Returning from a Major Cycling Accident
On April 2nd of 2011, I was racing the criterium stage of a regional stage race in The Dalles, Oregon. It was a nighttime criterium, and I was feeling positive about my chances of achieving my goal of winning the race. I had won all the primes with ease and was feeling strong. As I attacked into the last corner of the final lap, my pedal struck the pavement, taking me out. My next memories are from 11 days later, from a hospital bed. I had suffered a severe traumatic brain injury, been airlifted to Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland, and been in a coma and vegetative state.
According to the doctors, my recovery was miraculous. My family had been told by one doctor that I might not wake up, and then that I would need constant care for the rest of my life.
Six months after my crash, I got back on the bike. A year after my accident I raced again for the first time, a local time trial at Portland International Raceway. By 2012, I had returned to winning regional time trials, road races and stage races.
My recovery and return to cycling occurred thanks to multiple things:
- The support of my friends, family, and the cycling community
- My stubbornness
- Setting achievable goals for myself
My accident is unfortunately just one example of a sudden, negative life-changing event. Many riders or their acquaintances have or will experience similar setbacks.
Where to start if you are set back by a life-changing accident:
Believe in yourself – It helps to have other people believe in you, but in the end, your own mental strength is what will allow a complete recovery.
- Set small, achievable goals – My first ride outside was in the forest for 30 minutes on a cross bike while my boyfriend ran along-side me. This was after a few months of building up on the trainer.
- Be willing to change focuses – Before my accident, I was sure that my strength was criterium racing. When I started riding again, I realized that I should choose somethng that would keep me safer. That’s when I started time-trialing and eventually doing triathlons.
- Talk to a therapist – Many people who experience a traumatic accident suffer mentally as well as physically. There may be things that you do not want to share with your loved ones that you need to get off your chest. A therapist can be more understanding of your specific mental needs.
- Take it slow – Rushing only breeds frustration and can actually prolong your come-back if you make mistakes. If I had rushed back into school and riding my bicycle, I would have only felt more frustration. Hard mental work done too soon can even injure an already damaged brain. In the overall scheme of events, an extra day, week or month to do things correctly is a small amount of time to wait if it lets you build back to an active lifestyle.
- Ask for what you need – Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. I wouldn’t have recovered so quickly if I had not done this, even little things like asking to leave a party or to take a nap. I also asked for help with my courses through the Disability Access services at Oregon State University. There can be help found everywhere if you look and ask for it. Though this may feel selfish at times, it’s imperative to your overall recovery.
- Allow yourself to feel fear and anxiety related to your accident – Acknowledge that the fear and anxiety exist. They are part of what protects your safety. Talk about what is bothering you when you are riding. Gradually, your fear will decrease. Time is the main factor in this part of recovery. I was not able to go back to the Dalles to the scene of my accident until two years had passed.
- Work on gradually lowering this anxiety by placing yourself in situations where you will have to deal with it but you can easily escape – Always have an escape route/back up plan in mind. I started by watching bike racing on the television, and when that did not cause panic, I ventured to my first criterium. I did this without a set time schedule so I could bolt when I felt the need.
- Trust your gut, but listen to the advice of others – I cannot say enough how much the advice of others like my coach Anne Linton (Head Coach at Wenzel Coaching) helped me to see things that I could not see or had not seen on my own. At times I felt that she was holding me back, when she really had my best interests in mind.
Returning from a serious accident to a sport is a challenge. It is important to acknowledge to yourself that the entire process, not just the end goal, is an achievement.
Coach Leia Tyrrell works with all levels of athletes, specializing in collegiate cyclists and those making the transition from cycling to multisport.