The triathlete who got back on her bike and gave back

Charlotte Roach was an Olympic trainee before a terrible accident. After months recovering, she cycled from Beijing to London to raise money for the air ambulance that saved her

The sun was out. It was a crisp November morning. Charlotte Roach, 21, watched her cycling teammate remove her leg warmers while holding her position in the group. It was one of those days an Olympic trainee dreams about.

Then everything changed. A cyclist ahead of her swerved, catching Roach’s front wheel. She realised she was going down. “I remember falling but I never hit the ground,” Roach said. Instead, she hit an oncoming Land Rover. “The next thing I knew, I was on the road in a lot of pain.”

The pain was the result of punctured lungs, 12 fractured vertebra, broken ribs, and a broken collarbone. An air ambulance rushed Roach to hospital, where she had emergency spinal surgery and extensive reconstruction work. For an international athlete, one who had just been accepted onto the Olympics acceleration programme 2012 for triathlon, the accident was shattering.

It would be three months before Roach was back on a road bike again.

First, she had to relearn to walk. In a high-dependency ward where the “banter was of the highest quality”, Roach was watched around the clock. Physios worked with her to sit on the edge of the bed, then stand. And finally, to walk. She says:

“Nobody knew what would lie ahead for me now. Would I make the Olympics? But then I would think, ‘Who cares, when the questions are, will I be able to walk out of the hospital unaided? Will I ever touch my toes, stand up straight, run, swim and resume normality? Will I live independently, finish my degree, and reclaim my life?’ “

Roach’s memories following her release from the hospital are a catalogue of small victories: tying her own shoes by balancing on one leg, unable to bend down; walking the few hundred metres to her local surgery for the first time without falling; running for almost 90 minutes. She made mistakes, she notes, like swimming with her broken collarbone. But more than that, she made progress.

“At 5.05am I’d wake to see a letter pinned to my wall explaining that I no longer had any potential. I wasn’t about to sleep in and miss swimming with that hanging over me.”

Read the full story on the Guardian’s website here

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