Olympic plans for triathlete after freak accident
Lauren Parker had her sights set on an Olympics as a swimmer.
Then the World Championship as an Ironman. She was on target until a training accident changed her world.
Now, as a World Champion Paratriathlete, and a bronze medallist at the Commonwealth Games, she is looking to the Tokyo Olympics rescheduled for next year.
But the reality is Lauren is dealing with horrific daily pain, and gets embarrassed in public as she tries to become comfortable with herself, and her new life, in a wheelchair.
HM: Lauren where do I find you?
LP: I'm sitting in the spa after a 2-hour bike session - I hope you don't mind!
HM: Not at all - I'm jealous. Let's go back - when did you feel as though you wanted to swim for Australia?
LP: When I competed in my first state championships as a seven year old and won a bronze medal, I thought, "I want to compete at the Olympics one day". I watched the Games on TV and was inspired by people like Susie O'Neill. It was my only real dream growing up. I was swimming up to 15km a day from age 13, I went to the Olympic trials at 14, and then when I was 16, I got chronic fatigue, and I had to have a little break from swimming. When I came back, I tried to get back to where I was at in swimming, but I struggled to get back to where I was. I just didn't have the same passion for it. I did a triathlon with school in year 12, and I really found a passion for it. I loved the atmosphere. I found my first road bike in the paper, got a coach, and it all blossomed from there.
HM: Swimming was out but the Olympics were still on, but now in triathlon?
LP: Initially, yes. I was competing between age 19 and 22 in short distance triathlons around the world, which is sprint distance, and Olympic distance.
HM: And Tokyo 2020 was the goal?
LP: I was doing the short distance triathlons, but then I decided to enter myself into an Ironman 70.3 triathlon. I loved it, so at age 24 I transitioned from the short distance, to the 70.3 distance. The Olympics don't have a long-distance triathlon, so my goal shifted. I competed at the 70.3 Ironman for a couple of years, winning my age groups, and then I decided to enter myself into full ironman and turn professional.
HM: Your times, and your progression were giving you hope that you'd be one of the best in the world?
LP: It was all going very well. I'd turned professional in Ironman distance racing in 2016 after a second place at the Ironman World Championships in Kona. I raced professionally around the world and in 2017 I was in the best condition and fitness I'd ever been in, and seemingly nothing was going to stop me.
HM: Until something did …
LP: Exactly. We were on my last hard training ride before tapering down ahead of Port Macquarie Ironman for the race. We weren't going to do the ride that morning, we were supposed to swim, but because it was such a beautiful morning, we decided to get the ride done in the early hours and do the swimming in the afternoon. We headed out for the ride, I felt absolutely great, ready to race in Port Macquarie …
HM: This is April 18, 2017?
LP: Yes. I was on my last two-minute effort before we got back to the cars and finished training.
BF: (Brad Fernley, Lauren's best friend). Normally, speed is irrelevant and doesn't mean much to us, but I looked at my Garmin, and it showed 45.6km/h on the flat part of the ride. That's a really good pace. I looked across to Loz and said, "From what I'm seeing now, how composed you are, you are so in tune with your body". It was the best preparation she'd ever put together. Historically we had a little agreement that if we'd done a good session, we'd normally reward ourselves with a thick shake from Maccas. She said, "Brad, if I'm going that good, can I have a thick shake, when we get back, from Maccas?" I said, "Loz, you're going that good, you can have a large thick shake when we're back".
HM: But you never made it to Maccas?
LP: No, just as he finished saying that, both my tires burst, and I went flying into a guardrail at 45km/h.
HM: And your life changed in the blink of an eye.
LP: Just like that … I broke my shoulder, broke my ribs, punctured lung, broke my pelvis and
broke my back, but all that is repairable. The issue was, when I broke my back, my spinal cord was severed. That left me instantly paralysed from the waist down. I knew I was in
trouble as I was laying there on the road.
HM: Brad, did you know instantly it was serious?
BF: The thump of Loz's body hitting the guard rail is a sound that I still hear today. That destroys me. I turned around, and she was laying on the road. As I was running back to her, I was looking at her body on the road thinking, "What on earth am I looking at?". The most flexible gymnast in the world couldn't have got her legs and body in that position. I was full
of fear, and then Lauren asked me, "Brad, am I OK - am I going to be OK?" I just said to her, "Loz, I can't lie to you. I don't know".
