The Heart of a Champion By James Herrera, Tara’s coach and close friend
September 7, 2007
As she lies in a hospital bed following a seven hour surgery to the back and spinal cord, Tara Llanes listens to one of her doctors explain the use of the Incentive Spirometer, a device frequently utilized in the medical community to test the health of the lungs following surgery. “Tara, now put this hose in your mouth and take the deepest breath you can,” he says. The effects of the post-surgery meds are still taking a toll as Tara, half asleep, takes hold of the device and inhales. “Not bad, 1000mls,” the doctor says. Tara sleepily asks the doc, “So how much should I be doing?” He replies, “Well, in a healthy young athlete like yourself, 4000-5000 is not uncommon, but you just had surgery last night.” As the doctor turns to leave the room, Tara sternly responds, “Let me see that thing again.” With all the strength she can muster, she cranks out a 1750. Later in the day, she’d stepped it up to 2500.
No one knows better than I do, this girl’s got the heart of a champion.
On Saturday September 1, 2007, Tara had a horrible crash at the Jeep King of the Mountain series finale in Beaver Creek Colorado. During a semi-final heat with eventual race winner Jill Kintner, Tara entered the second to last straight on the course and hit an obstacle that sent her over the handlebars, coming down hard on her head then back. She was rushed to Vail Valley Medical Center, and then airlifted to Denver Health Medical Center where a specialty spinal cord team worked on her for seven hours over Saturday night. Tara’s crash caused a fracture to the C7 and L1 vertebra and damaged her spinal cord, resulting in a below-the-waist paralysis—a condition her surgeons say is most likely permanent. But there is always a possibility that things will change for the better.
En route to the hospital, I received a phone call from Honda motocross superstar, Ernesto Fonseca who reaffirmed our belief that doctors don’t always know the ultimate outcome of a patient’s condition. In March of 2006, Ernesto suffered a training crash in preparation for the Daytona Supercross resulting in damage to his spinal cord. Like Tara, Fonseca labored through a lengthy surgery and has made tremendous progress since. “Don’t believe a word the doctors tell you,” Ernesto urged. “You just keep telling her to push and stay strong. I’m doing way more than they told me I ever would, and it’s only been a year.”
Through the advice of Tara’s physicians, Fonseca, and a number of other medical and personal friends, Tara’s family and I visited the world-renowned Craig Hospital in Denver, a facility specializing in spinal cord injury rehabilitation and research. The tour was rather amazing, highlighting the healing, recreation, and education efforts provided to the patient and family. As we progressed through the tour, there was a circuit-training physical therapy session taking place on the facility’s basketball court. The intensity of the therapists and coaches—and the hard work of the patients—reaffirmed my belief that Tara would fit right in and push her recovery efforts to their absolute limit.
While visiting Craig Hospital, we had the pleasure of meeting the family of Stephen Murray, the professional BMX dirt jumper who was left paralyzed below the shoulders following a crash in June of 2007 at the Dew Tour in Baltimore. Stephen’s mom and wife are both incredible individuals, offering great information about the Craig facility and their sincerest support for Tara and her family. You can read more about Stephen and make a contribution to his relief fund at www.stephenmurray.org.
Tara has been an athlete and champion of many sorts her entire life. She began her athletic lifestyle bouncing a basketball in the third grade, eventually going on to win a high school national championship. While in junior high, she discovered the sport of BMX. “My mom and I used to always pass this track, Orange BMX, on the side of the freeway,” recalls Tara. “I think my nagging finally got to her and one night we stopped and watched the racing. By the next week, my mom bought me a pink CW with matching pink and grey AXO gear and we went back to the track. I ended up getting second place. Who would have known that night would have changed my future?”
For the next few years, Tara and her biggest fan and supporter, her mother Barbara Llanes, flew around the country competing at national level events. Along the way, she acquired Haro as a sponsor.
“After a few years on the team I started to hear about mountain biking. I was 16 years old and talked to my team manager about getting me a mountain bike to try out. He finally agreed and I went to a race in Big Bear and won in the junior class. Since then I've been able to travel the world and meet a lot of new friends. Throughout everything I can't thank my mom enough for being behind me 110%. She was the one who would drive me to every single basketball practice, track meet, softball game, or BMX race. She was the one who would work on my bike for me at the BMX track just like all of the dads were doing for their sons. She was the one who would put streamers up in the hotel room at the BMX Grand Nationals in Oklahoma, because that race always happened to fall on my birthday. She's the best!”
Being a close friend to Tara and her coach for the past two years, I can’t even begin to express just how incredible this girl is. As an athlete, she is a coach’s dream: a fierce competitor—dedicated, motivated, and upbeat in every way. Having to pull back the reins on how long or hard she would train was my biggest chore. I can quite honestly say I’ve met very few people in my life that are even remotely this driven. But her athleticism and competitive spirit are only a small part of what makes Tara the person she is. She is compassionate, grateful, and helpful to every person she comes across, always placing the well-being of others before her own. On more than one occasion, her actions, the way she lives her life, became my example to follow.
My friends, Tara needs our help. She’d certainly never ask for it herself, but I’m definitely not above seeking a little assistance for one of my dearest friends. T’s at the beginning of a long and costly road to recovery. Following her two week stay at the Denver Health Medical Center, she will begin a six to seven week inpatient rehabilitation stay at Denver’s Craig Hospital.
From there, she will travel back to her home in southern California and continue outpatient physical therapy. As you can imagine, there are a number of costs associated with the entire effort ranging from the immediate medical to rehabilitation, travel, communication, home wheelchair modifications, and so on. Through your generosity, we can make certain Tara receives every opportunity for the best care that can be afforded. To make a charitable contribution to Tara’s Road to Recovery Fund, please visit www.tarallanesroadtorecovery.com. Contributions can be mailed, wired, charged to a credit card, or taken directly to a Bank of America. Some account set-ups are still in the works, but immediate contributions can be mailed to:
Road to Recovery Fund
4068 Green Ave.
Los Alamitos, CA 90720
From the jungle of flowers in her room, number of text messages, MySpace messages, and phone calls, I know Tara’s got some incredible friends and one of the most amazing support mechanisms anyone could hope for. She loves receiving your messages of support on her MySpace page at www.myspace.com/mtbtara. T and her family would like to express their sincerest thanks for your gifts, thoughts, prayers, and well wishes.
We’d also like to send a special thanks to Ted Martin and the Jeep King of the Mountain Series group for immediately lending support towards travel and housing costs for Team Llanes. Also, notes of thanks go to Travis Chipres at Giant Bicycle, Brian Hawkins with Giant for Women, Leah Garcia for brightening the room with her laugh and positive energy, and all the other sponsors, industry friends, and publications that have agreed to lend their support and spread the word about the Road to Recovery Fund. Tara is deeply grateful.
Information on Tara’s progress will be posted on her MySpace page daily.