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Coming Back From Catastrophe

For Active.com

March 30, 2006

I don't remember much; the light turned green and we took off. I have a vague recollection of a "crunch." I was told in the emergency room that I'd been struck broad-side by a car, sending me cartwheeling over 20 feet.

The first thing I did was move my fingers and toes, and thank God I wasn't paralyzed. I thought the grit in my mouth was dirt but it was actually bits of my teeth.

The doctor removed a dressing from my leg and I stared into a gaping wound that used to be a perfectly good knee. I thought it was rude that the emergency personnel wouldn't answer my questions, but found out later it was because I'd been repeating myself due to my head injury.

The motorist who struck me didn't see the red light, the two cyclists dressed in bright clothing in front of me, or the other car that was stopped at the red light. There were no skid marks; it was as if the driver wasn't even looking out the windshield.

Not if, but when

Being struck by a car is a cyclist's greatest fear. There are many things we can do to mitigate the danger of cycling on the road, but we can't protect ourselves from unsafe or inattentive drivers.

News of these types of accidents spread like wildfire among the cycling community and remind us of our mortality. We wonder if all those people that call us "crazy" are perhaps right.

It seems that if you bicycle long enough on the road, you'll eventually have a collision. We often pedal along blissfully unaware of the dangers around us -- or we try not to think about them. Even the most attentive cyclist has no control over the actions of others.

When disaster does strike, it can take your passion away only to have it replaced with fear and trepidation. If you're lucky enough to escape with recoverable injuries, you don't return to the sport with the same perspective. And if you're seriously injured, you may not come back at all. Getting back on the bike can be a long, slow, and painful process and it may be the toughest challenge you'll ever face.

Ginny with triathlete Mark Allen.

Meet Ginny

I met Ginny Poyner at a USA Triathlon class. She was wearing a full back brace and walked gingerly with a cane. Being the oldest person in a room of mostly 30-somethings, I assumed she had undergone some sort of back surgery (Ginny is 61 years old). What I learned was that she had been struck from behind by a motorist while she was riding in a Florida bike lane last spring.


She was one of the most accomplished and experienced athletes in the room, and her courage, determination and attitude so inspired me I asked her for an interview. After my own cycling accident two months after our interview, Ginny and I developed a strong bond.

Most of us dream of an athletic career like Ginny's. Ginny began racing 22 years ago, before cycling computers even existed. An avid runner, Ginny decided to attempt a triathlon and was instantly hooked. This led to an aggressive race season including up to 15 races a year. After several seasons Ginny developed fybromyalgia and couldn't sustain the overhead motions required in swimming, so she turned to duathlon. In her first race, she finished as the second fastest female.

Although she had a bike crash the week before, Ginny bandaged her wounds and flew to California to try out for the U.S. Duathlon Team. She made the team and each and every other one, for 15 years -- the only American to do so -- until she was struck by a motorist last summer in Florida.

While on the U.S. Duathlon Team she earned four silver medals and was ranked first in her age group four times. She's been top five in her division since ranking began and named All American numerous times.

Q & A with Ginny

Ginny with her "titanium friend."

Matt Russ: What injuries did you sustain in the accident?

Ginny: I broke a bone in my leg and the left collarbone, fractured the sternum, shattered the L2 vertebrae and had huge gashes on my knees and shoulder. The fender of the car ripped open my left calf and since I was thrown 30 feet, landing on the sidewalk, I lost a lot of skin and I was bruised and cut from head to toe.

Did your doctors know how to treat you differently as an athlete?

Not really. Since I've been an athlete for so many years and I knew how to work through pain, I surprised the doctors and nurses. My graded pain scale was far lower than someone would normally have with my injuries. The medical staff has to force most patients to walk and to do their therapy, but with me, they had to almost tie me down to prevent me from overdoing my therapy exercises. The recovery of my wounds and broken bones, except for the back, were far ahead of what the doctors predicted for someone my age.

My doctor has learned to rephrase his directions to me -- My friend told him I'd walk to the next town if he instructed me to "walk as far as you can." I needed limitations and more precise directions. The doctors are accustomed to working with 'seniors', but not like me. The doctor said I did more activity with a broken back than most uninjured women my age.

How did your conditioning affect your recovery?

The doctors were amazed I even survived the crash. They were astonished I hadn't broken my hip or pelvis. The doctors told me my healthy lifestyle had saved my life and had prevented further injuries, as well as hastened my recovery. I was 61, but the muscles of my body were those of a much younger female.

How did your accident affect you emotionally then and now?

That's a big one! Two cyclists had been killed in our county about the time of my accident, so I was thankful to be alive and not paralyzed.

For 21 years I'd been 'Ginny the athlete,' my eating, training, and strength work centered on my racing. Most of my friends are athletes. My goal had always been to race at least 15 World Championships and now that goal was crushed.

The doctors told me there was no physical way I could race again. Biking for fun was a possibility, but running and racing was over. When I first saw my body in the hospital, I thought the doctors may be correct.

My friends kept saying, 'Ginny, doctors have told you that before and you proved them wrong.' I had a hole in my back where L2 used to be, my left leg had been ripped open, damaging the lymphatic system, and I had undergone eight hours of surgery. My emotions were difficult to describe. I had to keep telling myself that not being able to race wouldn't change who I was.

