Tara Llanes' impressive resume include National Championship titles in downhill, dual slalom and 4-cross, but a horrific accident in September of 2007 during the Jeep King of the Mountain finale in Beaver Creek, CO stunned the MTB world and changed her life.
ST: How are you doing Tara?
Tara: I’m doing pretty good. I have recently been training in a hand cycle and it’s been good for me. Just getting back into a competitive mode is definitely a positive thing.
ST: It has been about 2 years since your crash. Can you take our readers back to that day?
Tara: Yeah, it’s been a year 8 months and 12 days to be exact. When you have an injury like this there are different time frames that have different meanings and the 2-year mark in my opinion is kind of a bigger one so I’m not trying to rush it. Did that make sense? ☺
So going back to the day it happened the race was in Vail, Colorado and it was a Jeep King of the Mountain race. The course was the longest of the season and had a pretty technical middle section. I had nailed that particular technical section in practice, but it was still a bit nerve racking when you were coming into it. It was a fairly high-speed rhythm section with rollers, table tops, and doubles and all different lengths and landings. Some would have a really mellow landing and others would have a steep lip and steep backside so your timing through it had to be spot on. There were just a couple girls hitting it and I had nailed it in qualifying the day before and qualified fastest.
The day of the race I was feeling good and went through my first round easily. I had Jill Kintner in my semis and knew she would be tough. We were in the gate and when the starter said, “riders ready!” which meant he was going to start the cadence, and I just wasn’t ready. The race was a TV event and when they say ‘go’, you have to go. In my head I was thinking, “I’m not ready yet. I’m just not ready yet”. But instead of putting my hand up I just went with it. Right from the start I felt off. I just felt like my balance, my timing, and my head were off. I cased the first jump, went around the first turn cased that jump, and then was all over the place going through the smaller rhythm section up top. At that point Jill had such a big lead on me that I probably should have just sat down and cruised to the bottom to save my energy for the next heat against her, but I’m not a quitter so I kept going.
I came flying into the lower rhythm section, hit the first two little double jumps, then the step down, and then I was supposed to pull my front wheel up over the roller so I could pump the backside to gain momentum for the next double, but that’s not what happened. Right when I landed the step down I was telling myself, “jump it, don’t jump it, just back-off, no don’t!” I was totally indecisive and the next thing I know I’m going head first into the face of the double and my hands were still on the bars. My head slammed into the lip and BOOM I was down. Then I remember rolling back down the face of the jump being in a tremendous amount of pain. My coach and a couple friends ran over straight away and just from the look on their faces I knew it was bad. The medics were there right away and they told me to try and wiggle my toes and I did. Or so I thought. I could see the reaction though and I started to lose it right about then. I just kept saying, “ I want to walk again, please tell me I’m going to walk and ride again!”
The whole thing was just so gnarly and so scary and clearly it changed my life.
ST: When did you realize how severe your injuries were?
Tara: Well, just from the severity of the pain I should have known, but I think it was when I saw the reaction of the medics and a couple friends that were standing there. When they told me to wiggle my toes I could tell that I hadn’t even though I swore that’s what was happening.
ST: What did the doctors tell you about your future in sports?
Tara: The doctors never even mentioned my future in sports because they said I would never walk again so they never got that far.
ST: Rumor has it that you are thinking about Ironman?
Tara: Rumor is true. ☺ I was hanging out with Ricky (James) months back and had found out that he’d done Kona. I have always been intrigued with that race even though I’ve never been a triathlete. I did however race the X-terra World Champs in 2000 and it was one of the hardest races I’ve ever done in my life. When Ricky’s dad told me that no female paraplegic had ever completed it I made the decision that day that I was going to be the first. I was really gung-ho with it and Ricky let me borrow his hand cycle, but I didn’t have a race chair yet. I was still getting sort of getting acquainted with the different foundations, grants, etc. that are there to help. I had heard of CAF (Challenged Athletes Foundation) and they wanted to help so they said they would get me a race chair. So I started riding a bit and trying to put in some miles, but I was still having quite a bit of pain so I was trying to manage that and also go from not having ridden a hand cycle to trying to do 30-mile days. I knew since it was already February I HAD to get on it. I started getting in the pool, but I had a sore on my right foot that I sustained in December and it would get worse when I would swim because of the chlorine so I had to stop swimming until that got better and it was taking months and months.
