CHEYENNE – Tasks Cannon Meyer used to consider mindless no longer come easily.
Crowds, colors and complex directions can cause overstimulation.
Reading and writing aren’t bad in small doses. After a while, though, words and letters start blending together.
Meyer will most likely never hold a 9-5 job.
“He has a hard time – and most people with traumatic brain injuries do – being told when to be somewhere, where to be, what to do and how to do it,” his mother Cheri Meyer said.
Cannon Meyer finds himself frustrated and overwhelmed often.
He is learning to manage the dramatic swings of emotion he experiences as a traumatic brain injury survivor.
“Some people describe a TBI as a living nightmare,” the 24-year-old said. “There are days where it does feel like a living nightmare.”
Meyer still struggles with the fallout of an April 28, 2012, longboarding accident.
He knows he will never fully recover, he will merely learn to cope. Nevertheless, Meyer has found an outlet to help quiet the chaos in his head.
“Ninja” training, obstacle courses and competitions require Meyer to be hyper-focused on the task at hand. They are aiding in his recovery.
Meyer was chosen for the ninth season of NBC’s “American Ninja Warrior,” a show where athletes try to clear a course of unique obstacles that test grip strength, climbing ability, body control, athleticism and critical thinking.
His run at the Denver Qualifier airs at 7 p.m. today.
Meyer had used some of the money he earned working as a dishwasher to buy a new longboard a few days before his accident.
A day on Horsetooth Mountain west of Fort Collins, Colorado, seemed like the perfect way to break in that longboard. There is a hill with a winding road in the area. It looked like a suitable challenge for Meyer and his friends.
They started relatively low on the hill and worked their way up. After a few runs, they decided to try to traverse the whole hill.
Meyer’s friends bailed from their boards not far from the top.
Meyer kept going.
Eventually, his longboard started to wobble, a tell-tale sign of trouble. By that time, jumping from his board for a relatively controlled accident wasn’t an option.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, crap,’ and my board kicking out from under me,” Meyer said.
Meyer has pieced together the rest of his accident from the accounts of friends.
“I was told I hit my sacrum when I landed and then hit my head and knocked myself out,” Meyer said.
Blood started pooling around his head as he lay on the pavement. His friends ran down the hill to assess his injuries and call for help. He was nearly run over by a car before a woman stopped and offered a blanket.
“The first thing I remember after my accident is going through the hallways in the hospital and watching the ceiling lights go by,” he said. “I remember being in excruciating pain.”
Meyer didn’t know who his father was when he came to. He knew Cheri was his mother, but he didn’t know her name.
“That day definitely turned my life upside down,” Cannon Meyer said. “It humbled me. I thought I was invincible and found out I wasn’t.”
A new reality
Doctors told Meyer he couldn’t work for a year. He just had to recover.
That was easier said than done.
The traumatic brain injury had robbed Meyer of his senses of taste and smell. Weight fell off his 5-foot-2 frame because he couldn’t stand the texture of chewed food in his mouth.
“Without my senses of taste and smell, food was just a gross mush,” Meyer said.
Adjusting to his new reality wasn’t easy. Meyer reached his breaking point several times.
Doug Brendle, a friend of the Meyers, offered words of encouragement after seeing Cannon’s frustration boil over.
“He told Cannon, ‘You’re going to have to treat yourself like you’re 2 years old,’” said Mike Meyer, who is Cannon’s father. “You are going to have to rethink things and redo things and know you’re not going to do them as fast, and you’re not going to do them as well, but you’re going to learn, and you’re going to progress.”
The message didn’t completely sink in until Meyer saw a 2-year-old meltdown and throw a spoonful of food across a dinner table.
“It clicked for him right then and there,” Mike Meyer said. “He said, ‘That’s what happens to me. I really am like a 2-year-old. I have to take things in stride and relearn things.”
Being put on disability gave Cannon Meyer plenty of time for soul searching.
“I didn’t have much ambition before the accident,” he said. “I was just living in Fort Collins, being a dishwasher and being a kid.
“(The accident) really helped me jumpstart my life.”
Meyer found regular massages he was receiving did more than relieve achy muscles. The relaxation they brought was good for his soul.
Meyer befriended his massage therapist and decided to enroll in the Healing Arts Institute in Fort Collins. He gained his massage therapy certification in nine months and now works as an instructor in addition to having his own massage therapy business.
Meyer also is a certified personal trainer.
Meyer started going to TBI support group meetings late in 2016. They increased his perspective and gave him a sense of belonging.
“I felt really alone and like I was going crazy and all of these things were in my head,” he said. “I was in a dark place.
“The support group said, ‘Those things happen to all of us. We all feel those things. You’re not going crazy; it’s part of the injury.’”
The Meyers were fans of “American Ninja Warrior.” They liked watching the athletic feats and creative new obstacles on each course. They liked the vignettes highlighting the athlete’s stories of perseverance more. Those features gave athletes a chance to bring attention to an issue that might otherwise fly under the radar.
