Back on the bike

15 years af­ter be­ing left par­a­lyzed, ath­lete is com­pet­ing again

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - CLASSIFIEDS/LIFESTYLES -

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.”’

AP PHOTO

Beth San­den trains for a marathon on her hand cy­cle in San Cle­mente, Calif.

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