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Lightning strike gives Abbott new perspective


It’s coming up on almost three summers since Destry Abbott, the five-time national American Motorcycle Association off-road champion, was riding trails in the Flagstaff, Ariz., foothills with his 12-year-old son, Cooper, and the sunshine on their shoulders that had been filtering through tall pines turned to storm clouds. Which can happen just about any day in Flagstaff during monsoon season.

Abbott remembers seeking shelter amid the tall pines and leaning his Kawasaki against one.

He doesn’t remember seeing the lightning bolt.

The National Weather Service estimates the odds of being struck by lightning are 1 in 700,000, which is little consolation when you are the 1.

Like that Bob Seger song, Destry Abbott woke to the sound of thunder. How far off, he sat and wondered. He did not start humming a song from 1962. He was much too disoriented.

He could hear his son crying.

He couldn’t see him, because the lightning had temporarily left the motorcycle champion blind. Worse, his heart was racing like one of those KX450s with its throttle stuck open. The doctors said the lightning bolt had knocked his heart rhythm out of whack, though they probably put it in slightly more technical terms.

When he was in his prime, Abbott, who still is racing at age 40 — he and Cooper, 15, will compete against one another for the first time in Friday’s GEICO AMA EnduroCross Championship Series at Orleans Arena — was described as “lightning fast.”

He liked it better when it was figurative.

Destry Abbott is the first sports person I’ve interviewed who has been struck by lightning.

I was in high school when a bolt out of the blue struck Lee Trevino at the Western Open near Chicago. It messed him up pretty bad. I never got to ask about it, though, because Super Mex seldom played in our Senior Tour event when we had one.

In 1998, an entire Congolese soccer team was killed by a lightning strike during warm-ups. None of the players on the other team was injured. A Kinshasa newspaper said opinion was divided on whether lightning had killed the team, or whether a witch doctor had put a spell on it.

According to various departments of health, one should seek shelter in a large, enclosed building when lightning threatens. Or if you are playing golf, in a clubhouse where cocktails are served, which I remember once doing in Durango, Colo. Our foursome was on the back side of the course up on the hill by the college after the sky had turned purple and sirens were sounded.

I think you also are supposed to drop any lightning rod you may be holding in your hand, such as a 7-iron.

“I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to stand under a tree,” Destry Abbott said.

“I just remember waking up on the ground with my helmet on. I thought I was racing or something. I thought I had crashed and knocked myself out. I was trying to get up, figure out where I was — what just happened? Then I heard my son crying ...”

One minute, you’re zipping around trails with your son, enjoying the moment, enjoying the cool sunshine. Maybe you can hear the rumble of a freight train in the distance, because this was Flagstaff.

The next minute, storm clouds roll in, and they roll in hard. Because this still was Flagstaff. Clap of thunder. Flash of lightning. And then darkness, and you’re lying in it.

And when you wake up, you can’t see, you can’t breathe and your kid is crying.

As the old baseball broadcaster Phil Rizzuto might have put it: “Well, that kind of puts a damper on even a Yankee win.”

The Scooter had said that on the air after Pope Paul VI died in 1978. When one survives a lightning strike, one often thinks of intervention as performed by deities or, at very least, that one now is playing with house money.

So if you’re Destry Abbott, the five-time AMA off-road champion, you thank lucky stars and whatnot, and maybe you throw a little extra in the padre’s plate on Sunday. And you move to Phoenix, where it hardly ever rains.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.