Cannon Meyer saw the show as an opportunity to turn the spotlight on TBIs and told his support group he was going to try to get on the show.
“I felt my head injury was holding me back from things,” Meyer said. “I decided it was time to get out of my funk and start working out and training.”
He went to local parks and examined the playground equipment for nontraditional ways he could get from one end to the next without touching the ground.
“I started looking at the playgrounds and thinking, ‘Instead of just using the monkey bars, I could grab here and put my foot there to get over there,’” said Meyer, who grew up playing hockey, snowboarding and riding dirt bikes.
He told his family about his goal of getting on “American Ninja Warrior.” Mike Meyer had a good friend whose daughter and son-in-law run a “ninja gym” in Castle Rock, Colorado.
Spending a day with Brandi and Ryan Lebsack at Ninja Intensity was all it took for Meyer to become hooked on the sport.
“They have a beautiful gym with all of the obstacles, and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is so cool,’” Meyer said. “Getting first-hand experience on a lot of the obstacles I had seen on the show made me think I really could do it.”
It also made him realize how badly Cheyenne needed a ninja gym. Meyer has since opened Ninja Playground at 605 South Greeley Highway, Building 3. Ninja Playground offers open gyms and classes for people of all ages.
It also gives Meyer somewhere to train regularly. He was only able to go to Castle Rock to train once every week or so.
“We were building our gym as I was training for the show,” Meyer said. “We would build the salmon ladder, and I’d turn right around and try it out. If I liked it, we’d move on to building the next obstacle.
“We’d get it built and I’d try it. I would also come in before we started construction in the mornings and work out on the obstacles we had already finished.”
Meyer quickly found that even though the courses were complex and involved several steps, they didn’t frustrate him the way everyday tasks did.
“I really had to engage myself physically and mentally to accomplish these obstacles,” he said. “I love that kind of focus. Instead of worrying about the course, I can isolate each obstacle.
“Once I get through that obstacle, I worry about the next one. It’s step-by-step active thinking.”
More than 77,000 people applied to appear on “American Ninja Warrior.” Five hundred people were chosen, 100 ran the course.
Only a handful of those runs are broadcast on NBC. Meyer’s will be one of them.
Meyer can’t say how he did during his May 24 run at Denver’s Civic Center Park, but he is excited to finally share the news with extended family and friends tonight.
Talking to him, though, it’s clear he couldn’t have enjoyed the experience more, and longs to take another shot at making the final stage and competing on Mount Midoriyama.
As if the obstacles on the course didn’t pose enough of a challenge, “American Ninja Warrior” episodes are taped overnight. Many contestants bring sleeping bags and pillows so they can sneak in naps while they wait to compete.
Meyer took a sleeping bag with him but never used it. He was too excited to sleep.
“I thought I would be throwing up because I was so nervous,” he said. “A lot of people were pacing around, but I was just filled with too much excitement.”
Meyer’s number was called shortly before his run, and he warmed up in an area called “the bullpen,” which has a couple of small obstacles.
“I started to sweat bullets when I got there,” he said. “But I tried my best to keep from getting too nervous. I mostly listened to music and got myself into a zone.”
Eventually, Meyer was called to the course. His heart started racing, and he could hear the crowd chanting his name.
Meyer’s cheering section included his fiancée, Alyssa, and their 8-month-old son, Camden.
“They told me to be ready, and I got tunnel vision and blocked all of (the cheering) out and just went,” Meyer said.
Meyer was so wired from the thrill of competing on the ninja circuit’s biggest stage that he could hardly sleep for three days after his run.
NBC makes it clear to participants that their stories and runs may not be broadcast. Meyer didn’t know his run would air for sure until he was emailed by a producer last week.
Still, the first day of Meyer’s two-day trip to Denver to compete was spent taping the vignette that may air before his run.
The story of Meyer’s longboard accident will be featured prominently in the vignette. He did a number of tricks on a standard-length skateboard for the cameras.
“I don’t longboard much anymore,” Meyer said. “It’s not my main hobby. Ninja is my new hobby.
“It’s not that I’m scared of it, I just don’t do it that much. I still do a lot of the same things I did before my accident, but I have slowed down. I’m more calculated. And I wear a helmet.”
A pristine Element brand skateboard deck hangs on a wall near a counter at Ninja Playground. The word Cannon dominates the bottom of the board in large, white letters.
Cheri Meyer describes her son as a rambunctious child who became a young man that tested the limits of his mortality.
Meyer is still a young man. He still pushes himself in ways that makes some scratch their heads, but Meyer is different.
“I have joked that it took a really hard hit on the head to get him focused,” Mike Meyer said.
Meyer not only wants to bring attention to TBIs while he competes in the United Ninja Athlete Association, he wants Ninja Playground to be a place where others can find the peace and focus he has.
Each day presents a fresh set of challenges for Meyer and other TBI survivors. Each day also gives Meyer a chance to live with purpose.
“I have something to work for and a lot to live for,” he said. “I have my fiancée and my son. I have my family.
“And now I have this ninja community. It has been a Godsend.”