Llanes on the road to recovery

By Sue George After a crash at the Jeep King of the Mountain finals in Beaver Creek, Colorado, Tara...

By Sue George

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. Llanes is spending a few months at the Craig Hospital in Denver where she is undergoing rehabilitation.

Faced with an indefinite recovery period and an uncertain future, 30 year-old 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 follows 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.

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."

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.

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