Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Grant Langston back in AMA Supercross after battling cancer, autism

Grant Langston, a Monster Energy AMA Supercross rider, says he never liked to read much. That changed when his son, Devin, was diagnosed with autism. Langston said he became interested in one book in particular: “Louder Than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism” by Jenny McCarthy.

After practice one day, Langston had the book with him. He had it lying out on top of his gear bag when a family approached him. Sarah Caskey, her husband and their two daughters wanted a picture with Langston. After they were done taking their picture, Caskey noticed the book on Langston’s gear bag.

She asked if Langston knew someone with autism. He told her his son was diagnosed. It turns out she was a teacher who specialized in children, kindergartners and first-graders, with autism.

A couple months later, Caskey e-mailed Langston and wanted to know if his son was going to kindergarten. She remembered that the 5-year-old Devin was ready to start kindergarten. Langston said he was having trouble enrolling his son in a school. Apparently, the schools in his district were overcrowded and there weren’t enough classrooms or teachers for Langston’s son.

Caskey told Langston in the e-mail that she wanted to have Devin in her class.

“That was one of the greatest things that happened to us, because she is just amazing with him,” Langston said. “She goes beyond the call of duty. She definitely made an impact in his life.”

Langston, a 27-year-old rider from Murrieta, has overcome a number of obstacles in recent years. None of them have anything to do with dirt bikes or racing or AMA Supercross. He has battled eye cancer, pneumonia, stomach viruses, a knee surgery and his son’s autism diagnosis.

The Road To Recovery
After nearly two years away from AMA Supercross racing, Langston is making a comeback. Even though he says he has yet to push himself to the limit in Supercross since his return, he has been to the edge and back in so many other areas that racing motorcycles seems an afterthought. But he takes his racing seriously, all the while keeping the other aspects of his life in perspective.

Langston moved to the United States from South Africa 10 years ago to pursue a career in pro motorcycle racing. He found a home in Murrieta, mainly because it was close to test tracks in Corona, and it was where he was told he would fulfill his dream of becoming a pro motocross rider.

He steadily rose through the ranks of AMA Supercross, winning championships in the AMA Supercross Lites West Region and the 125cc East Region. He started his career in AMA Supercross in 2001, entering as the 125cc world champion and was the runner-up in the AMA 125cc motocross championship.

At the start of the AMA Supercross season in 2008, Langston began having blurred vision. He remembers the race in San Francisco that year when he realized something was wrong with his eyesight. He was evaluated by optometrists, opthamologists and other specialists before he was diagnosed with what Langston calls a benign growth in his left eye. He had surgery to remove the growth, but instead of having his vision improve, it got worse.

“Shortly after the procedure, my vision went to the dogs,” Langston said. “I had this gut feeling that there was more to the story or maybe this doctor had misdiagnosed it. I needed to go and get other opinions. Through this whole several months process I went all over the place, including Miami, Philadelphia, Cleveland really to try and get a better feeling. They’re telling me, give it some time, it will be fine. It didn’t sound right in my head because it just wasn’t.”

After further evaluations, doctors determined that Langston had a rare form of melanoma in his left eye. They told him if it went untreated, it could result in death. He had surgery to remove the tumor from his eye. He said doctors had to pull up his eyelid, cut into his eye, place a plate behind his eye and finally use radiation treatment to combat the tumor.

“It was a painful experience,” Langston said. “It felt like someone had taken a baseball bat to the side of my head. Because of the radiation treatment, my wife was only allowed to spend two hours of a 24-hour period with me. She’s in Cleveland in the middle of winter with nothing to do and we couldn’t even spend time together. That was definitely a little bit tough.”

Doctors told him his racing career was most likely over. Langston took a year off from riding and racing to help run his family’s business. But he said he wasn’t ready to give up his dream of racing dirt bikes professionally.

