Issue Thirty Two

3847 DAYS

The Tara Llane's Story: "I could either walk again or get on with my life."

WORDS x Danielle Baker
PHOTOS x Danielle Baker & Kezia Nathe

14 March 2018
Part One

Without Her

Seven years ago, I sat across from Tara in her wheelchair for our first interview, when she told me unequivocally that she would walk again. Whether it was through sheer willpower or scientific intervention, she was determined to regain what had been taken from her life. Her confidence was so strong that she made me believe it too. And for years Tara poured her heart into making it a reality.

But something has changed.

At the time Tara suffered a complete spinal cord injury 3487 days ago at the Jeep King of the Mountain race in 2007, she had been invited to try out for the US Olympic BMX team. Her riding career to that point had included years of BMX and downhill racing that included 4 US National Championship titles, 1 World Championship win (although not a rainbow event until the next year, thus not giving her the World Championship jersey), and 4 ESPN X-Games medals. She was a character in Playstation’s game Downhill Domination and was a featured athlete in Maxim Magazine. But instead of heading to a national training camp, she would spend her next few years in physical therapy, undergoing painful surgeries, and trying desperately to hold on to the sport that had determined her path since age eleven. Her world had turned upside down and was spinning on around her, without her.

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Part Two

The Pain And Loneliness

Needing a goal to set her sights on, Tara wanted to qualify for the Hawaii Iron Man at the end of 2009. She needed a focus that wasn’t mountain biking because her love for the sport was so strong that she struggled with disappointment when comparing new experiences with old ones. But hand-cycling on the road was a poor substitute for her. “I certainly didn’t enjoy it. You’re more isolated, you’re sitting super low while cars are whizzing around, and I just wasn’t passionate enough for it. If I’m going to ride I want to be in the mountains.” At the time the only way she could see a return to the dirt, the trees, and the fresh air that she loved was to walk (and ride) again. Unfortunately, a long and painful recovery after undergoing bladder augmentation – a process that would allow her to train for longer periods of time with proper hydration – caused her to miss her qualification for the Iron Man. While she didn’t meet her goal, the surgery gave her more freedom in her daily life. Doing what she was familiar with, and what she knew how to do, Tara set new goals and fought to meet them – still hoping they would bring her closer to her past.

The medication that had been prescribed for Tara’s chronic pain had left her feeling foggy, forgetful, and sometimes confused. Social situations became difficult as the prescription drugs impacted her ability to focus and concentrate. She felt self-conscious when she couldn’t remember people’s names and, as a result, withdrew more and more. And then one morning Tara awoke to a nightmare. She had fallen asleep on an electric heating pad causing third degree burns. She recalls waking up, putting her hand behind her and realizing something was wrong. The result was six skin grafts and almost ten months of laying on her stomach, unable to sit in her wheelchair. Her only option for mobility was with assistance. During her time in the hospital for her burns, Tara met a doctor who specialized in pain management. He worked with her to adjust her dosages, which allowed her for the first time in three years to think clearly while still managing the pain. Breaking through the murkiness that had been keeping her trapped was a massive change for Tara and allowed her a new drive and energy to dedicate to her dreams. Her zest and humour spilled out with ease and Tara seemed relaxed in her own skin again.

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Part Three

Letting Go

When I arrived at her house one day, six years after her accident, Tara was putting on leg braces to lock out her knees. I watched as she stood up with the help of a walker. She put one foot in front of the other and performed what seemed like a miracle as she walked up and down her driveway, demonstrating her new ability. She had been travelling down to California to work with the professionals at the Center of Restorative Exercise (CORE) twice a month for a week and a half at a time. The expense and the time commitment were a challenge, but Tara needed to attend physiotherapy every day, nearly all day, to make these gains. “I was probably at physio for about 3-4 hours a day when at CORE, but if I was going to make real difference with my gait and walking it would take 5 days a week and at least 4-5 hrs a day.” The commitment was exhausting and eventually she found herself facing a difficult decision, “I could either walk again or get on with my life.”

For an athlete like Tara – someone who had fought back from three broken collarbones, three fractured ribs, two partially collapsed lungs, a torn MCL, a broken foot, and multiple concussions – to be at the top of her sport, letting go of a goal didn’t come easily. But this all-consuming target was impacting her quality of life. Wanting to return to who she had once been and living the life she had once had seemed to be receding, but in its place, life had been progressing in a way that she hadn’t imagined before her accident. Tara had fallen in love, married, moved to North Vancouver, and become a Canadian citizen. As the divide grew between her past and present, it was becoming more difficult to remember what she had wanted to regain.

