The splash of water when the starting gun goes off. The spin of bicycle gears. The slap of shoes on pavement and shouts of encouragement from the sidelines.
For Austin triathlete Laurie Allen, the sounds of triathlon have ended, for now.
They disappeared Feb. 27, 2015, when she was soaking in a hot tub with friends and got out to cool off. She slipped on ice and fell backward 10 feet, fracturing two vertebrae and crushing her spinal cord.
A body used to perpetual motion suddenly couldn’t move.
“I remember being aware that something was very bad, and telling them not to move me because I couldn’t feel my legs,” says Laurie, 45.
An ambulance rushed her to St. David’s Round Rock Medical Center, where she underwent emergency surgery. Someone called her husband, Matt, who was traveling on business in Spain. She stayed in intensive care for five days, struggling to grasp her new reality: She was a quadriplegic.
Then she transferred to St. David’s Rehabilitation Hospital, where she dove into the most important endurance event she has ever faced.
Baby steps and a vow
Triathlon, Laurie Allen says, defined her life.
A self-described “triple-Type A” athlete and former high school swimmer whose plans to become a professional dancer were derailed by an Achilles tendon injury, she entered her first multisport event, the beginner-friendly Danskin Triathlon, 15 years ago.
“I don’t know what happened during that race, but it was the most empowering thing I had ever done,” she says.
Immediately hooked, she spent hours swimming, bicycling and running. She once even changed jobs to accommodate her busy training schedule. Training partners became her closest friends, and weekends revolved around races. She persuaded her husband to get into the sport.
She finished nine Ironman triathlons (including three with Matt), nine half-Ironmans and about 75 total triathlons, plus a slew of ultradistance runs, cyclocross bicycle races and adventure races. She made it to the podium occasionally as an age group competitor.
But today, a month after the accident, she’s struggling to sit up by herself at St. David’s Rehabilitation Hospital.
“Argh, holy cow,” she says, her face flushed above a Superman T-shirt.
“You can do it, babe,” Matt says.
Initially, doctors classified Laurie’s injuries as complete, meaning she had no sensation or movement below the level of her injury, the C6 and C7 vertebrae, which are near the base of the neck. “She was completely dependent for absolutely everything,” says Dr. Juan Latorre, medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury Program at St. David’s Rehabilitation Hospital.
But as the days have ticked past, she’s regained a twitch of movement here and a sizzle of sensation there. She can move her wrists, so she can propel herself in a wheelchair, but not her hands or fingers. Her biceps work, but her triceps barely do. She has only trace movement in her legs.
“One of the hardest things is learning to let go of things I can’t control, because there’s a whole lot I can’t control,” Laurie says.
Just as she once fought to get faster on the racecourse, she now fights for more movement. She times herself making wheelchair laps around the hospital floor. She clings to what her doctors have told her: Patients with her type of spinal injury can continue to gain function for up to two years.
“All right, what’s next?” she says, panting a little.
“She works harder than anyone,” says Holly Ferrell, a nurse at the rehab center. “From the moment I met her she had a smile on her face. She was ready to conquer the world.”
Matt blogs along the way. He writes about how getting fitted for a wheelchair isn’t that different from getting fitted for a bike. Despite his wife’s remarkably positive outlook, he admits they go through periods of despair. One morning that first month, the reality of what they face sinks in a little — she can’t use the bathroom, dress, bathe or go to the gym on her own.
“We don’t spend a lot of time in the bad place,” he writes in his blog, “but sometimes you just need to acknowledge the bad thing before you put it away for a while.”
He arranges for crews to make their home in Northwest Austin wheelchair-friendly.
“I’m ready to progress and learn the new normal,” Laurie tells the therapists at St. David’s. “Someday I’m going to walk back onto this floor and hug every one of you people.”
She’s got another vow, too. “I absolutely intend to come back to triathlon.”
A slow progression
Returning to their Northwest Austin home in mid-April brings its own battery of challenges and feelings from the moment they pull into the garage.
“I was like, ‘Don’t make eye contact with the bikes,’” Laurie says.
Inside, the couple now must face life without a nursing staff to help. Matt calls that first week home one of the most stressful of his life.
“It’s kind of like going home a single mother,” Matt says. “All I can see are things she can’t do.”
Each morning he tends to Laurie. What once took 20 minutes now takes two hours. Every 30 minutes he shifts her in her chair to prevent pressure sores. She’s wracked with muscle spasms.
“Humor helps. We have a really sarcastic sense of humor,” Laurie says.
Slowly they work out a routine. Matt adjusts his schedule to work from home more often. Within a few days Laurie, the senior vice president of accounts and product management at a software company, straps styluses to her hands and installs voice-activated computer software so she can work part time from home.
“It’s the one thing I can do,” she says.
They socialize with friends and go out to dinner, but it’s a rough adjustment for someone who has been an athlete all her life. She’s used to a strong body and muscular arms, legs and shoulders, and that’s changing.
“I look like I just survived a concentration camp, and I was a swimmer,” Laurie says. “My arms are bone-thin. It’s horrifying.”
They make plans to travel to the country of Cyprus for stem cell surgery, then cancel it at the last minute when doctors here discourage them from the experimental procedure. A physical therapist comes to the home three times a week, and Laurie goes to Project Walk, an exercise-based training program for people with spinal cord injuries, for more therapy.
