Rehabilitation and the Racing Spirit: How "Forza" Helped an Injured Athlete Ride Again

Microsoft & Forza Horizon 2 help an injured racer ride again.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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On September 15, 2006 Mario Bonfante was severely injured while riding his BMX bike.

Attempting to clear a rolling set of smaller hills, he crashed his bike into the next set of jumps breaking his neck at the C6 vertebrae. Mario's motorcycle racing career came to end as doctors rushed to save his life performing multiple surgeries after the accident. Mario is now classified as quadriplegic, but he has retained some use of his hands and arms.

This is the story of how one young man suffered one of the most debilitating injuries imaginable and overcame the sort of adversity that would devastate most. Through years of rigorous rehabilitation and dedication, Mario is able to once again race again. Through sheer will and training, Mario regained the use of his arms and learned how to not only to design a computer assisted racing system, but then engineered a steering system that allowed him to race using his arms. 

Video game developers, Turn 10 Studios, the team behind Forza Horizon and the currently in development Forza Horizon 2, reached out to Mario and invited him to visit their Redmond studios. Mario's courage and determination has inspired Turn 10's approach in developing Forza Horizon 2 and this is the story of Mario's road trip to the Redmond studios, but more importantly, this is a story about a man who got to race again. In a collaboration between Mario and Microsoft, Mario has been able to share his story in this first chapter of a two-part documentary.

Had you been a car-racing enthusiast prior to the accident? Or were you strictly a BMX athlete?

I have been a car racing enthusiast all of my life and actually had aspirations of making a "retirement" career out of racing cars once I was done with what I was looking to accomplish with motorcycle racing.  I enjoy all aspects of motorsports, and always have; from the engineering in the machinery, the strategy necessary to win and all the calculated chaos of unanticipated variables that come into play. Cars are a whole new breed of engineering and technology working together in order to make the best functioning machine possible and require a completely different level of understanding and appreciation.

I was a professional road-racer though, (Motorcycles, like street bikes...not bicycles...) I just happened to get hurt on a BMX bike.

How did you find the strength after the accident to begin racing again?

I found the strength through faith, hard work, determination, and never being satisfied with being told what I can and can't do. Life is about enjoying what you do with the time you have and stagnation has always been my biggest fear. Racing and progressing my personal abilities have been all I've ever wanted to do, and to do so at the highest caliber possible.  Training and rehab kind of just go hand and hand with motorsports and it's all I've ever really known.  You need to work for what you want and be willing to sacrifice to succeed to get there at times. Sacrifice a little bit through pain and hard work, and time channeled in the right direction will allow you the ability to live a lifetime of joy and pleasure indulging in your life's biggest passion. After my injury I just had a lot harder work to put in, in order to get back to where I wanted to be, and everyone that told me I couldn't just made me want to get back there that much more.  I don't think my subconscious strength ever left my mind or heart but it was visibly apparent the strength I lost from my physical body. In turn, I think it created a full mental, physical, spiritual and emotional breakdown and reconstruction to become the man I am meant to be. 

Were video games a part of your rehabilitation?

Video games did help with my rehab in aspects of distracting and refocusing my mind on other areas rather than certain issues of things I was dealing with at hand. Not being able to use my fingers and having to learn how to readapt to use the controller was an interesting experience in itself. Now it's awesome / hilarious to see my friends’ faces when I do things just as well, if not better than them while using a device which society normally believes is only usable in one fashion. This allowed me the ability to continue to think out of the box and visualize what else is still possible with my personal abilities and ambitions, with a little bit of personalized customization.

I would play games like Forza Motorsport prior to my injury as well as even now to learn new tracks that I've never been to and practice learning the line and different reference points for braking and apex angles. Forza is so impressively accurate with its attention to detail and vehicle response that it is almost more of a driving simulator than a video game. As part of my partnership with Microsoft on this video, I was also stoked to get an early test drive of Forza Horizon 2 at Turn 10 Studios, which offers a huge open world to explore and race with friends in.

How has racing helped you in your rehabilitation?

Racing has helped me in my rehabilitation by giving me a goal to continue to strive towards and a reason to continue working hard to push myself to get where I want to be.  I know what it takes to do what I want to do, I know what I'm capable of doing now, and I know what I need to be capable of in order to not only race safely, but competitively, passionately, effortlessly, and fearlessly. Racing requires such a high level of discipline not only on the physical aspect but even more so on the mental aspect as well. Without a positive outlook, a good personal understanding of one’s self, as well as faith and determination to prove to society that you will accomplish whatever goals you set for yourself, you will never be successful no matter how good you are.


Has racing helped better prepare you to face the challenges you encountered in life as well?

In racing there are two obvious positions: a winner and a loser. You have one opportunity to test your passion and hard work, and accumulate sharpened talents and skills against your opponent or task at hand. If the proper decisions with precise executions are not made, you will fail or lose with no second chance or option to retry. This is very much how life is; you learn as much as possible as quickly as possible and when situations arise you are forced to make a decision one way or the other. An educated decision is usually based upon experience, and without practice or trials prior you might not know how to overcome the obstacles that lie ahead. You ultimately have one chance to make the right or wrong decision with no retry's or second chances, and you must be experienced enough to know how to rebound in not only the best, but even more so in the worst situations. 

From your experiences and the overcoming of these adversities, do you have any wisdom to pass on to someone who may be newly handy-capable?

The one thing I will say to anyone, differently abled or able bodied alike, is never to be afraid to fall or fail.  This is all part of our personal learning process of finding our own boundaries and figuring out what we’re actually capable of and not. I think the most debilitating thing for individuals is other people telling them what they can and can't do. I believe the only boundaries we're confined by are the ones we create in our own mind. Anything is possible—you just need to figure out a technique that works. And if you practice, perfect and apply it, you can overcome almost anything. Society pollutes our minds by indicating that there is only one way of doing things, which couldn't be more untrue. There is a way to do whatever you want – you just need to take a step back to evaluate the situation, consider your strengths and limitations, and begin to figure out a system that works best personally for you to overcome what you’re looking to accomplish. The harder you push, the easier it gets! Keep ‘em spinnin’ and just keep building momentum to overcome the next obstacle, because life is full of them and they only get bigger the farther down the road of life we get.

Are you able to play video games with a customized rig similar to the one that allows you to race in real life?

I currently play with just a regular control that I reconfigure so I can put the buttons in the proper locations so I can use them.  I am working on getting my controls 3D-printed so I could use them to play/train with and keep my muscle memory sharp. But for now, it really helps with my hand-eye coordination and learning how to improvise in certain situations that I'm forced to figure out how to overcome or do something with my current given abilities.

What's the single most important source of strength in your life?

I'd say my main, single-most important source of strength comes from faith in the big man upstairs and the plans he has for me. I've always been told God will never put more on my plate than I can handle, and given the current feast of challenges I'm forced to devour on the daily I almost feel honored that God knows I can not only overcome any adversity thrown my way, but is also using me to help others do the same as well. My mental clarity, philosophical mindset and pure stubbornness in the face of obstacles have been my biggest benefits in progressing down my road to recovery. I attribute all of that to the grace of God and through belief that everything happens for a reason. I’m just slowly working those reasons out now slowly, day by day, and every second the main objective becomes more clear.


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