HM: Do you actually know what caused the fall?
LP: You know the rubber that goes across the road to count the cars?
HM: Yes …
LP: It had been taken out, but two screws had been left in the road loose. I rode over them,
and they punctured my tires. If I was 1mm either side of these screws, I'd be fine. What are
the chances? Two screws, two wheels blown …
HM: … one life changed … it was surgery that night?
LP: I was rushed into surgery to get my spine fused together, and then that same night the surgeon came in to tell me the news that I had a 0-1 per cent chance of ever walking again, and that I'd live the rest of my life in a wheelchair.
HM: And what did you say to him?
LP: "F*** off".
HM: How did he respond to that?
LP: I think he realised where I was at mentally … when the doctor came in and said that, a million things go through your mind. To his credit, he just walked out of the room.
BF: I walked out to see the Doc, and I remember it like yesterday. I said, "Doc, how long won't she be able to walk for - a week, a month, 12 months? How long?" I remember he put his hand on my shoulder and he said, "Brad, she'll never, ever walk again".
HM: "Never walk again …". It's hard to digest.
LP: I thought I had nothing to live for, I thought that my life had ended. That night when my family and friends had left, and I was just stuck in the hospital bed, unable to move, I felt like I was locked up, imprisoned. What was there left?
HM: 0-1 per cent … did you hold hope you'd walk again, or did you believe the doctor?
LP: No, I believed the doctor. I was in intensive care for about a week. The trauma on my body made me really sick, I was wasting away to nothing, and vomiting every time I ate. I got down to 40kg.
BF: I was worried. I said to her, "Loz, you've got to change what you're doing and how you are thinking - it's like you're giving up, and you just can't afford to do that. Today, you have to start eating, and you have to keep that nutrition down, because you are wasting away to nothing. I don't want you to do that. We need to pick our game up, like we always do".
HM: What changed?
LP: I went to rehab for three months, and that's where they were teaching me how to live life in a wheelchair. When I got there, there was a rehab pool, and I was really excited to get in the water for the first time after my accident. I thought I'd get in and be able to swim, and show everyone in that rehab pool the Lauren Parker before the accident. "You might take my legs away, but I'm going to show you how good I am in the pool!" I pushed off the wall with my arm, and basically, I couldn't put two strokes together. My legs just sunk to the floor. I kept trying to put another stroke over, but I couldn't. I was sinking.
HM: This was someone who'd won national titles.
LP: And swum 16km a day as a competitive swimmer. I got to the end of the pool, and Brad came and said, "You can either get out of the pool and go to the hospital room, close the door and block it out, or, you can stay in the pool, never give up and continue to try and keep swimming. I chose the second option, and by the end of that session I did three continuous laps. That's where the mindset changed. That was the start of me wanting to get back to the sport that I loved.
HM: And a trip to the US solidified what you could do?
LP: When I was in rehab, it was a very negative place. I was told that I'd never be an athlete again, and that I needed to accept that I'd live the rest of my life in a wheelchair. I wanted to prove them wrong. During my time there, a good friend of mine, Bob Babbitt, asked me to be on his radio show in San Diego. He's also the co-founder of the Challenged Athletes Foundation. He invited me over for the Challenged Athletes Foundation Triathlon weekend. Bob has raised $112 million dollars in 25 years for people that have had accidents that want to get back into sport. He funds equipment, he funds prosthetics, and he's just a legend. I asked the rehab centre whether I could have five days away, just so I could go to this triathlon weekend and come back. They said no, I could only have three days. I decided to sign myself out of rehab and jump on a plane to go and see Bob. It was the best decision I ever made.
LP: We turned up, and there were so many people there, kids and adults, that had accidents who were so much worse off than me. It was an eye-opener. Everyone had a smile on their face, and they had stories that were unbelievable. They were all participating in this triathlon, and that's where I was inspired to get back into triathlon. If they can do it, then I can do it. I went back to Australia and got straight into training.
HM: Did you enjoy getting back into it?
