•   Thursday, 25 Jul, 2024
From drug addiction and despair to the world championship

From drug addiction and despair to the world championship

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Hundreds of fans urge him on as he struggles up the steep slope, cycling shoes sliding backwards as he edges forwards and upwards.

Far behind the other competitors, Nystrom reaches the top. He pauses, standing in silhouette against the wintery sun, and acknowledges the crowd. They return his salute with yet more cheers.

Nystrom's journey to these moments on a muddy cyclocross course in the south of the Netherlands has been traumatic and painful.

It has encompassed mental despair, homelessness, and attempted suicide.It is a tale he is determined to tell, to help others who may be as desperate now as he once was.

"All I want is one person," Nystrom says. "One person to know that you can come out from under the grasp of addiction and alcoholism. It's going to be the hardest thing you ever did, but you can do it."

Nystrom was born in Costa Rica, the son of a local father and an American mother who had moved there with the Peace Corps, a United States government agency for international development.

His mother's work as a volunteer and aid worker meant he was often looked after by different people at short notice.

In his early years, that made him vulnerable. Nystrom describes desperately trying to hide in a drawer from one man who had taken to viciously beating him. He also has childhood memories of being sexually abused. None of those who Nystrom remembers abusing him ever faced charges or punishment.

"For the first eight years of my life, I think I lived in just panic, in terror, like every time the door opened, I didn't know what was going to happen," says Nystrom.

"I was almost like this feeling of complete helplessness. There is nothing I could do."

As he grew older, the abuse stopped, but its effects lingered. Nystrom was awkward and withdrawn, frequently in conflict at home and bullied at school.

The only time he felt comfortable was on the sports field; playing football, doing gymnastics and, as he puts it now, "anything to stay out of the house".

By his late teens, Nystrom had developed into a decent footballer and thought he might have a chance to make it as a professional.

But injury set him back and, instead of working on his recovery, he gave up his dreams.

"I thought sports were going to be the thing - 'I'm going to be a professional soccer player and it's going to be great'," he says.

"And then I couldn't really play anymore, and I think that was the moment, [at age] 18 or 19 I was so lost.

"I had no idea where I was going. I remember thinking, 'Well, I did everything I could, in soccer and sports, to make this happen. And now even that's gone.

"I've been good and still nothing good happens, maybe I should just party like everybody else."

As he digested the end of his sporting hopes, Nystrom started down the road which was to define his life.

A teenage Nystrom (left) with his grandfather before the start of a running race, one of several sports he took part in as a youngster

By now in his late teens, Nystrom discovered a party scene around the electronic music that he loved.

Aided by drink and drugs, it came with the acceptance he craved.

"I went from being not popular to 'Oh, this guy is the life of the party' and 'This guy's cool'," he said.

"People were messaging me. 'Hey, man, we're going to go drink, let's go!' or 'We're going to get ecstasy' or whatever."

That awkward, angry young man, traumatised by the abuse he had suffered as a child, had found a way to fit in.

But while most people indulged themselves now and again, Nystrom found that he didn't want to put the brakes on.

He found the first in a series of jobs working in call centres taking bets from the United States, where, in most states, it was still illegal to gamble.

A reliable telecommunications network and a large bilingual workforce had made Costa Rica a go-to destination for the backroom operations of a booming online gaming industry that bypassed American laws.

It was an environment as soaked in drugs and alcohol as the clubs he had begun going to.

"At first, a gram of cocaine would last me a week, maybe two weeks," says Nystrom. "Then only a week, then half a week, [and] then I was taking breaks at work to go do bumps of cocaine."

Nystrom remembers a colleague warning that cocaine was "white death". But he wasn't interested.

"It was cool, it was dangerous, and I was like 'I'm so sneaky, nobody can tell'," he remembers.

"It was something that I would think about, years later, when I was lying on the street. I was like 'Man, that guy was right'."

At least partly aware of the road he was travelling, Nystrom describes how hard he tried to resist temptation, only inevitably to give in.

"My brain [was] saying 'I don't want to do drugs today' and my body on autopilot was walking from my apartment to the payphone to call my dealer," he says.

"And all the way thinking 'No, don't do it. Don't do it. Don't do it.' But it was like I could not control myself. I had to get to the payphone."

He began to hallucinate: hearing voices, imagining he was being tracked on the street or being monitored by microphones and cameras secretly installed at his home.

"It was horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible. I was losing touch with reality," he says.

No longer able or interested in going to work, he lost the last of his jobs, ran out of places to stay, and found himself on the street.

