Australian para-triathlete Lauren Parker – who raced into the hearts of all Australians with her inspiring Paralympic silver medal effort in Tokyo last month – has overcome a shocking series of events; suffering third degree burns and enduring a serious car accident, to become world champion in her first IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship in the US earlier today.
It was expected throughout the week a start would be highly unlikely due to the burns sustained just nine days earlier, and the on-going treatment, before a decision in the eleventh hour was confirmed by Parker.
With her feet bandaged before and dressed by nurses during the Ironman 70.3 World Championship Utah, it took Parker an agonising 7 hours 54 minutes and 53 seconds to complete the mountainous terrain.
The 32-year-old from Newcastle completed what would be a brutal course in St George as she battled the heat, cold, rain, hail and gale force winds on a day that she will long remember.
Saying after the race, “that was without doubt the hardest race I’ve ever done in my life – even tougher than Kona!” (referring to the Hawaiian Ironman she completed as an able-bodied athlete).
And it was a day that may well go down as one of her finest, defining the 32-year-old from Newcastle, who survived a horrific training accident in 2017 that caused horrendous injuries – leaving her a paraplegic.
The same woman who led the inaugural Paralympic wheelchair class triathlon in Tokyo from the start before seeing the gold medal snatched from under her nose in one of the most dramatic finishes of the Games and after an hour-long battle royale – chased down by determined American Kendall Gretsch.
It was a heart-breaking conclusion to two-weeks of Paralympic sport – but nothing compared to what was in store for her as the tough-as-teak Parker embarked on her first of a series of three Ironman 70.3 events in the US and Mexico.
What unfolded before the race between Las Vegas, Nevada on Friday September 10 and St George, Utah on Saturday September 18 is truly one of the most extraordinary chapters in the life of any Australian elite sportsperson.
Parker suffered third degree burns to her feet following a Vegas training session, after innocently and unbeknownst to her, resting her feet against a red hot car window.
Then five days later Parker and her handler, trainer and best friend Brad Fernley, were involved in a two-car accident at an intersection on a busy St George freeway as she arrived to prepare for the race.
Both cars were written off and remarkably Parker, Fernley and the three occupants in the other car, all escaped unscathed.
But she now faced a race against time to prepare for a battle she was determined not to miss – her severely burnt feet wrapped in bandages and facing amputation of toes.
“Lauren suffered unbelievable wounds and we immediately attended the Inter Mountain Health Care Clinic, with one of the best burns units in the US which was a blessing,” said Fernley, who said doctors told Parker originally they may have to amputate up to five of her toes.
“She also burnt the nerve ends which affected her neuropathic pain which has increased her pain…
“All Lauren wanted to do was race in the World Championship 70.3 in what was an extremely mountainous course.”
And it turned out to be her toughest ever day in the Ironman office.
After almost a 2km swim and 90km on the handcycle came the 21km undulating run course in her racing wheelchair and it started to hail and rain.
Triathlon Australia spoke to Fernley just after Parker had crossed the finish line, revealing an inspirational day that she would not have achieved without the support of the Ironman community and the medical team from the St George Regional Wound Clinic.
“Lauren has just finished now and she is in the medical tent with the nurses dressing her toes, getting them re-cleaned and padded and covered up,” said Fernley.
“We will see the doctor tomorrow, go back to Las Vegas on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday before heading to Cozumel in Mexico for the next 70.3 race next Saturday.
“While we have been here we have been through a lot of grief but the two nurses who have looked after Lauren came with us to the race just to give their time up to dress her feet before we started.
“They then dressed her feet when she came out of the water and the 1.93km swim...because they were concerned about infection and they stayed until the end of a long day to dress the wounds after she came across the finish line.
“They were joined by the two burns doctors and the leading neurosurgeon and the head nurse, knowing the course inside out, who also came to watch Lauren today.
“They even went to the hills to encourage Lauren to keep going so in the overall concept of things there are some amazing people in the world and we just keep coming across them every day.
“We were blessed after these terrible circumstances to meet so many great people and to know don’t give up on humans; there are still a helluva lot of good humans out there and that’s magic for Lauren and I.”
Reflecting on the brutality of the course Fernley said: “It was a nine percent incline on three mountains and 16 percent on the descent she had to put her hands on the brake straight away.
“She couldn’t go hard down the hill because she would skid and lose control and going up the hill its nine percent; what a challenge for her to make that climb and especially when it is raining.
“It rained the whole time and it finished when she stopped, but that’s racing, she’s here to do it and do the best she can at it; it’s what she loves and it’s what she wants to do...
“The amount of people who know her story, who watched her race in Tokyo, who have come up to her after this race has been absolutely incredible.
“It was a brutal course, even without the rain and without the wind, it was always going to be a hard, hard course.
“Going uphill it’s a case of push and hold herself and push and hold herself and then on the second lap when it started to rain she could not move because her gloves were slipping on the push rim.
“She just sat there in the one spot and the support from the people around her was amazing...incredible.
“Lauren may not think so right now but she will get a lot of good out of this...just how mentally tough this was for her...she doesn’t need to ever challenge her toughness; she’s the toughest chick out there, it will stick with her for her lifetime.
“And she told me in a private moment ‘Brad, this has taught me that after what happened to me in Tokyo that this is the hardest thing I have ever done’.”
“She’ll go to Cozumel next week and that’s a flat race, so she’ll just smash it up and then she’ll race her third 70.3 in three weeks at Ironman Muncie in Indiana,” says Fernley, and his final word on the experience of past days, “Lauren Parker is one amazing woman.”