On the day Stone Edler was diagnosed with cancer, all he wanted to do was go out for sushi.
Sitting with his mom and dad, chowing down on one of his favorite meals, Edler was stoic, as if this day were just like the thousands he had lived before it. Edler's father, Lance, who had never seen his 16-year-old son cry, broke the silence.
"It's OK to let it out," Lance said, looking for any semblance of an emotional reaction from his son.
Stone looked up from his sushi and shrugged.
"I have to do whatever it takes to get back on that bike," he said. Then he went back to eating.
From the Back of the Pack
Now 18 years old, Stone Edler, an amateur motocross rider, has been forcing himself to get back on his bike since he was 6.
Stone grew up in Destrehan, Louisiana, 23 miles outside of New Orleans, with his father (who is separated from his mother) and two brothers, one older, one younger. Wednesday nights were spent at Avondale, a local race track, where his older brother raced dirt bikes while Stone peddled a 4-wheeler around the outskirts of the track. Eventually, Lance supplied his middle son with his own bike, allowing Stone to ride with his older brother. Stone viewed it as more or less a casual experience, meandering toward the back of the group of riders during local practices and races.
"Stone was always a back-of-the-pack rider," Lance said. "He didn't really care, so we didn't really pay much attention to him. He would always let his brother get up front."
For the first six months, Stone kept his distance, a two-wheeled caboose riding along without a care in the world. But then his brother abruptly quit riding, and suddenly Stone was the focus of the family. He had become fond of the sport, and to anyone watching, he looked like a natural. Then he started trying. It began meekly at first, with Stone joining the front of the pack during local practice sessions with other Destrehan kids. But one day, a few national team riders came out, kids Stone had never practiced with or raced against. But there he was, at the front of the pack. As a 6-year-old, Stone was ready to race dirt bikes competitively.
Stone's string of bad luck started well before his cancer diagnosis. It began with a broken femur in 2003, as he prepared to compete in the Loretta Lynn championship, a preeminent amateur dirt bike race, one that can propel riders with a good showing to professional status. The lone national amateur race is held each July in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee, where thousands of riders look to catch the attention of companies like Kawasaki and Honda so that they may sign on with them and earn better gear, more money, and go pro.
His compound fracture was so bad that removable rods were inserted in Stone's legs to stabilize him, and he was forced to take an entire year off from racing. Lance was devastated and fearful, wondering aloud to those around him whether Stone's motocross career was over before it began. He was ready to move on. Stone was not.
"We were pretty much going to give it up at that time," Lance said. "His mom told me I was an idiot, because as much as [Stone] loved motocross, he was going to come back and ride again."
And ride again he did. After his femur healed, Stone resumed racing, and his natural abilities caught the attention of Kawaski, which signed him to their amateur racing team, Team Green, in 2006. Bell also became a sponsor, signing Stone to endorse their helmets.
But injuries continued to haunt him.
2007 brought a broken clavicle, a lower-back injury and a broken lower ulna. 2008 featured a broken tibia, fibia and the loss of three teeth after a crash. 2009 and 2010 came with more crashes, more injuries and more recoveries.
In 2010, Kawasaki dropped Stone, simply because he couldn't stay healthy, and Stone never got a true shot at the Loretta Lynn race. Each time it seemed like he was on the cusp of thrusting his career into a higher next gear, Stone's bike and body betrayed him. No one would have faulted him for quitting and trading in broken bones and disappointment for something a little more uplifting.
Yet Stone refused to give up.
"I just always think that I have to get through it and get back on the dirt bike," he said. "Obviously, I always wish I was riding, but if you have a positive mindset, it's much easier. When I went to school, I didn't really get to hang out with my friends on the weekends because I was always racing, so when I got hurt I would just hang out with my friends and take a break from riding. That's how I looked at it."
But it's one thing to get knocked down, and quite another to be pummeled by someone way out of your weight class.
When he turned 16, Stone was accepted into the Milsaps Training Facility (MTF) in Cairo, Georgia, where he has been training yearround for the past three years. There on his own, Stone lives in a 40-foot camper, where he cooks, cleans and largely fends for himself ("I went from my mom cutting my waffles to living by myself," he said.) The rest of his time is spent working out and training on the track.
