Back on the bike
15 years after being left paralyzed, athlete is competing again
When Beth Sanden crashed her bike after speeding over a wet, broken patch of asphalt 15 years ago, the elite endurance athlete was left paralyzed. She figured her competition days were over, along with her career as a personal trainer and triathlon coach.
Actually, they were just beginning.
Paralyzed from the rib cage down and told she’d never walk again, she was swimming a year later. Soon after, she was walking with a walker, then a cane. Then she was back to competing in triathlons, albeit not the way she did before.
Sanden mostly walks these days by swinging her braced, completely paralyzed left leg like a pendulum while leaning on her cane, then moving her still-weakened right leg ahead of her body.
And she coaches people who have suffered severe injuries but, like her, have no interest in settling for a life of watching others do what they once did.
On a recent foggy morning at the aquatics centre in San Clemente - an upscale Southern California city dotted with stately homes, many with ocean views Sanden discarded her cane from time to time while walking gingerly around a sprawling pool. As she moved, she shouted words of encouragement and suggestions for improving technique to the dozen or so people she’s training.
After they spend a couple of hours in the pool, Sanden will take most of them on a bike ride up and down San Clemente’s picturesque but punishingly steep hills.
At the pool, Edwin Figueroa is one of the first to jump in, after securing his legs at the ankles with zip ties. A bystander caught in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago, he has been paralyzed from the waist down since age 17.
That didn’t stop him from propelling a wheelchair to the finish line in dozens of marathons over the years, including one last month along the shores of Minnesota’s Lake Superior. Still, it always bugged him that he couldn’t do a triathlon - a long-distance race consisting of swimming, bicycling and running - because he couldn’t swim.
“I told Beth if she could teach me to swim, I could do triathlons,” he said as he bobbed up and down in the pool. “I’ve done four now.”
For veteran triathlete and retired social worker Andy Bailey of Laguna Beach, it’s his first time in the pool since he was paralyzed in a bike crash on Halloween morning 2015. That came nine years after Bailey lost part of his right leg when he was hit by a runaway delivery van.
After the first accident, Sanden got him back on the triathlon circuit with a prosthetic. At age 78, he hopes working with her again can get him walking.
During the early days of her recovery, Sanden says, she believed she wouldn’t walk again, especially after her neurosurgeon told her the vertebrae had fractured so badly that her spinal cord had folded up like an accordion. But then her husband, determined to get her moving again, tossed her in a pool and insisted she start swimming. Fourteen months after the diagnosis, she strolled into the surgeon’s office using a walker.
“He said, ‘I’m just happy you can walk,”’ she said, recalling his startled reaction. “I said, ‘Me too.”’
Beth Sanden trains for a marathon on her hand cycle in San Clemente, Calif.