Surviving in the wild and sparking campfires from scratch, Micayla Gatto was your typical nine-year-old Boy Scout—barring the fact she was a girl.
Even as a third grader, the Vancouver-bred Gatto knew she wanted to live a life outdoors, free from the shackles of normality. She longed to emulate her big brother and, in doing, so blew off her cookie-baking comrades in Girl Scouts to become a Boy Scout instead.
So when the big bro picked up a mountain bike, Gatto did too, and, at the ripe old age of 11, began her uphill path to becoming a Canadian downhill mountain biking champion.
When a brutal crash forced her to re-evaluate her young career, Gatto went inward and began creating art. She’s recently begun speaking up on the dangers of concussions in action sports—and she still goes on adventures, whether its bombing heli-trails on her mountain bike, or bringing her colorful, skate-scene inspired line paintings to the masses.
THE RED BULLETIN: First up, the Boy Scout thing. How did that even happen?
MICAYLA GATTO: True story! I was the only girl in Boy Scouts. Girl Scouts were available and I asked what they do and they were like “you bake cookies and you learn how to sew and make friendship bracelets”. And I was like “I already know how to do that stuff. I want to learn how to make a fire, trap an animal, read a compass and go out and use a map”. I didn’t need to bake any more cookies. Essentially, all I wanted to do when I was young was be like my big brother and follow him around. So whatever he did, I wanted to do it and I wanted to do it better.
You’re known as a mountain bike racer but retired from competition at 26—just as you were on the verge of success…
In 2015 I took a year off to try and figure out what I wanted to do. I was really badly injured and got dropped from my world cup team as a result. I felt like my whole identity had been ripped away from me and crushed into the ground. I’d been a racer since I was 13 and just like that, it was all over. That was all I knew myself to be and what I felt everyone saw me as up until then. But it forced me to reassess what I wanted to do rather than what everybody else thought I should do. And I totally switched paths and I’m happier than I’ve ever been.
That injury changed your life. What do you remember of it?
I was racing the Windham World Cup downhill race and on one of the bigger jumps it’d rained that week and there were ruts in the take-off. My front wheel went in one rut and my back wheel in another and I kind of got cross-threaded off the lip and thrown sideways. I landed on a pile of rocks and completely destroyed my hip, separated my shoulder and my head was whipped into the ground. It was terrible. I got a really bad concussion, a black eye and my hip still has a big numb spot on it. My femur is jammed up and forward and my hip, I’ve got the beginning stages of arthritis. It kind of sucks and something I have to keep on top of in the physio.
Most recently, you’ve started to speak up on the issue of concussion in sports given you’re still suffering the effects from your injury two years ago…
That was definitely the biggest factor in why I didn’t really go back. The first three months it was impaired vision, headaches, memory loss, dizziness, not being able to sleep, mood swings. I was super depressed, too. Then it went away and I thought it was gone until I went to teach a women’s camp in the summer. It was really hot out, I was dehydrated and out all day and I noticed the symptoms coming back in a really big way. There are things I’ve done—like taken and lost my friend’s car keys for no reason—without any recollection. Stuff like that still happens. And now, two years later, my short-term memory is still really bad. I’ll be out with my GoPro and put it somewhere and then forget I even had it with me until someone comes running after me with it.
Why do you feel like it’s time for you to address this topic in action sports?
There’s a huge pressure to perform. A lot of action sports athletes, especially mountain bikers, they work three jobs all winter to pay for themselves to get to these races. And the feeling is like “man, am I not going to do this race just because I knocked my head after I’ve saved all winter and came all the way to Italy just to do this race?” Typically, the answer is no. People feel their body is working fine and they can suck it up for four minutes. It’s a hard one. You don’t want to be the person that sits out.
Why didn’t you speak up after your accident?
I was kind of an idiot. The whole mentality in that downhill mountain bike scene at that time was that if you’re leg wasn’t broken, there was no excuse not to ride. I’d see guys get knocked out and then go back up and do another run. Now that I know a little bit more about it, that is the worst thing you could possibly do to your brain. I’m definitely a big advocate now of getting checked out if you think you’ve been concussed and then taking it easy. There’s a photo from my crash that I posted that and said “this is what brain injury looks like”. It’s an important thing that everybody need to talk about. It’s a lot scarier and a lot more real than people have passed it off to be.
Injuries aside, you’re a woman in a predominantly male sport. How do you find the camaraderie?
In general, I’d say we support each other. My biggest advocates have been men. They’ll take the time in their runs and lives to help me just because they want to see me succeed and not for any other reason. It’s definitely really cool and I think it’s only getting better. The more women that get into it, the more respect they get from the men.
So now you’re combining your painting and art with your love for adventure riding…
It was a blessing in disguise looking back. I’m a very firm believer of having a balanced life, and my creativity and artwork is as huge a part of my life as my riding is. One of the quotes that comes to mind is from Everett Ruess, a kid in the 1930s who’d go off on his own and live in the woods: “While I’m alive, I intend to live”. And right now I’m trying to live as much and as big as possible and do as many things that I dream of and make them a reality while I still can.
Some (us) have described your art as Japanese-inspired Hawaiian shirt surf core? Would you agree?
Haha. My style is always changing and developing. I use a lot of line work, bold colors with complex line work. I am inspired not only by the mountains and nature around me, but I do really take a lot of inspiration from the surf and skate industry and their artists. Mike Giant and guys like that. The whole mountain thing, I only really started painting in the past year. And just because people liked it. I did one and people were like “woah, that’s rad” and kept asking for them. So I did. I just draw from my actual life and put it on paper.