A terrible cycling accident left promising up-an-comer Lauren Parker with a litany of injuries including a broken back and no feeling in her legs, right on the eve of Ironman Australia. Witsup’s Laura Siddall caught up with the determined youngster to see how she is progressing after the life-changing moment.

Text By Laura Siddall | Images By Witsup and Supplied

 

Lauren was always a sporty kid, probably more sporty than most, playing swimming, gymnastics, tennis and surf lifesaving. Lauren competed nationally in surf lifesaving and swimming, where at the age of 14 she competed at the Olympic Trials and then in 2003 was the Australian Age National Champion for the 5km open water swim.

Like so many kids in Australia, Lauren competed in her first triathlon whilst at school, racing the swim leg as part of a team. She loved it and was hooked, getting herself a bike and entering the same race the following year. She obviously had talent as was spotted by Aaron Lean from Multisport Solutions and asked if she’d like to be coached by him.

Lauren started with Sprint and Olympic distance triathlons and was soon picked up by the National Talent ID Program. She progressed quickly to gain her Pro license in 2010, with her ultimate goal of making the Olympics. From 2010 to 2013 she spent the years travelling in places such as Spain, France and China competing in the shorter distance events, with great results.

In 2013 Lauren discovered long course racing and competed in the half Ironman distance in Port Macquarie and many other events making the transition away from short course.

Whilst still being very young, Lauren raced her first full iron distance event in 2014 at the age of 25. It was Ironman Australia and she won her age group, qualifying her for the Ironman World Championships in Kona later that year where she finished 10th, also having broken her elbow just six weeks before the race. Then only six weeks later she raced Ironman Western Australia, again winning her age group and qualifying her for Kona in 2015. With a years more training and experience under her belt, Lauren finished second in her age group at the World Championships in Kona 2015.

Her goals now changed from the Olympics as a focus, to being World Champion over the longer distance, with her talents being much more suited to the half and full iron distance events.

For the last few years Lauren embraced the Professional life, spending time training in Mallorca, Spain with her now coach John Hill and racing in Europe, where she’s finished 6th in Ironman 70.3 Sweden.

As many Age Groupers who turn Pro find, the different styles of racing isn’t an easy, normal transition to make. As an Amateur, often going from being on the podium in every race (and perhaps on paper being in the mix with the Pros), to then not making the podium at all, in the Pro fields. It’s a step up that many Amateurs take too soon, and struggle to make the transition, putting far too much pressure on themselves to be getting the top results straight away.

But Lauren had a great support team around her to help, and describes her strengths as “dedication”, “commitment” and “determination” in training and her willingness to want to improve in some way every day. These characteristics were pivotal in setting Lauren up for making the transition and progressing well, as she trained, improved and gained more experience.

She was in the form of her life. The fittest and strongest she’d ever been in 2017 as she prepared for Ironman Australia, her first full iron distance as a Professional.

Then in one freak accident, in a millisecond her life changed forever.

It was a normal Tuesday morning bike session and the last hard session before tapering down for Ironman Australia. It was absolutely perfect weather.” Lauren describes.

I met my team mates Brad and Dasher and we had planned to ride 2hours with some 15min efforts.”

“It was just over 1hour into the ride and we were in the middle of our last 15min effort. I was riding behind Brad, and Dasher was about 1km behind. Brad called me up beside him and asked me what my HR and power was. He said that I’m looking great and riding really strong and that we were doing 45km/h.”

Things were going well.

“Then all of a sudden both my tires burst and I was thrown into the guard rail on the side of the road, with a large thump!”

 Lauren doesn’t remember anything about the accident until she woke up lying on the ground with a lady holding her head. In that time, her training partner Brad had stopped two cars to help and call for an ambulance.

“All I can remember is lying on the ground in intense pain, and in what I’m told, a very awkward position and my legs were twisted. I don’t remember actually coming off my bike or hitting the guard rail. I remember looking up at a lady holding my neck still and trying to keep me calm but I could hardly breath. I was making loud noises because I couldn’t breathe due to a punctured lung and broken ribs. I then felt my legs and couldn’t feel them. I got distressed and kept saying I can’t feel my legs.”

