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An interview with Tara Llanes, October 18, 2007

On the road to recovery

After a crash at the Jeep King of the Mountain finals in Beaver Creek, Colorado, Tara Llanes realized she couldn't move her feet or legs. She was transported initially to Vail Valley hospital and later airlifted to Denver for further medical treatment including surgeries to stabilize her spine. Cyclingnews' Sue George spoke with Llanes at the Craig Rehabilitation hospital in Denver where she is undergoing rehabilitation.

A 'giant' get well card for Tara Llanes at Interbike
Photo ©: Mark Zalewski
(Click for larger image)

Faced with an indefinite recovery period and an uncertain future, 30 year-old Tara Llanes (Giant) approaches each day with a relentlessly optimistic attitude. "All you can do is be positive," said Llanes. "If you're negative, well that's not going to happen. I'm going to walk out of this place. That's my plan."

Upon arriving at Denver Health Hospital after her crash on September 1, Llanes faced seven hours of back surgery. Afterward, she still reported no feeling from her waist down. "I did fracture my C7 and had to wear a neck brace, but I got that off a few days ago. I was very lucky I didn't hurt more of my neck. The majority of my injuries are mid to low back – my T12, T11, L1, and L2. They fused all those together and put rods in my back."

At the rehabilitation hospital, Llanes faces a daily schedule that would leave most healthy people exhausted. "On a typical day, from 8 to 9 am, I have an OT class, which is occupational therapy. Then from 9 to 10 am, I have chair class. They show you how to manoeuvre, how to do wheelies, how to get the wheelchair up curbs – things I never would have thought of."

"From 10 to 11 am, I have my FES bike class which is on a machine. You roll your chair up and they put electrodes on your legs and one on each butt cheek. They put your legs in, turn it on and you ride a bike. Your legs just start moving. It's the coolest thing. The first time I had a huge smile on my face and thought, 'Yes, I'm riding!'"

"When you ride the bike, there is a screen with a little blue wheel. When it's blue, the machine is doing the work. When it turns grey, your muscles are making the pedals turn. I've only been able to make the pedals turn a little on my own, but I've only been in the class four times so far." Llanes has had many breakthroughs in her recovery so far and looks forward to many more, but one that stands out is that she has been able to contract her left quadriceps muscle.

"When I stopped rolling, I tried to move my feet and my legs and they wouldn't move. So I knew there was a pretty big problem."

-Tara Llanes about her crash

After her morning activities, Llanes gets a break for three hours. "It's my time to relax and take a nap or do whatever I need to do." But then it's back to work.

"From 2 to 3 pm, I have physical therapy. From 3 to 4 pm, I have fit class. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays that means I lift weights, like weight training. The two other days of the week I'm not lifting, I go to the basketball gym and play games.

"It's like the movie Murderball. It came out a few years ago and it has to do with a rugby team - lots of them are quadriplegic. These guys are animals and they ram into each others' chairs and they fall out. Then they climb back in and get going again." Her competitive spirit was evident in her voice as she added, "It's fun!"

Her classes end at 4 pm. "If I'm sore or having a rough day, I'll come back to my room and relax. Or I can go outside or whatever I want to do."

Despite the rigorous rehabilitation, Llanes still makes it a priority to communicate with her many supporters at home in California and around the globe. "I've got 80 new emails each day and I want to make sure I get back to people." She has plenty of visitors, too. "I don't ever want to kick any body out of here, but there are times I just need to recover. My nurses and doctors kick people out to give me recovery time."

Remembering the accident

Tara Llanes in a crash at the 2006 World Championships in Rotorua
Photo ©: Rob Jones
(Click for larger image)

Llanes, who finished third in the 2006 UCI 4X World Cup standings and has bronze medals from the 4X world championships in 2005 and 2006, was racing in the semi-finals against Jill Kintner at the Jeep King of the Mountain finals when she crashed.

"I remember coming into this section where your timing needed to be spot on. You couldn't mess up. To make it easy to understand it was like six doubles in a row. After you hit the third double, you came down and it was like a roller that was only about a foot or so off the ground and you needed to pull up for it right when your front wheel was on the back side of it and you hit the lip of another double."

Her voice cracked as she recalled what went wrong, "I just…I don't know... . During my heat, I hit the rhythm section perfectly. It was amazing. But for some reason when I went into it the last time, I didn't think and I didn't pull up for the roller. I don't know why.

"When that happened I bounced off the lip of the double and I started to over-rotate. I don't even think my hands came off the handlebar. I just landed on my head. When I stopped rolling, I tried to move my feet and my legs and they wouldn't move. So I knew there was a pretty big problem."

After a brief visit to Vail Valley hospital, she was air lifted to Denver for further medical treatment. She later moved to Craig Rehabilitation hospital. "We did research when I got hurt and basically this is the best place in the country to come for spinal cord rehab." Llanes said she was grateful to have the opportunity to be there and wanted to make the most of it.

"They wanted to send me home on November 27, right before my birthday [She will turn 31 on November 28 - ed.]; however, I'm wearing this turtle shell thing that restricts my motion a lot. I told them that I didn't want to leave until I get my turtle shell off - approximately 12 weeks after surgery.

"I want to be at Craig a minimum of a week or two after I get the shell off. They can teach me so many more things without that shell on. I don't want to be at this place that's phenomenal for rehab and not be able to take full advantage of it. They agreed with me. So it looks like I'll be here until early December."

One day at a time

Lots of well-wishers signed the card.
Photo ©: Mark Zalewski
(Click for larger image)

In the meantime, Llanes takes each day one at a time. "Some days are better than others. Yesterday was really gnarly. I don't like having drugs in me. I weaned myself off some. If I'm supposed to take something every two hours I wait and do it every four.

"I had this patch on me and I didn't realize how much it helped until they took it off while we were trying to figure out what was making me so nauseous lately. They took it off for a test. My body went through withdrawals. I was like a heroin addict getting off. I was convulsing. It scared me so much.

"You work through it," she added soberly.

While at Craig, Llanes has enjoyed the company and support of fellow downhiller, Stephan Murray, also there for rehabilitation following a serious accident this summer. They are housed in adjacent buildings.

"We see each other quite a bit. If I'm having a better day and can be in the chair longer, I'll go visit him, but he came by the other day with his brother and a few other people. We razz each other all the time. We're both similar in that we're both fighting this thing and it's not going to be the end of it. It's good having him around. He's a really good guy. It's unfortunate that we're both here, but the fact that we are, we can push each other and keep each other positive."

Tara Llanes
Photo ©: Steve Medcroft
(Click for larger image)

What gets her through each day is the unwavering support of so many. "I've had so much support and so much love and so many letters. The support is priceless to me and I don't even know a lot of these people. You guys have no idea how much it means to me - how much it makes me want to push that much harder."

"I get a lot of letters and emails and people are praying and that's all I can really ask for." Supporters can also contribute financially to her Road to Recovery fund (visit www.tarallanesroadtorecovery.com for more information), which was put in place to help offset mounting medical expenses. "The helicopter to get from Vail Valley to Denver health was US$17,000. It blows your mind."

"I've never prayed so much in my life," said a reflective Llanes. "You never think something like this can happen to you. You never do." While it doesn't happen to most people, if anyone can get back on her feet again, it's someone with the spirit and determination and support of Llanes.

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