When it came, the impact with the road was horrendous. Lying on the tarmac, head pounding, I heard a long groan and realised the noise had just come from me. I knew immediately that my right collarbone had snapped. Later, I would learn that my pelvis and sacrum (at the bottom of the spine) were also broken. Even now, when I’m asleep sometimes, I’ll wake up and think I’m back in that place, wondering if I’ll ever be able to move again.
It was a bright June morning in 2012; just a few minutes earlier I had been cycling over the rolling hills of Surrey, with my friend Tania happily pedalling at my wheel. A two-time world and European champion triathlete, I had planned a low-key training ride with Tania on the London 2012 Olympic road cycle route. In just a few weeks, the same roads would be lined with cycling-crazy fans in a year in which the UK embarked on a serious love affair with the sport.
For the past three years, I had been racing in the pro ranks at Ironman distance, producing seven top 10 finishes and earning prize money while working full-time running a sports coaching business. My life was about as physical as you could get, and my days revolved around strict timetables consisting of swimming, cycling, resistance training and coaching sessions.
Riding down through Oxshott, my attention turned to the increasing levels of traffic. Approaching a junction, I noticed a dark blue car on the left waiting to turn right on to the road we were travelling along. I floated out into the road and stared at the driver to try to make eye contact. It was a tactic I used all the time to make sure I was spotted early by motorists. The relentless flow of oncoming traffic made me confident the driver could not and would not pull out. But then he did – just metres from my front wheel.
What happened in the next tenth of a second all unfolded in hideous, silent slow motion. Because I was going at such a speed, I knew I had to react quickly. My racing instincts kicked in, telling me to apply the back brake. By pointing the bike ever so slightly towards the back of the car I could hope that he would carry on going forward and a small gap would present itself. But then the rear wheel of my bike left the road and I sensed that both the bike and I were airborne.
I hadn’t even had a chance to let go or unclip from my pedals, so I was flying with the bike, thinking, “When am I going to stop? Is it going to be a car that stops me?” I didn’t dare open my eyes – I didn’t want to see what was coming.
Finally my hip, back, right leg, left knee, right shoulder, right arm, left fingertips, right hand, head and helmet all met the tarmac, ripping the bike from under me. I skidded along the road for some distance, one bike shoe remaining clipped into the pedals as my foot was yanked forcefully out of it.
When I opened my eyes I saw oncoming traffic, the wheels at eye level, pointed towards my head. Tania’s shouts to the driver of the car to stop were ringing in my ears as I lay there helpless, knowing that in those tiny moments everything had changed.
After what seemed like hours, a rapid response vehicle arrived and later, blue flashing lights. As we rattled along to hospital, the medics asked about my sport, keeping me conscious. All the time hanging in the air was the one question I didn’t want to ask but which I knew needed to be answered. What did that sinister tingling and lack of feeling in my lower body mean? It made me wonder if I would ever ride my bike again.
Test results confirmed that I had broken my right clavicle and the left side of my sacrum, and had a compression fracture of the pelvis, meaning it had completely shattered. A lead consultant told me the serious nature of my injuries meant that I was unlikely to be able to run again. At this point I was still wondering if I would be able to walk, but he could never understand how the bluntness of his words would affect someone whose life was their sport.
Incredibly, there was no lasting damage to my spinal cord. Knowing this, my self-driven rehabilitation process could begin. I’d spend the next few months quite literally picking myself up and starting again – in my mind there was no other option.
Over the first 10 days, I forced myself to stand and learn how to walk again. Painstaking physiotherapy sessions, the pain dulled by morphine, took me through the process of moving my unresponsive right side enough to take my first steps forward.
I realise now that the key to my recovery process was a positive attitude and dedicated athlete’s mindset. In simple terms, I lived by the same strict training programme as I always had – but instead of swimming several hundred metres before breakfast, my mornings began with a strict ritual of activating each limb, muscle by muscle. Instead of pounding the pavement, my weekly targets became mastering the little things, such as managing the steps up to my flat. Achievements were marked by how long I could stand or walk comfortably, without pain. Rather than winning medals, I won back the ability to put my own shoes on and cook a nutritious meal.
For the first time, I didn’t mind being indoors most of the time, because going out made me feel anxious and defenceless. Having to depend on other people for support – everything from helping me up stairs to bringing food shopping for me – felt completely alien. I lived alone and prided myself on my independence. The word that kept coming to mind was “humility” – I really felt I was experiencing being stripped back down to the basics of being human.
After two major operations to repair my snapped clavicle, I gradually learnt to swim again and – as mad as it might seem – began to start planning how I might get back on a bike again.
It took a number of weeks to become desensitised to the view of a bike ready for me to ride and train on again. Using a specially padded seat on an indoor gym bike, I was able to sit up and pedal for up to 10 minutes. It was a small step, but it was huge progress and allowed me to see myself competing in multi-sport again, one day not too far away.
On 14 June this year, three years after my crash, I made it back on the starting line. Ready to compete in the Windsor Triathlon 2015, I shivered with excitement. After a strong swimming start and confident ride on the bike, running the final leg was uncomfortable and knocked me back. But recognising athletes on the track with me who I had worked with or coached over the years, we exchanging high fives and my morale was boosted.
As I neared the finish line, it became more and more difficult to control my emotions. Seemingly on autopilot, I made my way down the long finishing straight and struggled to hold back tears of joy as I crossed the line, winning my age group by 12 minutes.
Watching me standing on that winner’s podium, it was hard for friends and family to believe that three years earlier I nearly lost my life. Equally, lying in a hospital bed, I had barely been able to imagine regaining control of my body and carrying on the sport I love. Having been through all number of setbacks, I’ve seen first hand that people’s good qualities and attitudes towards life are strengthened in times of adversity, and I couldn’t feel any better than I do now. µ
‘Back on Track’ by Fiona Ford (Meyer & Meyer Sport, £11.95) is out now
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