Words and Photo by Danielle Baker
Tara Llanes is the Queen of Comebacks. When you hear her name most people will think of the 4-Cross crash that left her with a complete spinal cord injury, but there is a lot more to what Tara has overcome and what she has done to stay connected to an industry that she calls family.
Tara fell in love with bikes when she was eleven, the year she started racing BMX. Eight years later she made the switch to mountain biking and shortly thereafter won gold at the X-Games. In her first year of racing professionally Tara crashed and broke her collarbone at Nationals in Washington. In an interview in 2000 Tara expressed that she thought no one would want to sponsor her after that, little did she know that the support of her bike family would see her though a lot more than a broken collarbone, or three.
After a crash at a NORBA Cross Race in 2002 she was left with her third broken collarbone, three fractured ribs, two partially collapsed lungs, and a torn MCL in the right knee.
Tara recovered, trained and was back travelling the NORBA race circuit in 2003 when her team vehicle crashed leaving her with a broken foot and taking her out of the game for the second year in a row. The following year Tara came back to win the NORBA Championship title and bronze at the World Championships.
Tara's racing career was still going strong when a crash at the Jeep King of the Mountain race in 2007 left her with a spinal cord injury and in a wheelchair. She spent three months in Craig Hospital and another two years at home recovering. Determined to continue with her active and strong lifestyle and honor her drive for competition Tara set out to train for the Ironman. She needed a focus that wasn't mountain biking, she could not yet handle having a direct comparison between what she used to love and what that sport would look like for her now.
Tara began training for the triathlon on her hand-cycle and quickly realized that the distances and hydration required resulted in frequent bathroom stops. Each stop someone would need to carry her to the washroom.
Research revealed a procedure that would give Tara some freedom and allow her to achieve her training goals. She chose to have bladder augmentation, a surgery that uses your intestine to enlarge your bladder, additionally she had a Suprapubic catheter put in, allowing her to drain her bladder through a tube inserted in her stomach.
Due to complications during the surgery, however, Tara was left in a terrible amount of pain. The slow recovery meant that she missed her training goals and the Ironman competition.
Tara made peace with the missed opportunity and focused her energy on her personal life, moving to Canada, getting married, and buying a house. For the first time since she was eleven Tara wasn't training or competing, she was figuring out how she was going to be a part of the community she'd known for over 20 years now that her life had changed.
Commuting to work I'd often see Tara in her chair, her wife on a skateboard, and their little dog, Miya, running along side. By the way, if anyone at a hotel asks, Miya is a trained assistance dog; she's just not that good at it.
One morning in the spring three years ago, Tara woke up to a new nightmare. She'd fallen asleep on a heating pad. When she put her hand on her back she felt liquid. Due to her spinal cord injury Tara hadn't felt her skin burning, nor had she woken up from the pain she should have felt. Third degree burns put Tara in the hospital for six skin grafts and kept her out of her chair and on her stomach for almost ten months. During this time her only mode of transportation was to have someone hold her feet while she would 'wheelbarrow' around on her hands.
We've all had injuries that have kept us off our bikes, some for a couple days, some for a few months, put yourself in Tara's place and think about where your head would be after ten months of laying on your stomach, immobilized unless someone helped you.
Tara tells this story, and all of her stories with ease, she even credits this accident with allowing her to meet a doctor who helped her sort out her pain meds. Since her accident in 2007 Tara had been suffering with chronic pain and felt like she was living in a fog induced by the medications she was on. While in the hospital with her burns a doctor who specialized in pain management helped her to get on a schedule that cleared her head while still easing her pain.
When I met Tara for the first time I had some expectation of who she was going to be, with everything she'd been through and comeback from I thought that sitting down with her would be like listening to a motivational speaker at a conference. Instead I found the most inspirational thing about Tara is how normal she is. I use normal in the sense that she isn't outside in her wheelchair yelling at clouds. She is normal because she jokes about the great ass she used to have, makes tacos with her wife, and sometimes pops a tube with overzealous pumping. She finds the upside and hope in everything that she has been through but when she tells you her life story it isn't all rainbows and lollipops. Tara is real and honest and open.
Through everything she has managed to stay connected with her industry. They have supported her and she has inspired them. Now with competitions and grueling training behind her, Tara works as a sales rep for Pearl Izumi and runs the annual Tara Llanes Classic at North Star Resort, raising money for spinal cord injury and recovery. I have had the opportunity to work with Tara on her event and to see her in action. It is inspiring to watch the kids with her as they shyly ask for autographs, or are nudged forward by their parents for photos; she really is the athlete that they should be looking up to.
There is an internal evolution that has to happen in order for someone to maintain a high profile in one industry for any substantial period of time. When you love what you do you have to step back and look at how you can change to keep it in your life.
Tara credits her mountain bike community for all the support they've given her and they truly have been generous with their money, time, and love, but in the end Tara is the only one who could choose to make comeback after comeback all the while staying connected to our world of bikes.