 On arriving at the hospital Lauren had an x-ray immediately and found that her back was broken. She went into surgery straight away and they put screws in to hold her vertebrae in place. She had broken her T12 and had severe spinal cord damage resulting in the lack of feeling in her legs. She also had a broken scapula/shoulder blade, fractured pelvis, punctured lung and broken ribs. She was given a 1% chance of walking again.

I visited Lauren whilst she was in hospital just two weeks after the accident and in the days after Ironman Australia, in which she should have been racing.

I had never met Lauren, but knew her name and as soon as I heard what had happened I felt I needed to go and visit. Lauren should have been lining up next to me at the start of Ironman Australia, so it felt pretty raw and real.

I have no idea what was going through Lauren’s head in those early days and even in now I can’t comprehend. Then it was all still so very raw and open.

But what stood out to me was Lauren’s characteristics. That determination, drive and commitment. Lauren was already wanting to be in the gym or doing exercises to get better, even though it was literally days post accident and she had so many broken bones, let alone the lack of feeling below the waist. She was already talking about medical treatments and science to help her walk again. I imagine this was a coping strategy for the early days, as it would still be too early to process things. I would imagine there was so much information being thrown at Lauren, so many people asking questions of her, wanting her to recount events she couldn’t remember, yet at the same time you could tell she had so many questions and frustrations herself… “Why me?”, “Can I ever walk again?”,Who’s going to want to marry me now”, all reasonable questions for a young woman with sporting talent suddenly in her position.

The day I went to visit, was the first time Lauren had been outside the hospital. I naively said… “I bet that was good”, thinking getting outside the building and into fresh air would have been great. But the response was far from it.

I hated it. People were staring, I felt like I was getting in the way of people.

I’m pretty sure people weren’t staring at Lauren. Maybe perhaps at the Starship Enterprise type chair that Lauren was driving at that time, rather than at Lauren herself, however that was how she felt. It’s something I guess Lauren is going to have to come to terms with. Not the actual people staring, but the feeling that people are staring.

It’s now five months on from Lauren’s accident. She’s started back in the swimming pool. A pretty harrowing experience on her first attempt, as she struggled mentally to adapt to what her body was now able to do compared with what her mind and body used to do. But with her swimming background she has the foundation to be able to adapt and use swimming for all the good and positives rehab capabilities it will provide. She’s now moved from North Shore hospital to Ryde Rehab center, and has even been home for a weekend, the first time since the accident.

It’s a small step in the big journey Lauren is now on. Lauren’s fractures are on the mend, but the one thing that I can’t get my head around is the 24/7 neuropathic pain Lauren has from her hips down through her legs.

“(It) feels like my legs are burning on fire or like they are sitting in acid or feels like I’m being stabbed by needles everywhere constantly, 24/7. It may never go away.”

Obviously Lauren’s whole life has changed. Her house now needs to be changed to be able to cope with a wheel chair and yet to give Lauren the independence she would want and need, whilst also the accessible support.

On the outside Lauren is showing amazing strength, positivity, drive and determination. The characteristics she showed in triathlon now shining through. But I would imagine, on the inside, it’s different. I would imagine Lauren’s show of open strength, is still her way of coping and processing what has happened. It’s still early days in coming to terms with how her life has now taken a very different path. Emotionally of course it’s been up and down for Lauren.

“Emotionally (it) is positive and negative but I definitely feel like that I have lost my life…that I have lost who I am. I can’t do anything that I want to do and love do because I’m in a chair. I love being active and running and hiking and anything adventurous but I can’t.”

 Coming to terms with her new appearance will be hard too, as we all know how big an effect (rightly or wrongly) body and image has in our own minds and for our confidence.

 “Also body image is a big emotional area as I have lost all muscle tone and I look at myself as ugly. And everything is just harder. Living is much harder. Everything takes so long to do. Not having the use of half your body is really hard.

Lauren of course though is not on her own. Whilst the majority of us, have no idea what she’s going through, there has been a huge response and show of support. She’s been overwhelmed with the support she’s received and people who have reached out. Chrissie Wellington, Craig Alexander, friends and of course family, but also from people Lauren has never met before.