LP: At first, I hated it. I hated using my arms for everything. As I got better and stronger, and after a month of training, I entered myself in my first para-triathlon. That was in St. Kilda and was a Commonwealth Games trial. Before my first race I had to get used to this new equipment. I raced in St Kilda and qualified for the Commonwealth Games. I couldn't believe it.
HM: Wow. How was the Gold Coast Games?
LP: That was special, racing for my country in such a short amount of time. 50m out from the finish line I actually flipped and was on my back waiting for assistance, so I could cross the line. That was a bit embarrassing! I won bronze. From there I raced internationally around the world in Para-Triathlon. I was preparing for the world champs in 2018 when I started losing feeling in my right hand and loss of feeling down my arm. I went to a hand specialist, and they said it was a pinched nerve, so I'd be fine to go overseas and compete. I went overseas and raced, came home, and I started losing more feeling, and developed a tingling in my right hand. We got an MRI, and that found a major syrinx. That's when fluid builds up and gets inside the spinal cord, which travelled up to my neck. That was causing me to lose feeling down my arm, and from my waist up to my chest. My surgeon said I was two weeks away from becoming a quadriplegic, and that he needed to do emergency surgery. The next day I was in surgery for 8 hours and 40 minutes, to drain the fluid. This was five weeks out from the world champs. I had the surgery, but I didn't gain any feeling back, so I still have a strip down my right arm that I can't feel. I can't feel temperature on my right hand, and it's lost a bit of strength. I've got numbness from my waist up to my chest, which is an uncomfortable nervy feeling. I didn't recover from any of those symptoms, but it didn't worsen. I was in hospital for two weeks recovering, and during that time I thought, maybe I could get onto the start line at the world championships and create a challenge for myself. I hadn't been training, I got home after hospital, got into training after having three weeks off, and two weeks later I was on the start line of the world championships.
HM: And how'd you go?
LP: Third place, with no preparation. At the end of that year I started to get really severe back pain, and I really struggled to do training without pain killers. I struggled with eating, because I didn't feel like cooking, and my back was in so much pain. The surgeon didn't know what was causing it, so we decided that I'd get the metal work taken out of my back, to see if that made a difference. I went in for surgery, got the metal work taken out, and that didn't relieve any of the pain. I still suffer from the back pain, and I still have pain killers, to try and get through the day. Stepping forward to 2019, I'd had the metal work out of my back, I got back into training, and prepared for the world championships in Lausanne. I get to the start line, and I was really confident as I'd had a pretty good preparation. The course really suited me, it was a very hilly, tough course. That was my strength. I believed that I was going to win that race, and everything went to plan. I crossed the line as world champion. I had a lead of four minutes to the next girl, so I absolutely smashed them! Crossing that line was a very special moment, because it brought back memories about what it actually took to get there, and what I'd been through over the last few years. I wouldn't have done it without my amazing team, coaches, and sponsors, Red Energy, QBE and PKF, that I had around me.
HM: What does Tokyo look like for you?
LP: I'm ranked No. 1 in the Paralympic point score, after winning the world championships and two major races at the start of this year before the coronavirus hit. I had worked hard and prepared my body physically, and then it's postponed. When it was postponed, I was quite unmotivated for a couple of days, because I'd worked so hard for it. I turned it around into a positive. I can be better, fitter, stronger and faster in another years' time. That's what I'm focusing on at the moment, being better prepared for next year.
HM: You two are so close - I imagine you've had some pretty difficult conversations. BF: I'll go first if you want Loz … In three years now, I've had 14 serious talks to Lauren, and they are what I call suicide days. She's just absolutely had enough, had a gutful, life is shit, everything's too hard. My belief is, there's 14 times that I've actually had to save Lauren's life. I can't be any more honest than that.
HM: 14 … you know the number?
BF: They are days you don't forget. One of those times was when we were in France, and we were doing a running session. A myriad of things started to go wrong. Everything that could, did go badly. I could tell Lauren wasn't happy, and she said "I hate running like this, I'd rather have running shoes than wheels". We were holding up traffic, which she hates doing, and she just screamed out, "Brad, I've had enough. I want to get under this truck". There was a truck coming towards us. That was a terrible day. Eventually we got back where we needed to get back to, and we just sat down and had a chat about taking your life. "Once you do that Loz, you're gone". It's not the right call.
