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An interview with Lorian Graham, September 2, 2005

Shattered knees and dreams

Small steps on Lorian's road to recovery

Lorian Graham was part of the AIS women's cycling team involved in a massive crash in Germany that claimed the life of Amy Gillett. In the aftermath of that tragedy, life has changed forever for the senior surviving member of Australia's elite women's cycling team. Cyclingnews correspondent John-Michael Flynn caught up with Graham at the Australian Club Cycling Championships on the Sunshine Coast.

In the national champion's jersey
Photo ©: Mark Gunter
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She may be known in the sport as a 'tough nut' and a fighter who punches above her weight, but for 27 year old Queenslander Lorian Graham, destiny may rest more with the rehabilitative powers of medical science, than with what brutality the reigning Australian road champion can dish out to her opponents on the bike, because on the road ahead there are no sure things and no guarantees.

When asked the question of how it's all going, Graham seemed upbeat, saying, "It's going ok. I have to take small steps at the moment. I guess I've gotta crawl before I walk again, and then, you know, hopefully be back on the bike and competing."

Matter of fact and realistic about her progress, Lorian Graham sits across a table holding court with the media, one leg still obviously incapacitated, but with the glow having returned to her Aussie 'country girl' features.

It's a radical improvement on the image which made newspaper front pages across the nation; the washed-out face of a brave but battered young woman, speaking from her German hospital bed of the dramatic accident which claimed the life of a team-mate on a lonely road near Leipzig. The six members of the AIS squad were on a training ride when they were struck by an out of control car. Amy Gillett was killed instantly. It was only a few weeks prior to the terrible events of Germany when we last saw the Australian Women's Road Champion in action.

Concentrating hard before the start
Photo ©: Mark Gunter
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Home briefly on a mid-season break from national team duties in Europe, Lorian Graham was, as always, making her presence felt on the early morning Park Road bunch ride in her adopted town of Brisbane. Even in the dim pre-dawn winter light, the red hair and green and gold bands were impossible to mistake for anything else. This was the Aussie champ, returning to peak form after recovering from a broken collarbone sustained in a collision with a car in Fortitude Valley.

Who could have imagined in their worst nightmares what would happen next to the pride of the Brisbane peloton, or to use the words of a great novelist, "what foul dust would float in the wake of Lorian's dreams." Beyond the immediate devastation, the loss of close friend and 'cycling sister', 29-year-old Amy Gillett and the horrific injuries to her team-mates, Graham's career goals have been placed on hold for the immediate future.

Although perhaps the least injured of the Aussie girls (the most severely injured riders Alexis Rhodes and Louise Yaxley have recently returned home), Graham's injuries are still in the 'career threatening' category and there is no certainty as to how the knee-cap she shattered into four pieces in the accident will recover.

Lorian looks relaxed
Photo ©: John Michael Flynn
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"It's not too bad it's been pinned and wired so it's just going to be a timely process to find out how much movement I'll have back in my knee," Graham admitted after giving her answer some thought. Less than two months on from the shocking events of July 18th, Graham's right leg remains in a brace, a modern-day alternative to plaster, which should result in reduced muscle atrophy and a quicker recovery time. "The specialists are quite confident," according to Lorian, but it would appear any presumption beyond that would be speculation.

As cyclists who have dealt with knee injuries know only too well, rehabilitiation is a day to day scenario and a case of 'if' and not so much 'when' the knee joint regains full movement. Still, in Lorian's case there is reason for optimism, given there appears to be no serious damage to the tendons and ligaments which hold the knee together.

A best case scenario would see the Queenslander back on the bike in some capacity by her birthday in November, with a view to defending the national title which, so far, is the pinnacle of a stellar cycling career. "I would hope January to participate in - I mean it's a bit of a unrealistic goal to try and defend my national jersey," Graham admitted with some hesitation. "But I am the champion at the moment, so you know, just to be a part of the race would be fantastic."

And as for the Commonwealth Games?

