Every once in a while, a story reaches out and inexplicably grabs a hold of you. I was surfing the 2008 mountain bike models at Giant’s site I came across a link called Heart of a Champion. I followed the link and it led me to a blog detailing the great recovery efforts that Tara Llanes is making against spinal cord injuries she sustained during the Jeep King of the Mountain series on September 1st, 2007.
Editor’s note: “On Saturday September 1, 2007, Tara had a horrible crash at the Jeep King of the Mountain series finale in Beaver Creek Colorado. During a semi-final heat with the eventual race winner, Jill Kintner, Tara entered the second to last straight on the course and hit an obstacle that sent her over the handlebars, coming down hard on her head then back. She was rushed to Vail Valley Medical Center, and then airlifted to Denver Health Medical Center where a specialty spinal cord team worked on her for seven hours over Saturday night. Tara’s crash caused a fracture to the C7 and L1 vertebra and damaged her spinal cord, resulting in a below-the-waist paralysis, a condition her surgeons say is most likely permanent.” As reported on The Giant Bicycles Website, story attributed to James Herrara
Those who follow the (downhill) circuit know that Tara is a fierce competitor. She’s fast, she’s aggressive, and she flies. During her career, spanning a decade, she has ridden for Haro, Rotec, Specialized, and Yeti/Pearl Izumi. But for the last five years, she’s been grabbing victories for the Giant/Pearl Izumi team. Tara makes a habit out of gracing the podium, collecting accolades and generating excitement wherever she races. A national champion in all three gravity disciplines, she has won both gold and silver at the Winter X-Games. Tara has been a multi-time US Mountain Bike Worlds team member and multi-time World Cup podium finisher vying for a spot on the US BMX Olympic Team for Beijing in 2008. She has graced the pages of too many bike rags to list and she has even done a glamour shoot for Maxim. She’s a huge inspiration to female athletes worldwide, proving that women can ride just as hard as the men. Since her injury, Tara has been focusing all of her energies on her recovery. Paralyzed below the waist, and pronounced “complete” by medical experts, she defied all the informed opinions when, on November 12th while in the rehab pool, she moved her left leg.
PPO: You seem so positive to me and so gung ho. What drives you? Is it just in you?
Tara: I think it just all has to do with me wanting to walk again. When this happened I was completely devastated. I mean, this has been my life since I was 11-years-old. This is what I know and it’s what I love. It’s what I absolutely, without a doubt love. I mean, not being able to ride my bike again for the rest of my life… It would crush me. And so for me, I can’t have a negative thought in my mind. I can’t because you know doctors can come in, and they can walk in… and say, “you’re never going to walk again.” But, you know what, to me so much of it is mind over matter. They do a test the first week that you’re here in Craig and in the test they deemed me “complete”. What complete means is that basically you’re not going to walk again. You know what? My legs have started to move again, especially my left leg. One of my doctors was like, “holy shit!”. I said, “you can take your ‘complete’ and shove it!” Not to her of course…
PPO: One of the things that struck me right off the bat was that you obviously have a great friend and fan base. People have been sending you positive vibes and I was wondering how does that affect your drive during therapy. All these people that you’ve probably never met are sending you messages like, “Keep going, you’re doing a great job.” Does that drive you during your therapy sessions?
Tara: Well definitely, it definitely helps. I mean as it is, I’m completely driven. I’ve got all the drive and determination. But, there are days that… there are days that are better than others. I mean there are some days here that are just really, really hard. So, when I get things from those people… The cards from people that I don’t even know, they are just so inspirational… If it just happens to come on one of those days… I can’t really explain what it means to me. Especially people that I’ve never met… I’m sort of dumbfounded by that a lot of times.
What sticks with you about Tara is her tenacity. She’s working her butt off against what many would deem insurmountable odds, but she never hesitates to let her sense of humor fly or to flash that killer smile. From her persona, one can imagine that she lives her life by the, “if you’re not laughing, you’re not living” rule of thumb.
Coach Herrara: Being a close friend to Tara and her coach for the past two years, I can’t even begin to express just how incredible this girl is. As an athlete, she is a coach’s dream; a fierce competitor, dedicated, motivated, and upbeat in every way. Having to pull back the reins on how long or hard she would train was my biggest chore. I can quite honestly say I’ve met very few people in my life that are even remotely this driven. But her athleticism and competitive spirit are only a small part of what makes Tara the person she is. She is compassionate, grateful, and helpful to every person she comes across, always placing the well-being of others before her own. On more than one occasion, her actions, the way she lives her life, became my example to follow.”
PPO: How about your sponsors. Have your sponsors been supportive through the whole thing?
Tara: Yea, I mean my sponsors have been fantastic! Giant renewed my contract, even though I obviously won’t be racing this upcoming year. But, I will be working for Giant for women again. I’ve been a part of that family now for 5 years and Giant has been good to me. Same with Michelin, Michelin has been amazing. They’ve done so much, and they keep calling and saying, “What else can we do?” Same with Shimano, Shimano has re-upped my contract. Fox Shocks has donated numerous shocks to give away at fundraisers… Obviously that’s thousands of dollars. Smith has been a part of a ton of fundraisers that have gone on, and they have written out a check for my foundation. I’ve got to say companies that I never would have even thought of, have blown my mind. When I first got hurt, Specialized wrote out a check for $10,000 dollars. I haven’t ridden for Specialized for years. I was just so surprised. I was like, Jesus! I didn’t even know Mike Sinyard (CEO and owner of Specialized) would remember me. I immediately called him and talked to him, he was just such a great guy to talk to.