He was there for more than a year - sleeping in alleyways, begging for money, scavenging for food.

Staff at one of the local fast-food restaurants would sometimes leave a bag of tacos next to the bin at the end of the day.

"And all the time, [I] was begging for money, to go do drugs. It was all about the drugs," Nystrom says.

Even in such extreme circumstances, bitter memories of his previous life broke through.

Nystrom sometimes used discarded newspapers to try to keep warm.

"I remember looking at a newspaper and seeing the sports section, and pictures of guys that I grew up playing soccer with, were now on the national team," he says.

After more than a year of living on the streets, with seemingly no way out from his addiction and wracked with guilt about abandoning a young son whose mother he had separated from before the birth, Nystrom came to the desperate decision to end his life.

"I knew I couldn't stop. It didn't work. And so finally I decided, I can't do this anymore," he says.

He had tried several times in the past, but this time, on this day - 27 September 2012 - he says, he meant it:

"As soon as it was light, I went and started begging for money. I managed to get enough to buy what I thought would be enough drugs to die. I hadn't put that much effort into anything in years. There was no way I was going to be alive the next day.

"I went into a used clothing store and stole a pair of jeans, and then I stole a polo shirt, because I didn't want them to find me in rags. I had just enough money left to check myself into a cheap motel, so I could take a shower, because when they found me, I wanted to be clean.

"The last thing I remember was thinking that I needed to buy more beer. The next thing is opening my eyes and seeing two paramedics in front of me.

"There was this incredible rush of emotions: anger was the first one. Then fear and sadness because this was supposed to be it, I wasn't supposed to be alive anymore.

"I remember trying to fight and the guy hugging me. It was the first time I'd been hugged in I don't know how many years. He just held me while I was trying to fight him and said 'It's going to be OK. I don't know how. But it's going to be OK'."

Nystrom's life had been saved by a concerned motel receptionist who came to check on him and called the emergency services.

Before that last suicide attempt, he had sworn that this was the end and, if, somehow, he found himself still living, he would do what was needed to change.

That decision was reinforced when he witnessed a grieving family in the hospital in which he was recovering.

He can't explain why they had such an impact on him. He had seen much violence and pain before, but this time, for some reason, it was different.

"It was like this weight that I had been carrying for who knows how long had been lifted," he says. "Like I finally knew what I needed to do, where I was going to go."

He headed to a rehab centre in San Jose, where the staff were clear. They would give him food, a bed, but no second chances. If he failed to follow their rules, if he slipped up, he was out and on his own.

"I'm alive today because of those people," Nystrom says.

He describes the blissful feeling of simply falling asleep - as opposed to passing out through intoxication or exhaustion - but also the physical pain he felt as his body adjusted to a life without drugs.

There was temptation. He considered sneaking out and joining a party which was going on just over the wall from the treatment centre. Part of his brain told him, now he'd made a start, he could manage his recovery on his own.

But, somehow, the moment for him to quit the programme never came. He stayed the course and started the long climb to a different life.

Nystrom funds his own journey in cycling, with cyclo-cross essentially an unknown discipline in his native Costa Rica

The first stage was another hospital in another country.

After six months of rehabilitation, Nystrom met a woman from Portland in the United States and decided to move back with her to Oregon.

The relationship didn't last, but the job he found has. For the past 10 years, Nystrom has worked as a translator, helping Spanish-speaking patients navigate treatment. He delivers good and bad news, makes sure they are understood by the medical staff and that they understand what is happening to them.

From the very first shift, when he helped a Guatemalan woman who had just lost her baby, he realised he'd discovered a way to contribute.

"I was walking out of the hospital, and I said, 'This is what I need to be doing, this is how I'm going to start paying back society'".

"When my colleagues say 'we couldn't have done it without you.' That's a very different kind of acknowledgement than when the dealer was like 'hey, man thanks for coming to see me'."

Nystrom also reconnected with his son.

He had gone to see him for the first time in years just before he left for the States.

"I don't know how much he understood, but that day I said, 'look man, I really messed up. I failed. I failed as a father. I haven't been there for you'," he says.

"But for the rest of my life, I'm going to do everything I can to make sure you have everything you need. And I had no idea how I was going to do it. I didn't know if I could do it. But I made him that promise."

Nystrom worked intensely, earning as much as possible to pay back what he owed his son.

"For the first couple of years all I did was work, work, work, work. And there was in a way no temptation, because I just didn't have time for it.

