Twenty-eight-year-old Newcastle triathlete Lauren Parker could well become the inspiration of the nation in the countdown to this year’s Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
The former Ironman triathlete, who was second in her age group in the Ironman World Championship in 2015, is now confined to a wheelchair after an horrific and freakish bike riding accident last April crushed her career and changed her life forever.
Parker’s accident left her without any feeling from the waist down after she crashed into a guard rail while travelling about 45km/h during a training session near Raymond Terrace – after puncturing both her tyres.
She sustained broken ribs, a punctured lung, broken scapula, broken pelvis and a broken back with only a one per cent chance of walking again.
But today, just nine months later and after months of rehabilitation, heartache and training, Parker pushed and puffed her handcycle and racing wheelchair for 28 kilometres around the streets of Melbourne’s St Kilda beach in her one and only chance to win Games selection - as a paratriathlete.
It was the Paratriathlon Continental Championships run as part of Race Three of the Six-Race Triathlon Victoria 2XU Triathlon Series.
Race organisers had to cancel the swim because of poor water quality – turning the race from a triathlon into a duathlon (run-bike-run) and the inspirational band of paratriathletes – young and old – world beaters and newcomers - pursued the course with just as much gusto.
Parker was second across the line behind Gold Coaster Sara Tait and with two discretionary nominations available it is almost certain that both Tait and Parker will join ITU World Champion Emily Tapp in a three-strong Australian team when paratriathlon makes its Games debut.
For Parker, the prospect of turning her once blossoming Ironman triathlon career in paratriathlon has given her a new lease of life.
“I’ve only been on the racing chair for six weeks and the hand cycle and to be able to complete today’s race in an ok time I’m really happy,” said an emotional Parker, as she was swamped by over 20 members of her support team.
“I’m back doing what I love and that’s racing and I’m so excited to be back racing so soon after my accident; it’s hard to believe I can’t describe it.
“With regards to the Commonwealth Games I’m hoping it all works out and I do qualify; it would be really exciting if I did with lots of hard work between now and then.”
And she was quick to praise her support staff, coaches and fellow Novocastrian and Paralympic wheelchair legend Kurt Fearnley and her former training partner, carer and handler, former surf Ironman Brad Fernley.
“If it wasn’t for everyone around me; it’s like a team; it’s not just me; I wouldn’t be here without their support and the team; they got me to the finish line basically.
“Just training with Kurt under his renowned coach Andrew Dawes has been amazing, they are so supportive; I’ve had some good sessions with them.
“I’m very lucky to have them in my home town to train with one of the best in the world and with one of the best coaches I’m very happy doing three sessions of cycling and racing chair every week and four sessions of swimming.”
There are also two discretionary places available on the Australian men’s team with former motocross champion and newly crowned Australian handcycle Time Trial and Road Race champion Alex Welsh (Victoria) the first across the line ahead of SA’s experienced racer Scott Crowley.
Either Welsh or Crowley are expected to get the nomination in early February, behind automatic nominee Bill Chaffey and his fellow Gold Coaster Nic Beveridge, who was fourth in the World Championships in Rotterdam and is favoured to take the other spot, despite missing today’s final race, after only recently returning to racing after injury.
Welsh is another relative newcomer to paratriathlon after a motocross accident in 2009 left him a paraplegic and after a long haul of recovery and rehab his new life that has led him to hand cycling in para cycling events and now paratriathlon.
Welsh crashed off a jump at Blue Rock motocross track in country Victoria that threw him over the handlebars onto the hard ground and from that moment the impact left him with no feeling or movement from his sternum down, leaving him with numerous injuries which included a fractured T7 vertebrae in his back that had damaged his spinal cord and a diagnosis of T7 complete paraplegia, leaving him to adapt to life in a wheelchair.
“I knew the Commonwealth Games were going to be on the Gold Coast this year and it was going to be a real good opportunity to have a crack at it … there was no hand cycling in the Games,” said the 24-year-old Welsh.
“I just wanted to be part of Gold Coast 2018; I didn’t really back off my handcycle training I just added in swimming and the racing wheelchair and my beginning in wheelchair sport was the racing wheelchair so I had a good base in that to fall back on.
“So, I tied paratriathlon into my cycling commitments and could see there were some great opportunities in triathlon and I’m really enjoying the process and from cycling Nationals last week to racing this week it’s all been really successful.
“Last week was a dream start to the year in Para Cycling in Ballarat winning both the Time Trial and the Road Race.
“I’ve had a pretty amazing start to the year, basically I could not have gone any better and I was actually looking forward to the swim.
“I’ll admit it is one of my weaknesses but it would have been nice to show the progress I have made in that but you can’t control the weather you can’t control what goes on in the bay.
“Overall it was the best option (to cancel the swim) with so many athletes racing you can’t take any risks; you just have to make it happen; try and pick your battles and make up ground where you could and just take it easy and navigate the course correctly.
“I’m up against it (Commonwealth Games selection) because I haven’t been able to do a swim but we’ll see how it goes; I did the best performance I could today.
“I also raced in Florida in October and the swim was cancelled there as well but I can swim. I just haven’t had the chance to show it.
“I would love to be part of the Paralympics; that has always been my goal since my accident.
“It’s the pinnacle of sport and I’m maintaining my cycling goals and paratriathlon as well; the world champion in Paratriathlon does hand cycling as well, it’s not impossible.”
Meanwhile in other events:
WA’s two-time world champion Sally Pilbeam showed all her class to beat fellow World Championship medallist Kerryn Harvey (SA) in the PTS4 category.
Queensland’s emerging star Josh Kassulke won the PTS5 class from Tony Scoleri while the women’s went to New Zealander Sharron Dagg from two-time Paralympian Claire McLean and teenage star Molly Wallace.
Albury’s two-time World Championship medallist and former Cross-Tri World Champion Justin Godfrey, fresh from his Para Cycling silver at the Ballarat Cycling Nationals won the PTS3 with WA Paralympian Brant Garvey taking the PTS2 from another Albury boy Glen Jarvis and Mark Daniels.
The PTS4 men win went to Clint Picken from Liam Twomey and the PTVI to Gerrard Gosens (B1) from Daniel Searle (B1) with Jonathan Goerlach third after a puncture forced him and his guide to walk to the line. The PTVI for women was won by Shannon Cleave (NZ).