In 2012, his first year at MTF, as he was gearing up for another run at Lorretta Lynn's, Stone crashed during a training session, badly damaging the floor of his eye socket; and when tests were run at the hospital, it was found that his blood had low levels of iron, a condition that also affected a few other MTF riders who had been brought in for testing. All were given supplements to up their iron count. All of the riders' levels improved—except Stone's.
Fearing Stone was suffering from internal bleeding, doctors performed a CAT scan. Inside his body, an 11.5-centimeter mass hid, pressing up against his windpipe.
Stone had Hodgkin's lymphoma.
For the next eight months, Stone's life became like a television show with only two sets. Four 21-day cycles of chemotherapy consumed his days as Stone shuffled to and from the hospital. He threw up every night and was often overcome by fever, because he was severely dehydrated. Yet in Stone's mind, he was on a beach somewhere, sipping a Shirley Temple while waves crashed softly at his feet.
"[When I was diagnosed], I asked if was going to be able to race. They said 'no.' Once I was over that, I took it like a vacation," Stone said.
Cancer. A vacation. What a concept.
When adversity hits us, we all try to find ways to cope. It is a crucial human function, to take the harsh realities of life and counteract them with things that bring us joy. For Stone, fishing had always been his second sanctuary, a liquid version of the racetrack. After his son was diagnosed with cancer, Lance bought him a boat. After almost every chemotherapy session, Stone could be found idly drifting on the water, rod in hand, following in the footsteps of his father.
"I think it's his escape because it's always been mine," Lance said. "It's kind of like a competition between me and him, especially since I've been away from him. I'll leave work and I'll stop off on the side of the road and go fishing, and send him a picture of the fish that I caught, and he'll do the same. People ask me 'Do you keep anything?' And I say no, I just come out here to get away from it all. It is his escape, and if he catches a fish it's like a small success."
Stone achieved a success much larger than snaring a largemouth bass when, 11 months after his initial diagnosis, his cancer went into remission. It was once again time to get back on the bike.
It took a substantial amount of work to gain his strength back, though. Stone's liver was weak, and his joints would swell up like a blowfish after any kind of physical activity.
He takes vitamins and has added salt to his diet. He drinks a gallon of water every day. Between that and prescribed off-days, Stone is ready for his final crack at the Loretta Lynn's, a race that has haunted him during his entire racing career. Aside from the first time he raced Loretta's in 2006, when he finished 10th, Stone has either crashed during the race or been too unhealthy to ride in it.
There is only so much further Stone can go as an amateur. Currently in the "B" class, which the American Motorcyclist Association describes as an "established" rider with 4-5 years of experience, the only place left to go is up to the "A" class. At Stone's age, the amateur ranks is not where he wants to be.
"I have a window," Stone said. "I'm 18 and I'm in the B class, and not many teams want to pick up a 20-year-old in the A class or B class. It's just like a barrier that I hope to get through this year."
"This is it, this is his chance," Lance said. "We'd love to get another factory ride, and this is our best opportunity to do it, at Loretta's. He's got the speed, but can he stay upright? He's beaten these kids over and over again. He's been working real hard lately and he just feels like this is his year."
With more injuries than most humans suffer in a lifetime, and a 12-round bout with cancer, it's shocking that Stone is even in this position, with a chance to finally upgrade his status from amateur to professional.
"I know I would have lost it, and I know his mom would have lost it," Lance said. Neither one of us is as strong as he is. We've grown through him."
His family will be at Loretta's, a rare chance for the entire Edler clan to get together and watch Stone race. Lance will be nervous, and though Stone doesn't like to admit it, thoughts of the crashes, the injuries and the cancer will all be rushing through his mind.
"You try not to think about things like that, but it's always going to cross your mind," he said. "It's always a thought, but you can't live scared of that happening. You won't be able to move forward thinking about that. I try to just block it out and keep going."
Ride, fall, get back up and repeat, with one hand always gripping the throttle. It's what he's done his entire life.
Editor's note: Stone Edler plans to compete at the AMA Amateur National Motocross Championship July 27-Aug. 2 at Loretta Lynn's Ranch in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee.
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