Yea, I’ve been really lucky in that sense. I feel so thankful to every single one of those companies for standing behind me and believing in me and knowing that I can still work with their product and help.”
My original article was a short piece on how I came across Tara’s story and how it truly affected me. I’ve never really followed the professional MTB circuit and I’d still be hard pressed to tell you the exact difference between the gravity events without consulting Google. But Tara’s tale is so much bigger than her sport. Tara’s story is about being a Champion not only on the circuit but more importantly in Life. It’s about desire with a capital “D”, the desire to win, the desire to train, to push your limits, to beat the odds and to be simply the best that you can be. It’s about working hard and never, ever giving up.
PPO: So as far as therapy and things like that, as an athlete you’re used to pushing your limits and pushing your body. Obviously I’m sure some of that has transferred into your drive during therapy. Have you used any of your riding skills or have any of your riding skills been beneficial during therapy? The fact that you’re so used to training? Do you think that has helped out?
Tara: Well the training for sure. I mean coming into the injury, being in really good shape has helped a ton… I’m able to do things a lot quicker and move on to the next step. And as far as my training, that’s just been built into my head for years so I’ve pretty much taken my therapy sessions and turned them into my training. That is my training, to get better. That is my training, to walk again. I take it very seriously. Anytime they ask me to do something, I’ll do it ten times over. And that’s half the problem here. They’re like, ‘you need to stop pushing it so hard’ you know?
PPO: I think I saw your mom at one point say, “part of the problem is just holding her back”.
Tara: (Laughs) Sometimes that’s a problem. But for me, if I think I can squeeze out ten more of something I’m gonna’ do it, because if not, I don’t feel like I’m working hard enough. I don’t feel like I’m doing everything I can possibly do to walk and I would never ever want that to happen. But as far as my bike skills I would have to say that the only thing that my bike skills have really, sort of, crossed over to is being in the wheelchair.
Tara: Yes, and not being afraid. There is a long checklist of things that you’ve got to be able to do before you leave here. You’ve got to be able to get up a 4, 5, 6 inch curb by yourself, going at it forward. Or going down a flight of 6 or 7 stairs by yourself, or wheeling down a hill and wheeling back up the hill. There’s a lot of things that initially when I got here, I just looked at the list and I was like “Are you guys insane? That just seems almost impossible! How am I going to get down a flight of stairs by myself?”. But you know what? I do it. I do it and I get stronger every day. In the beginning there was no way I could do it because my back hurt so badly and I was still in the brace. But now I can lean so far forward in the chair and that helps. So that’s been a big deal as far as getting through those skills. I’ve gotten through them fairly quickly.
PPO: Correct me if I’m wrong about this but did I read somewhere that you are actually looking into possibly starting a foundation to help injured riders?
Tara: Yes, it’s very true. The Foundation, I would like it to be for extreme female athletes in any sport. Hopefully raise enough money to be able to provide grants if they can’t afford a wheelchair or this or that. Basically, we designed spur of the moment t-shirts and we’ve been selling them and we’re out and we’ve had to buy another thousand of them. Which is great because so many people have been asking for them in bulk. They’ve been having fundraisers so they’re like we need 40 shirts and I was like woah… alright!
When I was able to talk to my coach and Polly about it, I said I want to turn this into a clothing line. I want it to be everything from hoodies and beanies to jeans and everything else. X amount of the proceeds from the sale of those clothes goes to the foundation. 50%, 80%. Who knows? So we’re going to start working on designs and what not when I get home. Being here is just, I have zero time to myself and I have zero time to get anything done. So, that’s pretty much the plan. Not a whole lot of people know that.
And then she did
Some of the toughest questions we have to answer yield the biggest surprises as a result. My editor, approached me and said, “ask Tara for an interview”. I vehemently said, “No, no way! I’m too shy, not gonna happen. No!” This was followed by, “I don’t want to be a pest, I’m not asking and she won’t do it anyway”. But rather than appearing negative to my editor, I convinced myself that there was no harm in asking. I reasoned that Tara is a National Champion Downhill Racer. People line up at Interbike just to get her autograph and they turn out in droves to watch her ride. I was convinced with everything that Tara has going on right now there is no way she was going to say yes to an interview with me. And then she did.
Just like her doctors telling her that she was “complete”, in her spinal evaluation. She was given almost no chance of walking again. And then she did… Editor’s Note: On January 9, 2008 Tara was able to walk with the assistance of braces and parallel bars. She continues to get stronger with each passing day.
Click here Click Here to make a donation to the Tara Llanes Recovery Fund.
To buy a Road to Recovery T-shirt:
Send a check for $25 (this includes shipping) made out to Tara Llanes and PLEASE put the shirt size on the check.
Mail to :
Road to Recovery
4068 Green Ave.
Los Alamitos, CA. 90720