To a worldwide audience, Dave Mirra was the guy who could ride his bike into the air – often flipping and twirling as he went – in a way that few had ever seen before.
In North Carolina, Mirra was the guy some rode with and were inspired by even before he won gold medals and graced the cover of video games.
And in Greenville, where he lived, Mirra was an accessible sports icon who turned the small city into a home training ground for BMX athletes.
And as recently as Thursday afternoon, Mirra’s dreams were as big as the air underneath his bike.
That’s what made his death so sad and puzzling to many across the world on Friday. Greenville police said they found Mirra, 41, dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound Thursday afternoon.
Greenville Mayor Allen Thomas ran into Mirra outside a local restaurant just hours before his death. Thomas, who says he knew Mirra for years, was stunned by the news.
“We talked about some things we wanted to work on this year,” Thomas said. “He talked about creating a ‘BMX University,’ like a training camp.”
Thomas said that when he heard Mirra was dead, he rushed over to the house where he was found and “just sat out in the rain, staring at that front yard.”
Mirra, who is survived by a wife and two kids, is one of the most accomplished athletes of any sport.
He won 14 gold medals – second-most all-time – in the X Games, an Olympic-style event ESPN created in 1995 for action sports.
He competed and excelled in the first games. And, as the contests gained popularity, Mirra became one of the most recognizable faces in extreme sports, along with skater Tony Hawk and snowboarder Shaun White.
Hawk and White were among many athletes from a variety of sports who reacted to Mirra’s death on social media.
Mirra was “a true pioneer, icon and legend,” Hawk wrote on his Twitter account late Thursday. “Thank you for the memories... we are heartbroken.”
Mirra, a New York native, moved to Greenville in 1993 to live with his brother after being hit by a drunk driver while living in California. After recovering from a cracked skull, separated shoulder and blood clots, he started training at Greenville’s Extreme Park.
At the time, it was one of the first municipal BMX parks in the country. Billy Dexter, a 36-year-old who grew up in Fuquay-Varina, remembers meeting Mirra there.
“Nearly every weekend, me and my brothers and friends would drive out to Greenville to ride, and Dave would be there,” said Dexter, now the facility supervisor at Sk8-Cary.
“I was just a little kid from Fuquay, but he’d say ‘Hey, come try this trick’ and encourage you and come talk to you even though you were nobody,” he said.
And Mirra was great at remembering names. Dexter recalled crossing paths at a competition in Pennsylvania.
“I was walking nearby with people who were talking to him and he was like ‘Hey, Billy, what’s up?’ – even with all these people talking to him,” Dexter said.
Mirra’s BMX Vert silver medal in the inaugural X Games was the first of 24 medals he earned in 19 appearances. He medaled in 13 straight competitions to start his X Games career.
“Vert, big air, street – whatever the course was, he could get it done,” said Tim Reed, vice president of the X Games. Mirra’s nickname was “The Miracle Boy.”
“He helped put X games and BMX on the map,” Reed said.
One of Mirra’s most impressive feats, Reed said, was when he completed the first double back flip in a park competition.
Mirra then built on his stardom by taking on big-name sponsors, hosting TV shows on ESPN and MTV and lending his name to video games – such as “Dave Mirra freestyle BMX,” released in 2000.
“He used action sports as a great platform to do other things outside of BMX,” said Reed, who has worked for the X Games since 1997. “That’s part of why he’s in that iconic category. He transcended the sport into broader culture.”
In Greenville, Mirra created such a friendly culture for BMX that other professionals like Ryan Nyquist moved there.
“(Mirra) put us on the map,” said Gary Fenton, the city’s recreation and parks director. “There’s a lot of people who know where Greenville is and they live in places like the Netherlands.”
Mirra took up rally car racing and triathlons later in his career, finishing fourth in the 2013 Global RallyCross Championship and qualifying for the IronMan World Championship in 2014.
In Cary, he was known to strike up conversations about bikes and competitions at equipment shop Inside Out Sports, said Chad Kufen, the store manager. Kufen, who competed in IronMan with Mirra, said he’ll remember him as a transformative figure who touched athletes and locals alike.
“No question, you’d see him at a race venue and he’d remember who you were,” Kufen said. “He was a good guy to know and someone who was really important to North Carolina.”