HM: That's a dark place. Has the success from the competing helped you get back to a happy state?
LP: People see what I'm achieving, and they see a smile on my face, and they think life is all rosy and I'm happy even more than I would be if I was able bodied. But it's not like that at all. Outside of those brief moments of success, it's hard living with a spinal cord injury and in a wheelchair. One of the hardest things is the neuropathic pain that I'm in. From my chest down, I feel like I'm being stabbed with needles everywhere, and it feels like my whole body is on fire.
HM: How often are you in that pain?
LP: Every day - 24/7. Right now, I'm talking to you and I'm in horrific pain. No one sees the pain that I'm in, it's really hard. I have nights where I'm literally screaming. I've got it everywhere that I'm paralysed. We've only just come across a surgeon in America who is known as the last resort for people with nerve pain. We had a meeting with him the other day, and he's got an 85 per cent success rate at reducing the neuropathic pain for people with spinal cord injuries.
HM: That's a great result …
LP: The problem is, there's a chance that this surgery won't work. Also if I go ahead with the surgery I will be left paralysed from the chest down. It's a massive decision I've got to make, but if it reduces my pain it will be worth it. I also may get it done and still be in the same amount of pain. Add the reality of being $400,000 in debt …
HM: What a decision - what will you do?
LP: It's something that I'm willing to try, because I'm in that much pain. The pain that I'm in is far worse than being paralysed from the chest down. I can't do it any more. It's pain that I never thought existed before my accident. I had planned on getting this surgery done after the 2020 Paralympics, but now that the games have been postponed, I think it's best to fight it out until Tokyo 2021.
BF: To get into the water, to get on the hand cycle, to get into the racing chair, she's crying in pain.
HM: Lauren, for all you have achieved since the accident, you don't seem very content or very happy. We don't know each other - but is that fair?
LP: Yes, I guess you could say that. I just long to be the old athlete and person that I used to be. There is so much that I miss about my old life. I am happy with what I'm achieving, and becoming world champion was a very special moment, but after my achievements, I'm still
left in so much pain. I can't live with this pain for the rest of my life, it's absolutely torturous.
BF: After the world champs, Triathlon Australia had a function on. We went to that function, but it wasn't long before Loz said, "Brad, I've got to go. I'm in too much pain". We left that function when Lauren was the only gold medallist from Australia. We walked up the hill to our motel and had one of the worst nights of Lauren's new life. It was horrendous how much pain she was in.
HM: I'm so sorry you're in so much pain … I wish I could help and I wish you could see what you've achieved … do you see or feel any positives?
LP: To be honest I guess I do see some positives … I'm mentally stronger than I ever thought I could be. I've shown myself that I am able to adapt, and I'm able to block the negativity, like in the rehab centre when they told me I'd never be an athlete again. I've shown myself and others that I could do it with the belief in myself … I don't know …
HM: You sound despondent …
BF: Hamish, not many people know this, but it's been two and a half years out of hospital, and she still won't go to the service station to fill her car up out of embarrassment.
HM: You feel embarrassed to be in public in a wheelchair?
LP: I do … absolutely.
HM: Because? I understand the incredible misfortune, why embarrassment?
LP: Brad has this talk with me all the time. He says there's nothing to be embarrassed about. He says, "You're the same person. Fill your car up with petrol, get out, and if it takes time, it takes time. If you want to go to the shops, go to the shops. Let's go out to a restaurant". I understand what he is saying, but it's just the way I feel. Unless you're put in this position, no one will really understand.
HM: God … I had no idea …
LP: It is the truth … I haven't had a relationship since the accident … people are always looking at me, I don't like leaving the house to be honest. No one wants to be with someone in a wheelchair do they?
HM: Of course people do - of course … that is crazy …
BF: Exactly mate - that's what I keep telling her. She is inspiring so many people in so many different ways.
HM: You are a World Champion, heading to the Paralympics, and a young woman that has overcome so much and has so much to give.
LP: I'm happy I get to inspire kids, and people who are struggling in their own lives. I'm grateful that I can do that. Hopefully in time I will be proud of who I am.
HM: You should be now Lauren.
Originally published as Olympic plans for triathlete after freak accident