People from all over the sport and all over the world reaching out to Lauren to connect and show their support. John Mclean has been crucial in this as a mentor, providing guidance and now becoming a good friend. He visits regularly and even attended one of the fundraisers for Lauren, and spoke there. I reckon we’ll see Lauren and John out training together in the not to distance future as Lauren learns to adapt to life in the chair and still seeks her active and outdoor life.

Lauren has thrown herself into rehabbing straight away, and has goals already fixed on making it back into sport and triathlon and has the goal now to compete in Kona as a wheelchair athlete and then look to perhaps the 2020 Paralympics. This is no bad thing as the swimming and exercising is of course great rehabbing for her body, mind and sole.

Having a goal and focus to keep the mind occupied is good, because there must be so much going on still and so many questions, so many unknowns and uncontrollable elements, having something to focus on is a way of keeping it simple.

I think it’s great that Lauren is now aspiring to these achievements in sport, even if it is just a coping mechanism, even if it’s just the quick reaction to dealing with what has happened. Maybe it’s too early though to be so driven? Maybe it’s just hiding the grieving process.

I know that many women who, through accidents, have found themselves in similar positions to Lauren, and actually after time don’t want anything to do with the sport they competed in pre-accident. They need something different, and a change to almost match the change in their lives.

However, if this happens in a few months times or even a year, and Lauren finds she doesn’t have the same passion and drive for triathlon, then that’s ok too. I hope with her character and personality it’s another sport that she finds happiness in and can thrive, and another sport that’s lucky enough to have Lauren involved. She’s young and has her life ahead of her. She can choose so many paths and have so many amazing experiences albeit different from what she may have first thought was the path.

But what we do know, whatever adventure she chooses, or whatever sport she finds, if it’s swimming, hand cycling, triathlon, rugby, whatever, it may be as a para-athlete, as that’s how she’d be classified, we all know that it’s still just the same Lauren we all know and love and are inspired by, and who just wanted to inspire as well, and if anyone can do it, it’s Lauren Parker.

If you want to support and follow Lauren, please check out the Lauren Parker Foundation page just launched www.laurenparkerfoundation.com.au and see how you can get involved. (Or through the original GofundMe page

https://www.gofundme.com/wearewithyouloz

UPDATE: To give an update to Lauren’s story to date. She’s just had surgery for carpal tunnel on both hands. If Lauren’s injuries weren’t enough, the broken bones, the paralysis, the horrific burning sensation and pain, she’s then suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome. This is numbness, tingling, weakness and other problems in your hands due to pressure on the nerve. The surgery on both hands should relieve the symptoms, but it’s left Lauren unable to swim for a few weeks, something she was just getting back into and making huge progress. Whilst her first swim session back was harrowing for Lauren, the fact that she has such a strong swimming background has meant that actually she’s probably in a much better position than she realises. She’s actually already progressed her swimming up to 4km. To most people that would be a ridiculously long and tough swim session! But for Lauren it’s just her focus and drive. She’s already got a race lined up as she heads to San Diego for the Challenged Athletes Foundation #BestDayInTri Triathlon Challenge on 22nd October. Lauren will be in a relay team, blasting out to an amazing start in the swim leg, with myself on the bike and then we are joined by Andy Baldwin. Dr. Baldwin is a Navy Doctor, Humanitarian, Triathlete, Bachelor star and more!

I’m not quite sure what to expect on the 22nd October. I’m not sure what emotions I’m going to have at such an event. What I can be sure of is that I’m going to be incredibly proud and honoured to stand on the start line and be inspired by Lauren Parker.

 

 

 

 

About The Author

Laura Siddall
Reporter

Pro Triathlete, Ironman Champion and multiple half distance Champ. 4x Amateur World Champ. Witsup contributor, Sid Talks (Fitter Radio) podcaster, Global Traveller, British, Aussie, Kiwi. Ambassador for MORE Than Sport, SisuGirls and Women's Sport Trust. Engineer, Consultant, ex-Military, Public Speaker.

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