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Part Four

New Directions

For her birthday in 2014, Tara’s wife, Elladee, gave her a wheelchair tennis lesson. “I really didn’t think I’d like it, but I loved it.” The love came from the challenge of learning a sport she had never played and having nothing to compare it to from before the accident. Without something to judge herself against she was free to embrace it. “It’s hard when it is something I used to do at a high level. I love learning something completely new and tennis is so fucking hard.” Not a morning person, Tara knew that her competitive spirit had been reignited when she started waking at 6:30am to train and finding that once her lesson was done she couldn’t wait to go back. Within a month of her first lesson she was invited to practice with the British Columbia provincial team and has since made the team. A big part of who she is – who she has been since she was eleven years old – is competing. “Tennis was an open door for me to get back into competition and it’s been essential for me mentally and emotionally. If I am going to play a sport I want to be the best at it. It’s always been a driving force for me.”

Spread along the back of the couch in their living room is a quilt Tara’s mom made out of her old basketball team shirts from years of playing during high school. “I loved it. I used to play pick up with the guys all the time.” Through her connections with wheelchair tennis, Tara also began competing with the provincial basketball team. Some friends who played tennis were also on the team for Canada and told her if she wanted to be faster on the tennis court she should play some wheelchair b-ball. “I remember doing physio at Craig hospital in 2007 and getting on the basketball court. I was so weak I couldn’t even hit the net on a regulation hoop and in the end, I got really discouraged. So right then and there I decided I would never go on a basketball court again.” But through the new motivation and focus on wheelchair sport that tennis had brought into her life, Tara tried again. “I thought I’d just play a few games and be done, but I feel completely different about it now. I love tennis and it’s allowed for another gateway to competitive sport, but basketball is so different in terms of a team environment especially when you enjoy being around one another, it elevates everyone.” She’s now looking to the future and representing Canada on the basketball team at the Paralympics in 2020. “I’m so thankful that Elladee found the wheelchair tennis lesson. It is crazy when you think about the steps that got you somewhere. I’m blown away how it all comes together.”

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Part Five

Back To The Mountains

Tara has also found her way back into the mountains and is now spearheading a movement to make adaptive mountain bikes more readily available for the differently-abled. In 2011 friends fundraised to purchase a Sport-On Explorer for her – a hand-pedal mountain bike –  and it returned her to the pure experience of the outdoors that she thought she had to give up. The experience of reconnecting with mountain biking and participating in the community that she has remained engaged in since her accident was powerful for her and she decided to partner with the Polish company to bring the bikes to North America. Tara now works as a rep and also with organizations and businesses to make the bikes – and trails – accessible to all.

“Everyone in this situation comes to the point where they are finally comfortable in their own skin again. Some just quicker than others.” It took Tara 8 years. “My friend Aaron Baker is a quadriplegic who told me once that he wouldn’t change a thing about his accident, and I told him he was full of shit. I was so new to the club that I just couldn’t grasp what he was saying.” But Tara says she gets it now. “My life is fulfilling. I have life, love, and wonderful friends.”

Even in embracing the present, being in a wheelchair isn’t what defines Tara. “It still bothers me when strangers tell me that I’m inspiring – implying that it’s because I’m in a wheelchair.” Her athleticism and passion for competition, while big parts of who she is, aren’t what define her either. It is her genuine smile, her no bullshit assessments of any situation, her ability to laugh with you – sometimes so much so she finds herself flipped over backwards on the floor still laughing, and her abundant compassion that make her a person to admire. The mischievous sparkle in her eyes and her unwillingness to take herself too seriously make her an incredible friend. And her dream for inclusion will only strengthen our community.

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Part Six

As Is

Tara hasn’t completely given up the goal of walking again. Doctors have told her that the most important thing she can do is stay healthy and active so that when stem cell trials are available, she will be a viable candidate. And she still looks forward to that future. We are sitting in her backyard in North Vancouver as she tells me this. It is a sunny, cool spring day and Elladee is inside working at the kitchen table while Miya, their dog, lays in the doorway keeping an eye on them both. “But’” she says, “when that comes, it comes.” Until then, she’s embracing her new life exactly as it is.

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The End
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