed depression in Carolina. “I couldn’t understand how an able-bodied person could be depressed,” he says. He said Carolina was steady in the months immediately following the injury and handled the adjustment well. After the first year, she started to seem worn down. “She may have needed a rest,” he says. “Maybe I wasn’t flexible. I’ve always been pretty hard on the people around me, and myself. I try to be a winner. I said [to Carolina], ‘Hey, I’ve had enough.’” He made the decision for a divorce, which was final in March 2008.
From 2006 through 2014, he worked in various positions with Answer, Oakley, and Troy Lee Designs in both the United States and Costa Rica. Six years after the accident, Fonseca wasn’t clear on where he was heading with his life or what his goals were. Around the end of 2012 he started forming a routine, exercising more. Before that, he had even started dating again. In 2014 he met Laurens Molina, a Costa Rican adaptive athlete who was born without bones in his lower legs. When Fonseca started showing up at running tracks with a racing chair, the Costa Rican press noticed. One of the largest daily newspapers, La Nación, wrote a feature, accompanied by a video; he appeared on radio programs; Estilo Ejecutivo, a national style magazine, ran a spread.
The message was unanimous: Little Wolf is back.
“I got that feeling back that I was able to do things,” he says. “It gave me something to look forward to. I wish I’d gotten into it sooner and learned about it more and not wasted as much time as I did. It is what it is. That’s easy to say now; I needed that time, too. [Competing] has been tougher than what I expected. I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but I enjoy the process.”
His biggest shock came in the fall of 2015, when he traveled to Japan to compete in a marathon. He thought he was ready, but it was a blow to learn that he wasn’t. He had completed marathons in training on an oval running track, but the variables on public streets are different, and after eight miles it was determined that he wasn’t meeting the four-minutes-per-kilometer pace required to continue. He hadn’t failed like that in a very long time. While in Japan, he met with Honda engineers, who measured him for the mold of a new racing chair. He recently took delivery of the carbon/aluminum race craft, which is 14 pounds—two pounds lighter than his old chair—and worth $6,000. The good relationships he built in his motorcycle-development trips to Japan between 2000 and 2006 are still paying off. If he continues to improve and advance, Honda will equip him with a $22,000 one-piece all-carbon-mold chair that is the equivalent of a factory bike.
Fonseca’s next goal is to qualify for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, which will be held in September. He has selected the 100- and 400-meter track events, where he will compete in the T51 classification. (The track wheelchair events have four divisions, T51 to T54. T51 includes athletes with the least neurological function.) These racers wear special gloves and use the strength in their wrists to propel the chairs forward via the contact rim of the wheels. Fonseca’s wrist flexes when he tires.
“In wheelchair racing there’s nothing to hide behind,” Fonseca says. He recalls competing on a motorcycle and squeaking by on talent and mental strength on days when his body wasn’t cooperating. “It’s the chair and your arms, and if you’re not feeling it, you’re done.”
Bailey has been trying to pass along some of the techniques and efficiency tips he’s developed. He’s been in a chair longer than he was able to walk. When he works with a new athlete, he knows to first observe and see what the abilities are; then a plan can be built around those. “I let the effort part be up to them,” he says. “Structure is my strongest point.” Fonseca has been very coachable, and with enough volume and reps, Bailey believes he could be competitive, even if his limitations make him a long shot.
“The thing I like most about him is that he doesn’t complain and he’s always trying to improve—and with a smile!” Bailey says. “I drive home from meeting with him and I think, ‘Man, I need to take a page out of his book.’ He makes me wonder if I’m doing all I can do. He’s Ernesto Frickin’ Fonseca and he knows his shit. It blows my mind that he’s doing this.”
Fonseca has completed seven sprint-distance triathlons (700-meter swim, 20k bike, 5k run) and he’s determined to finish a competitive marathon. First, however, he’s focused on qualifying for Rio. Suffering might be required to pull it off, but he’s used to that. In the summers of 1999 and 2003, he ran his body into the ground trying to hang in Carmichael’s training program. He was so tired he would fall asleep on the 30-minute commute to and from the track. Looking back, maybe that suffering was in preparation for something much more difficult later in life. When asked what he will move on to if Rio doesn’t happen, he quickly and confidently says not making it is not an option. Twenty-five years ago, when he was a kid in Costa Rica watching American supercross races on TV (one year after they had happened), Fonseca was a child with an impossible dream, considering his odds and opportunities. In that sense, he’s been here before.