"I didn't want to meet people because I didn't know how to meet people. I realised I didn't know how normal people have conversations."

Eventually though, Nystrom realised he did need something beyond work.

He tried football, but the old passion wasn't there. He tried triathlon, but hated the swimming.

The cycling though was fun. Not least because Nystrom turned out to be extremely good.

Even though he was in his thirties, racing people sometimes 20 years younger than him, Nystrom roared through the categories - going from beginner to Category One - the highest level of amateur competition - in a single season.

I put it to Nystrom at this point that what he had achieved so far - a life turned around, a renewed connection with his son, continuing recovery, a job he was committed to and, with cycling, a satisfying social life - would be enough for most people.

But Nystrom is not most people, which is why his next move was to take his sport "a little more seriously" and show his son what work and belief can bring.

"I can go down to Costa Rica three or four times a year, whatever, but it's not the same as being there 100% of the time," Nystrom says.

"I thought 'how can I give my son a lesson he will never forget, about never giving up on your dreams?'."

In 2019, Nystrom entered Costa Rica's elite national road racing championship. And won it.

His first thoughts after claiming the crown were about his son.

"I guess it was maybe the first time in my life that I felt like I had made him proud," he says now.

In the aftermath, he found himself telling his personal story for the first time publicly and the idea formed that by speaking out, he might be able to help others, as well as his son.

Nystrom went looking for another challenge and found it in cyclo-cross.

Cyclo-cross is a discipline in which riders tackle a looped course, mostly off-road, that takes them through mud and sand, over steep hills, around tight turns and - as a winter discipline - in whatever the weather throws at them.

Nystrom hated it at first: "It was cold, it was wet, it was muddy. They put things on the course to make you get off the bike. No!"

But, with the 2022 cyclo-cross world championships due to be held in the United States, specifically Fayetteville in Arkansas, it was a stage for his message.

He lobbied the Costa Rican federation to put him in for the event, even though there was no history of cyclo-cross in the country.

Eventually, after he committed to raising all the necessary funds himself, they allowed him to enter, and, wearing his national kit, he got his first taste of international competition.

There was no fairytale finish this time. Nystrom came last in the men's elite race. But there was at least a finish. Nystrom was classified. He completed the course and told his story.

"If somebody expects me to give them a result in one of these races, they don't know about cycling," Nystrom says.

"But it's not about that. I'm a guy, 40 years old, that works 12 to 15 hours, sometimes 18 hours a day to self-fund this crazy idea of going to race at the highest level."

It's that commitment, plus his extraordinary life story, which has earned Nystrom the support over three cyclo-cross seasons, including racing in the sport's heartland of Belgium and the Netherlands.

"It's just been incredible. It is just so unbelievable the amount of support the fans give me," Nystrom says.

"You know, they're spending their money, their time to come and see the best of the best. And then also cheer for me and I'm so grateful for that.

"And I'm especially thankful to the racers as well because I'm sure it would be very easy for one of them to say, 'why is this guy here?'.

"They've afforded me a spot on their starting grid - that for me is bigger than any result that I'll ever get in one of these races."

That respect was shown when Nystrom was involved in an incident with multiple world champion Mathieu van der Poel at the end of last year.

The Costa Rican accidentally stepped into Van der Poel's path after stopping for a selfie with fans. The Dutchman had to push him out of the way.

There was a flurry of negative comment but Van der Poel was clear. 

Nystrom has become a fan favourite in cyclo-cross' heartlands of the Netherlands and Belgium

As you can hopefully tell, Nystrom is open, relaxed and charming.

It's hard to imagine him as a once-broken man - bowed down under the weight of despair.

He feels uncomfortable about his own honesty and revealing the difficult details of his life.

"It's embarrassing," he says when I ask how he feels about telling his story.

He doesn't renounce his past, jokingly admitting that there is a relationship, however distant, between the commitment he now gives cycling and his previous addiction to drugs and alcohol.

"Before I spent all my money trying to buy as many grams as I could. Now I spend all my money trying to lose all the grams I can!" he says of his 'all-in' character and his attempts to secure comparable kit to the rest of the elite field.

It takes him more than an hour to walk back across the course in Hulst, stopping for selfies and chats with the fans who had been cheering him on during the race, giving time to everyone who wants it.

Later he sits down for this interview, going over some of the most painful and intimate details of his life with a complete stranger.

It is his way of trying to share the good fortune he feels, and of making a difference to somebody else's life.

"Somewhere out there, there is somebody who is suffering the same way I did," he says.

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