Those of you who read this blog regularly know Coach Beth Hibbard as the woman who single-handedly managed to get lifeguards to stop escorting me during the swim portion of races. Others may recall that she was an accomplished pro triathlete. She’s been such a huge source of moral support, information, and inspiration that it’s hard to imagine her as a newbie.
When she was 24-years old, Beth went on a training ride in Palos Verdes, California with a friend. It was beautiful July day – her first 50-mile ride, her first ride on a brand new bike. As she traveled at 30 mph on a steep 8%-grade hill, she perhaps grabbed the front brake a little too tightly and suffered a violent crash. She doesn’t recall the accident. “When I came to in the ambulance, my first words were ‘I smell cookies,’” she recalled with a laugh.
Beth broke her neck. She was rushed to Harbor General Hospital, which is known for its trauma care. A hospital representative called her parents in Indiana and left a message on their machine, “Your daughter has broken her neck, but she’s okay.” “My poor parents were mortified,” she admitted.
In the ICU, she lay strapped to a backboard with a curtain drawn around her. “I was alone and all I knew was that board was not like a mattress. My foot was killing me and my head hurt too,” she explained. She also had some major road rash on her shoulder blade.
After three days she was transferred to UCLA Medical Center where she remained in the ICU. The doctors performed surgery to repair the damage to C5, C6 and C7. They used plates, screws and cadaver bone to stabilize her spine and fuse C5 and C6. “They were pretty amazed that I could still move everything,” she recalled.
She spent six days at UCLA before returning home to Indiana for six months of recuperation. Beth is not one to skip working out. As soon as she was able, she went to the local gym in a neck brace to walk on the treadmill. “I couldn’t pick up anything that weighed more than 5 lbs,” she explained, “I got really good at picking things up with my toes.” Those workouts were always followed by long naps.
We often hear people describe an illness or accident as a gift. Beth is no exception. “One thing I really took away from the experience was spending time with my parents as an adult. Yeah, it was hard to have the accident. It was frustrating and challenging, but I got to spend six months with my family,” she recalled fondly, “I still get choked up thinking about what a really special time that was when I look back on it. I feel very fortunate.”
Beth was also excited to return to California and become independent again. Her first few weeks back on the job at the Toyota Fitness Center as a personal trainer were challenging. Some days, she continued to wear a neck brace because it was all she could do to keep her head up. “I had this little cocktail that I needed pretty regularly when I returned to work. It was two Advil and a Diet Coke,” she said with a laugh. It felt like a major accomplishment to get through each workweek.
On the weekends, she rested. Then, she faced her fears. “I tried to jump back into things. I went for a ride with a couple of friends on my mountain bike on the road,” she recounted, “It took a while to get over the fear.”
Ten months after her accident, she competed in her first triathlon – Wildflower’s mountain bike race. Adrenaline and absolute joy hit her at T2. “I was so excited that I ran off the course with my bike helmet on,” she explained with a chuckle, “I was just so thrilled to make it through the bike course. I had to stop again to take off my bike helmet.” Beth continued to race as an amateur for three years.
The turning point in her competitive career occurred when she was accepted by the Olympic Training Center to attend a camp. The coaches there encouraged her to race professionally.
Her employer was behind her too. The Toyota Training Center sent her to a USA Triathlon Certification class in Minneapolis, so she could coach multi-sport athletes.
Despite some reduced mobility in her neck and weakness in her left arm, she thrived as a professional triathlete. One of her favorite race memories was the Long-Course Nationals in Muncie, Indiana where she attended college at Ball State University. She came in fifth place. It was good to home again.
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