I was dead set on trying to qualify in Lubbock up until about 3 weeks ago. It’s now May 12, 2009 and I only just got my race chair 5 days ago so needless to say I had to be realistic about this whole thing. I’m still in a borrowed hand cycle that doesn’t really fit, I’m just getting back in the pool, and my race chair JUST showed up. This isn’t the kind of race you can fake your way through so I am going to keep training and get everything in order so that I can make a really good run at 2010. I know I can do it and I will.
ST: What do you think will be the biggest challenge?
Tara: The swim will definitely be the biggest challenge. I am a decent swimmer, but the first time I got in that pool and my whole trunk just sank and I tried swimming freestyle and got nowhere fast it really deflated me. I mean I know it can be done and I will be working really hard on that and Ricky’s dad is going to get me the leg braces that Ricky wore for his Ironman. At least then my legs will be held together instead of one floating off one way and one the other!
ST: Have you chatted with Marc Herremans?
Tara: I have actually never heard of them. Who is he?
ST: Check out his site at marcherremans.be
Tara: I just went to Marc Herremans link and I still have chills from watching that. What an insanely incredible guy. I don't know how you can't draw inspiration from that and from him! I get that. I mean being a professional athlete for nearly half my life and then having this happen to me. I need to do the Ironman. It's just something that has to happen for me. Thank you for sending that link to me.
ST: What about sponsorship?
Tara: Every company/person I have spoke to is behind me 100%. I have made a lot of friendships throughout my years of racing mtn bikes and it’s been really awesome having their support. So now that I am waiting till 2010 it will give me that much more time to get that sort of thing all sorted out because I don’t want to have to worry about that. I want to just focus on the training.
ST: Do you still follow mountain bike racing?
Tara: Yes and no. I won’t go online and look for weeks because I miss it so much and it’s so hard not being there riding the courses. At the same time I want so badly to know who is winning and what is going on with the results and more importantly my friends. So I’ll go onto pinnedmtb.com and watch it on freecaster.tv. It’s like I’m there when I get to watch the footage, but it is still really one of the most difficult things not being able to be out there doing what I love the most.
ST: What about other sports?
Tara: There have been SOO many people that started asking me straight away after I got hurt when I was going to get into hand cycling and racing again and I just don’t think people have any idea how hard mentally and emotionally that is for someone that raced professionally for so long. To me a hand cycle doesn’t come close to what I used to do and it never will. Yes, it is a form of exercise and I can compete in it but it will never be to me what mountain biking is and was. So for me I’d rather compete in triathlons because it is a different animal. It’s not just cycling and I like that. I can get out there and challenge myself in a different arena besides “just” cycling. I also just recently tried the sit-ski up in Whistler, which was cool. I’m not that much of a winter sports person, but again to do something other than cycling was good for me.
ST: Tell us about the foods you like.
Tara: Sushi, sushi, and sushi! I love it. I love eating fresh vegetables, steak, and whole grains, but I’m not a picky eater. I’m a pizza lover and could probably put away a box of cereal easily. Lol!
ST: What music do you listen to?
Tara: All types really, but right now I’m really into Tegan and Sara, Lily Allen, Kanye, Flo Rida, T.I, Lady Gaga, and a bit of Coldplay. But anything that gets me pumped up really.
ST: What was the last book you read?
Tara: Actually it was Michael Barry’s book. I think it was called Inside the Postal Bus. It was about his life on the US Postal Pro Road Team and their daily lives and it sucked! It was pretty lame to read, which was a bummer because I was pretty pumped to read it. Oh well.
ST: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Tara: Riding my mountain bike all over the world and being able to walk to the refrigerator after the ride to get a beer!
ST: Is there anything else we should know about you?
Tara: Ummm…well I’m pretty outspoken and I think a lot of people find that hard to believe so let me show you an example. What else...I don’t like brussel sprouts, shitty/slow drivers, and people that park in handicap parking that have got all their working limbs. See I told you! I consider myself to be a pretty loyal person and I think a lot of my sponsors can attest to that. Dunno, guess that’s about it. I want to thank every sponsor that has stuck with me. Giant Bicycles, Shimano, Troy Lee Designs, Smith, and Easton Bell and also my Mom, Elladee, Aaron Baker and his mom Laquita, CAF, Ricky James, David Bailey, the Hargraves family, Polly and all my friends around the world that have helped me along the way. Thank you, thank you, thank you and see you in Kona!
Read more about Tara Llanes at tarallanesroadtorecovery.com