How did the accident impact you financially?

Ginny (with walker) at a 5k walk with friends.

I used a walker or a cane for almost eight months after the accident and was unable to work. I was a master trainer, indoor cycling instructor, and workshop instructor for other trainers. I taught Pilates eight times a week, but being in a back brace for eight months and 19 days, unable to bend or rotate, I'm no longer able to teach. I have rods and screws fusing my lumbar together making flexibility non-existent.

The woman that struck me had only enough insurance to pay for the helicopter ride to the trauma unit. My health insurance and I are paying the bills, which are approaching $300,000. This financial burden has added additional stress to an already stressful experience.

What role does your attitude play in your recovery?

Everything! I adopted the saying, "You can be in pain, but you don't have to be a pain." My friends tell me I'm an inspiration because of my positive attitude and "don't give up" attitude, but if I'd been doom and gloom when they visited, they wouldn't want to visit again. I kept telling myself how fortunate I was to be alive and how blessed I was to have so many supportive friends.

Was there anything positive that came from your accident?

Yes! Yes! Yes! My Pilates and cycle students became my family. They visited me in the hospital and walked with me in the rehabilitation hospital, drove me to doctor appointments, the grocery store, brought me meals and volunteered to help with anything I needed. One corporate Pilates class collected money for my recovery and members of that class have had lunch with me at least once a month since the accident.

Ralph and Ed (a cycling buddy and a bike store owner) organized a "Ride for Ginny" fundraiser. They collected door prizes, food donations and everything needed for a first-class event. Over 300 cyclists rode that day. Some knew me, some had heard of me and some didn't know me at all. They were all cyclists who came to show support for a fellow cyclist.

The money collected has been my survival money, paying for groceries, utilities, etc. My local bike club also gave me a donation towards my recovery expenses. I started receiving cards and e-mails from cyclists from other states who were in Florida the time of my accident. Now these strangers are my friends. The outpouring of love and support from so many people has been the reason I've survived this ordeal.

Given the inherent danger and risk of cycling on public roads, would you have chosen another sport to train for in retrospect? Would you recommend triathlon to other athletes?

We need to be aware of our surroundings and to ride defensively. Drivers don't always see us; some drivers don't like sharing the road with us. We need to stay focused while riding.

I've always recommended triathlon and duathlon to everyone. Accidents can happen anywhere. I love the sport. Happiness to me is riding my titanium friend (my Roark bike), and racing. Why wouldn't you want to share that with others?

What has your sport given to you?

Racing has given me confidence and self-esteem. My racing influenced my choice to change my career from teaching elementary students to teaching adults fitness. I have numerous certifications in the areas of health and fitness now. I became a USAT Race Official and a USAT Level II Coach, because of my love of the sport.

My sport uncovered the 'real me' hidden in this body. I grew up in a time when women when weren't involved in sports. It was considered unladylike to sweat. Now I love it when I pass a young man in a race. It makes me smile and ride even faster.

Racing has helped me develop friends all over the U.S. and the world. I've raced in 11 different countries by being a member of the U.S. team. I've met wonderful, positive, determined and devoted athletes in my many years of racing.

What does the future hold for you?

Ginny crossing the finish line on 3/25/06.

My goal is to ride again and to attend Nationals in May, 14 months after I was told I wouldn't compete again. I may finish last and I'll most likely need to do a lot of walking, but I'll be there giving 110 percent -- but my placing will be different. I tell my first-time triathletes, "Whoever has the most fun wins." I'll be a winner even if I finish last.

My career may change due to the damage to my body and what I'm able to accomplish. I have a feeling that I'll be paying physically and financially for the accident for a long time. At least I'm still here to tell about it.

We all seek sources of inspiration for our training and racing. Usually they are people who have uncommon drive, determination, perseverance, discipline and attitude. They are sources of strength and courage, and they're not necessarily standing on the podium.

The inspiration continues

I correspond regularly with Ginny and she's seldom far from my thoughts. Her challenges keep mine in perspective and remind me how lucky I am to be able to do the things I love.

As you'd imagine, Ginny is making remarkable progress and training her body as hard as it allows. Through Ginny's determination and "never say never" attitude, she's back to teaching spin classes several times a week and teaching her triathlon courses. She competed in her first duathlon since her accident last weekend; and won her age group. Ginny continues to be a source of light and inspiration to those around her.


Matt Russ has coached and trained elite athletes from around the country and internationally for over ten years. He currently holds expert licenses from USA Triathlon, USA Cycling (Elite), and is a licensed USA Track and Field Coach. Matt is head coach and owner of The Sport Factory, and works with athletes of all levels full time. He is a free lance author and his articles are regularly featured in a variety of magazines such as Inside Triathlon, and Triathlete. Visit www.thesportfactory.com for more information or email him at coachmatt@thesportfactory.com.

Virginia (Ginny) Poyner is a USAT expert coach, race official, and certified (master) personal trainer as well as a Pilates and Yoga instructor. Ginny is the only American woman to be on 14 consecutive World Teams, winning four silver medals and being nationally ranked No. 1 in her division three times. She has been named All American numerous times. E-mail Ginny at Triducoach@aol.com.