“Every day there’s something she can do a little bit better,” Matt says.
But new challenges arise. Laurie develops nerve pain in the backs of her arms and glutes. “It feels like someone is burning me with a hot pan,” she says. It’s hard to sleep. She gets cold, then hot, but she can’t throw the covers off.
Friends bring food, but she doesn’t have much of an appetite. A pressure sore from spending so much time in the same position disrupts her plans to serve as the starter at a local triathlon. She undergoes a difficult surgery to implant a port to automatically inject medication to control spasms.
“I look like a quadriplegic,” she says.
But bright spots emerge.
Within a few months Laurie makes it to the oval track at Anderson High School, where she used to run while she was training for races. She times each lap.
“Rolling onto the track for the first time was really hard. Really hard,” she says. “But it was amazing to be doing something active, to accomplish something.”
She tests out a hand cycle on a neighborhood street, but the frame is too big. Still, she says, “It was like freedom again.”
In July, just after her 45th birthday, she takes a tennis lesson. For two hours she practices her forehand and backhand under the tutelage of a former training partner, Mike Carter, who works for the United States Tennis Association’s Texas branch.
“This is awesome. Who knew tennis was so much fun?” she says.
The triathlon community rallies around her, too. Jack Murray of High Five Events organizes a fundraiser so Laurie can buy her own hand cycle and racing wheelchair. Friends cook meals and spend time at the Allen home. She even trial tests an experimental robotic exoskeleton that allows quadriplegics to stand or walk using a joystick.
In December, Laurie heads to a nail salon down the street with a few of her girlfriends, getting her toenails painted sparkly blue.
The pedicure is a regular deal for Laurie, who joins her friends every three weeks for a little pampering. Today they reminisce about a race they did in Maine. They’ve brought along a bottle of wine, and friend Jenn Sanders tips a glass to Laurie’s mouth so she can drink.
“It’s a two-person operation,” Laurie jokes.
It’s a rare moment of relaxation before she heads to the hospital for another surgery to enlarge her bladder and eventually allow her to catheterize herself, instead of relying on her friends or family. She hopes she’ll be back home by Christmas, when a few friends will come cook a celebratory dinner.
The holiday season has delivered plenty of new challenges to Laurie, though. The ThunderCloud Subs Turkey Trot has long been a tradition, so she and Matt headed down for the race, hoping he could push her along the course. They had to turn back after one block because of slippery streets.
And she misses her usual festivities. “It’s been tough. It’s things like decorating the tree, and I can’t go Christmas shopping, I can’t wrap presents, I can’t travel,” she says.
Lesa Zimmerman, an old training friend, comes for a weeklong visit.
“Her love, her body,” Zimmerman says. “When Laurie wasn’t working, she was using her body in a physical way. To have that taken away from her is so wrong. It absolutely sucks.”
Still, she’s made progress.
Laurie continues to work at home three days a week, but Matt drives her to her office on the other two days. After weeks of struggling, she can brush her own teeth. She can put on makeup and blow-dry her hair, and she can transfer herself, unassisted, from the bed to her wheelchair.
She’s even getting back to the TownLake YMCA to lift weights. “It’s like coming back home,” she says, hoisting 24 pounds on the lateral pull-down machine. “It’s good to know I haven’t lost all my swimmer muscles.”
Andrea Fisher, Laurie’s former triathlon coach, helps position her at a hand cycling machine.
“Oh, my gosh, it’s awesome. It gets my heart rate up,” Laurie says as she exercises. “I think I’m going to be sore tomorrow.”
“That’s good. That’s why we work out,” Fisher says.
Laurie wraps up the session with some time in a standing frame, which puts her in an upright position. That’s good for her circulation and helps slow osteoporosis, for which quadriplegics are at risk.
“Things are so much better than they were at first,” Laurie says. “I can do more things for myself. Matt can leave me alone and not panic that I’m going to fall out of my chair.”
Laurie’s behind the wheel of a car again, and it feels like freedom.
She’s taking driving lessons in a car specially equipped so she can operate it. When she passes her driver’s test, she’s got places to go. At the top of that list? The grocery store, by herself. She wants to drive to the office every day now, too.
As Matt puts it, “We’re over the ‘Oh, my God, how do we survive?’ stage to working on all the skills.”
It’s hard say how much more, if any, movement Laurie will get, but doctors remain optimistic. No more surgeries are planned, but Latorre, the spinal injury specialist, says he’s hopeful that advancements in stem cell and electrical stimulation therapy could someday help her regain more function. He says her life expectancy is “very close to normal.”
“We’re just waiting and hoping she will continue to improve,” Latorre says.
But first Laurie has to make it past Saturday, the one-year anniversary of her fall.
“I’m not really sure how I’m going to feel on that day,” she says. “It’s hard not to think back, hard not to come into it and wish I could have my old life back.”
Instead, she’ll focus on looking forward. She needs to order that hand cycle and racing wheelchair. She’s been volunteering at packet pickup and in the transition area of local triathlons, but she wants to get back on the course as an athlete.
“I’m trying to find peace with where I am every day,” she says.