I found triathlon as a teenager who had a chaotic home life—the kind you read about in the news. I saw working out as a way to feel in control, to feel that I could handle any situation. Since swimming, biking and running were part of the family DNA (I had even competed in cross country nationals for the Junior Olympics), triathlon was a natural progression for me. A local club welcomed me into the sport, and I’ve been in love with it ever since.
I continued training for triathlon through college, planning to complete a 70.3 to celebrate graduation. About 36 hours after graduation, I was starting a job in a new state and trying to keep up with my training. On May 17, 2011, I went for a ride—and was T-boned by someone running a stop sign in a SUV.
I had compound fractures of the femur and pelvis. My bike was decimated. I was rushed to the hospital’s trauma center, where I had an immediate and lengthy surgery to insert a titanium rod into my right femur. This was followed by an 11-day stay in the trauma unit.
Thankfully, the night before the accident, my best friend of 20 years had stayed with me. When our hotel was notified, she was able to contact my family and my employer. This was especially helpful because I kept insisting at the scene of the accident that I was eight years old, and needed someone to call my parents. My mom, aunt and boyfriend drove more than six hours to come see me.
It took time for me to remember that I was in my 20s. As I started recovering cognitive function, the doctors explained that they had saved my leg—which I didn’t even recognize was a consideration. I quickly asked about triathlon training, still dreaming of that 70.3. The doctors said I needed to be grateful I still had my leg and I hadn’t died. They said I would never be able to walk without a walker or cane or wheelchair. They said running was permanently off the table, and training needed to be removed from the equation.
I couldn’t—wouldn’t—get my mind around what they were saying. I fluctuated between denial and feeling lost. Triathlon had helped me find myself. There was no way those long rides and runs would not be a part of my life.
As my condition started to improve, a doctor I had babysat for helped facilitate my discharge from the hospital. I had no insurance at the time. I couldn’t afford physical therapy. I was also facing daily blood thinner shots (with a price tag of $28,000 per day) to combat three DVT blood clots, as well as additional surgeries. But this doctor offered to take full liability to monitor me in my own home, and my discharge was approved.
The staff who had been working when I was admitted to the hospital lined the walkways as I left. But I still didn’t realize how broken I was.
I had open wounds that went down to the bone in my leg. I couldn’t shower. I couldn’t do anything on my own. Our house was not wheelchair accessible. I began to feel constant frustration.
One of the first moments of feeling human again came when Scott, my boyfriend of just one month, wheeled me to the porch and leaned my chair in such a way that he could use the hose and actually shampoo my hair. It was glorious.
I can’t emphasize enough how important community was in my recovery. My mom and her boyfriend, and my sister, nephew, and niece have always been my biggest supporters, but I also had friends who drove me to the doctor several times a week. That doctor petitioned for equipment I couldn’t afford. Other friends organized a fundraiser to help me pay the medical bills. The doctor who helped me with discharge approval was married to a physical therapist who let me visit a few times. She assessed me and offered suggestions. I did my own daily PT based on her recommendations.
Over time, I moved from a wheelchair to a walker, then crutches. Finally, with unending support from my family, boyfriend, and friends, I started recovering fully from the surgeries. I began walking with a cane.
My medical team credited triathlon training with keeping my body (and mind) strong enough to recover better than they thought possible. My doctor joked that he was going to stop telling me what realistic recovery would look like because ever since the first appointment (when I couldn’t even bend my knee), I had repeatedly blown all expectations out of the water. Within two years, I was running. It might have looked more like hobbling, but I was running. I was confronting the sounds of traffic on my bike! I was swimming!
I also started graduate school to be a psychologist. I continued working out when I could. Once I completed my master’s and most of my PhD program, I began training seriously again, but nothing competitive. I also married that wonderful human who had washed my hair on the porch!
I finished my clinical residency at the VA, providing veterans with PTSD support and chronic pain management guidance. Once again, triathlon and the local tri community kept me on track. I competed in my first two 70.3s (the first in 7:23 and the second in 7 hours). I even ran my first marathon (with friends, and slowly … very slowly).
Now I’m wrestling through the development of my dissertation, and preparing for the next stage of my life. I’m about to celebrate my 30th birthday. My 20s were spent recovering from my accident and laying a professional foundation for the future. I can’t wait to see what the next decade has in store for me!
Looking back on this incredible journey, I believe one of the keys to my progress has been the insistence that progress never ends. I just wouldn’t accept that initial prognosis that was handed to me in the hospital. At the same time, there is a consequence of the accident that I have accepted: I’m always going to have pain, and it’s just going to get worse. Yet that pain has led me to a passionate career working with PTSD and chronic pain management—and I can empathize with my patients in an incredibly powerful way.
I see my struggles as daily reminders that I’m celebrating life. I’ve met amazing people who defy odds, offer support, and celebrate with each other. I’ve made lifelong friends. And triathlon continues to be an important part of that recovery. It centers me. I’m never going to be as fast as I was when I qualified for nationals. But for me, every race is a celebration that I can move again. I can overcome.
Rachel Hoadley-Clausen, from Mobile, Alabama, is finishing her PhD in clinical and counseling psychology after she defends her dissertation this semester. Rachel completed a year-long clinical internship that included multiple rotations in chronic pain management and trauma at the VA, which she loved more than she thought imaginable. She also is pursuing barre instruction as a way to round out her chronic pain/mindfulness clinical training and personal exercise enthusiasm.
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