Triathlete Laurie Allen hits the track again – this time on a wheelchair

Laurie Allen injured her spine in a fall on Feb. 27. She's back home now, adjusting to her 'new normal.'
Laurie Allen injured her spine in a fall on Feb. 27. She’s back home now, adjusting to her ‘new normal.’

Austin triathlete Laurie Allen is back at the track.

Allen, who was paralyzed in a fall earlier this year, has made several trips to the oval track at Anderson High School, where she is already working on whittling the time it takes her to make a lap in a wheelchair.

She’s competitive that way.

“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. That’s where I used to do track workouts, so it’s nice to be on home turf.”

Allen fell off an icy deck at a friend’s house on Feb. 27, injuring her spine. She has use of her biceps but not her triceps, and can’t use her legs, trunk or fingers. She’s hopeful she may gain some of that function back eventually, possibly through experimental stem cell treatments.

In the meantime she’s working to settle into what she calls her “new normal.” This week, doctors removed a protective neck brace, dubbed Ned, that she’s worn since having surgery immediately after the accident.

Allen has been an athlete all her life – a high school swimmer, then a ballet dancer before injuring her Achilles tendon. In recent years she’s become a triathlete. Her husband Matt is now her main caregiver, spending about two hours each morning to bathe and dress her, and shifting her every 30 minutes during the day to prevent pressure sores.

They moved back to their Northwest Austin home in mid-April, and she started working part-time from home a few days later. She straps styluses to her hands and uses voice-activated software to work on her computer.

“It’s frustrating, but at least I’m connected,” she says.

The couple is settling into a routine, and has kept a sense of humor in the face of the challenges. They go to a gym when they can, socialize with friends and go out to dinner, but it’s a rough adjustment for someone used to a strong body and muscular arms, legs and shoulders.

“I look like I just survived a concentration camp, and I was a swimmer,” Allen says. “My arms are bone thin. It’s horrifying.”

The triathlon community has rallied around her, organizing fund-raisers, cooking meals and spending time at the Allen home, to give Matt Allen a break.

“She gets better every day,” Matt Allen says. “Every day there’s something she can do a little bit better.”

Next on Laurie’s agenda comes more outpatient physical therapy, more in-patient rehabilitation and then, if she can master a few more skills, a license to drive a specially-adapted car.

And did we mention a racing wheelchair she wants?

Author: Pam LeBlanc

Pam LeBlanc writes about fitness and travel for the Austin American-Statesman. She has worked for the Statesman since 1998 and written her weekly fitness column, Fit City, since 2004.

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