“After a year of not riding or racing, I just really wasn’t happy,” Langston said. “My vision was just slowly improving and improving and improving. I started riding and even though I felt the eye was affecting me a little bit, it kind of seemed like the right eye and my brain started compensating. Meanwhile, through vision tests, my left eye wasn’t improving, minute changes, barely even noticeable in a vision test. But overall my vision seemed like it improved. I wanted to race.”

While his vision improved, his body didn’t. The radiation treatment had taken a toll on his immune system. He came down with pneumonia and stomach viruses as he tried to get back in racing shape. Over time, his body responded better to motocross workouts and practices and he was ready to return to racing. But he injured his knee and that delayed his comeback attempt.

It took Langston a little longer than he expected to make his return to AMA Supercross. He is in 14th place in the AMA Supercross standings after six races. He finished a season-best eighth in the race at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego on Feb. 6. He was 10th at the AMA Supercross season opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim on Jan. 9.

“I’m happy. I’m enjoying it. I think being a little older and wiser has helped, not getting carried away and not pushing the limits yet,” Langston said. “I had a strategy and I feel very fortunate to have a second chance. My feeling on this is I have been given a second chance. I’ve come back and I’m really enjoying myself. I don’t recall having this much fun riding in a long time. I think the pressure’s off. People aren’t expecting much. That’s nice. I can just work my way back into it.”

Langston's Son Diagnosed With Autism
When Langston and his wife learned that their son was diagnosed with autism, it was the summer of 2007. Langston was contending for an AMA Supercross championship, battling Chad Reed and James Stewart on a weekly basis and making considerable gains on the top two riders in the series.

“Before he was diagnosed, it was during the summer of 2007 and I was starting to get into this heated championship battle,” Langston said. “That was – I don’t wan to say it took focus off of him – but we were all so focused on racing. I remember coming home after a long day of riding and I’d walk in the house and be like, ‘Hey Dev.’ He didn’t greet me. He just looked the other way and kept watching TV. I thought, ‘This bums me out. This is our first kid.’ I didn’t know any different. You love it when your kid comes up, gives you a hug and says they miss you. He couldn’t do that.”

Langston said he had suspicions that something was wrong with his son. His wife and mother-in-law told him not to worry. They told him boys develop slower than girls and tried to assure him Devin would be fine. Eventually, Langston and his wife decided to have their son evaluated by their pediatrician around the time he turned 3 years old. Their doctor told them Devin had autism.

“My wife and I, we didn’t really know what that meant,” Langston said. “My wife broke down in tears, bawling her eyes out. I felt a little bit the same way, but I felt I had to be the strong one and tell her it will be all right. We’ll work through it and it’s just going to be a challenge.

“The first thing I did was I Googled autism when I got home. There could be a lot worse things. The good news is, we don’t ever have to ever worry about us not having our son in a few years. Being a professional racer, I’m around Make-a-Wish and Dream Maker and these kind of things and you see and hear all these issues these kids have knowing that a kid may not even live to be a teenager. That has to be just devastating as a parent.”

Langston took an aggressive approach to helping his son. He studied about autism, attended seminars, questioned doctors. He became an expert on the topic, educating himself on the most effective strategies to treat the diagnosis. He and his wife have tried changing Devin’s diet, working with therapists and his son’s school district to provide support in needed areas. In addition to going to school, Devin works with a one-on-one tutor two hours a day at home.

It’s taken some time, but Devin is getting re-acquainted to Supercross as well. The stadium environment can be overwhelming at times for Devin. The crowds, noise, fireworks and music can be intimidating. But Devin has learned how to adjust to the noise and the crowds and watch his dad race against some of the top Supercross riders in the world.

“The whole family loves the sports,” Langston said. “They love riding. They love watching. They love coming to races. They love staying the motor home. That’s what I’m really enjoying these days is we’re a family and everyone enjoys what our lifestyle is. It would be tough if not everyone was into it like I was.”

Photos: Grant Langston is 14th in the Monster Energy AMA Supercross Series standings after six races. He finsihed 13th in Saturday night's AMA Supercross race at Angel Stadium in Anaheim.(Courtesy of RacerX)

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