Beyond January's National Open Road Championships, it's the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in March next year which have been one of Graham's great career motivations for a long time. Across much of the cycling world the event barely rates a mention, but for Australian, British and Canadian cyclists in particular, the event represents another opportunity to excel on a world-class level.

Racing as part of the AIS squad
Photo ©: Phillip Volle
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Standing on the podium hearing Australia's national anthem is a dream which the Rockhampton cyclist has long harboured, and had July's accident not occurred, Graham would have had the inside running for a spot on the Games team. With it would have come the likelihood of featuring among the medals in an Australian road cycling team boasting, among others, former AIS team-mates in 2004 World Cup winner Oenone Wood and Olympic Gold medalist Sara Carrigan.

"At this point I think I'm a very outside chance looking at my injury," admitted Graham. "I'm in contention because I have competed in two World Cups so far but unfortunately due to the accident that has stopped me from competing in a lot of the races in which I needed to get results to be selected for that team. If I can't ride that day I'll be there supporting my other fellow Aussies that deserve to be there."

It's likely on the balance of sensibility, during the process of a measured rehabilitation, that Graham will focus further out than the Commonwealth Games, setting a steady path toward the longer term goal of representing Australia at the Beijing Olympics.

"We were asked a lot of times, even my team-mates asked each other, whether we would ride again?" Graham recalled of her time in hospital. "I didn't have any hesitation to say that I have somewhat unfinished business, because in the near future I do want to be at the Olympic Games."

2008 might seem a long way off, but time is something which, perhaps, cycling's 'Aussie battler' can use to her advantage; not just to heal mentally and physically from her terrifying ordeal, but regain form on the bike and complete what may yet be one of the great comebacks in Australian sport. "I've been taken back by a lot of injuries in the past and I know the steps to get through it," Lorian says with absolute resolve, "I'm an athlete and I have a goal and I'm motivated to achieve that goal."

Lorian's work with the Amy Gillett-Safe Cycling Foundation

Winning the national road championship
Photo ©: Mark Gunter
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If there is an upshot to come from the tragic events of July, it is, as Lorian Graham sees it, the formation of the Amy Gillett-Safe Cycling foundation. Set up by Amy's husband Simon, the foundation aims to assist the rehabilitation costs of the five surviving cyclists, help promote awareness of cyclists among vehicle users and assist with the development of Australian women's cycling.

Work as an ambassador for the foundation is already keeping the Australian road champion hopping about on her crutches as donations flow in from across Australia.

Attending the launch of the Australian Club Road Championships, Graham was presented with one cheque for $1000 from developers of the local Peregian Springs estate. It was followed by the immediate pledge of another one thousand dollars from the Maroochy Shire Council.

"I can't believe how quickly the foundation was put in place," said Graham. "Again, my best wishes to Simon as he's done a fantastic job so far. This event has had its positives - it's important to keep the awareness going."

Foremost in the senior AIS squad member's mind now is the rehabilitation of team-mates. With Alexis Rhodes, Louise Yaxley, Kate Nicholls and Katie Brown recovering at home, Lorian is thankful for the support provided to the girls in their time of need. "We were tight to start with but we've definitely been brought closer again," Graham said.

Cyclingnews coverage of the Australian team crash and its aftermath

August 8: More support for Amy Gillett-Safe Cycling Foundation
August 3: Rhodes and Yaxley out of intensive care
July 29: Amy Gillett's life recalled in moving service
July 28: Rhodes and Yaxley recovery 'amazing'
July 24: Yaxley improving, Rhodes still unconscious
July 21: AIS head 'optimistic' about recovery; 'Brownie' tries his best
July 19: Unprecedented carnage in Germany
July 18: Amy Gillett dead after crash in Germany

Condolences & tributes

Cyclingnews has five pages of tributes from cyclists and supporters from around the world who've been affected by this tragedy. Please see: Amy Gillett: Tributes, 1976-2005, Part 1, and Part 2, Part 3 (posted July 21), Part 4 (posted July 22), and Part 5 (posted July 29).

(For further information about the Amy Gillett-Safe Foundation, please visit Cycling Australia's web site.)

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