Endurance athlete overcomes paralysis to race, coach again

SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. — When Beth Sanden crashed her bike after speeding over a wet, broken patch of asphalt 15 years ago, the elite endurance athlete was left paralyzed. She figured her competition days were over, along with her career as a personal trainer and triathlon coach.

Actually, they were just beginning.

Paralyzed from the rib cage down and told she’d never walk again, she was swimming a year later. Soon after, she was walking with a walker, then a cane. Then she was back to competing in triathlons, albeit not the way she did before.

Sanden mostly walks these days by swinging her braced, completely paralyzed left leg like a pendulum while leaning on her cane, then moving her still-weakened right leg ahead of her body.

And she coaches people who have suffered severe injuries but, like her, have no interest in settling for a life of watching others do what they once did.

On a recent foggy morning at the aquatics centre in San Clemente — an upscale Southern California city dotted with stately homes, many with ocean views — Sanden discarded her cane from time to time while walking gingerly around a sprawling pool. As she moved, she shouted words of encouragement and suggestions for improving technique to the dozen or so people she’s training.

After they spend a couple of hours in the pool, Sanden will take most of them on a bike ride up and down San Clemente’s picturesque but punishingly steep hills.

At the pool, Edwin Figueroa is one of the first to jump in, after securing his legs at the ankles with zip ties. A bystander caught in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles nearly 30 years ago, he has been paralyzed from the waist down since age 17.

That didn’t stop him from propelling a wheelchair to the finish line in dozens of marathons over the years, including one last month along the shores of Minnesota’s Lake Superior. Still, it always bugged him that he couldn’t do a triathlon — a long-distance race consisting of swimming, bicycling and running — because he couldn’t swim.

“I told Beth if she could teach me to swim, I could do triathlons,” he said as he bobbed up and down in the pool. “I’ve done four now.”

For veteran triathlete and retired social worker Andy Bailey of Laguna Beach, it’s his first time in the pool since he was paralyzed in a bike crash on Halloween morning 2015. That came nine years after Bailey lost part of his right leg when he was hit by a runaway delivery van.

After the first accident, Sanden got him back on the triathlon circuit with a prosthetic. At age 78, he hopes working with her again can get him walking.

It’s the sort of long odds Sanden once faced.

Tuning up for an Ironman competition in Hawaii, she was among the riders leading the pack down a steep, downhill curve in a 50-mile (80-kilometre) bike race in the Southern California city of Temecula in 2002 when the broken, wet pavement knocked her off her ride. She was going about 50 mph (80 kph) when she crashed.

“My bike went out from underneath me and shot into a canyon, and then I flipped over and landed right between my shoulder blades, and my T-6 and -7 (vertebrae) shattered,” she said.

During the early days of her recovery, Sanden says, she believed she wouldn’t walk again, especially after her neurosurgeon told her the vertebrae had fractured so badly that her spinal cord had folded up like an accordion. But then her husband, determined to get her moving again, tossed her in a pool and insisted she start swimming. Fourteen months after the diagnosis, she strolled into the surgeon’s office using a walker.

“He said, ‘I’m just happy you can walk,’” she said, recalling his startled reaction. “I said, ‘Me too.’”

A legendary figure in endurance competitions, Sanden has completed more than 70 marathons and a similar number of triathlons throughout her career. The latter include several Ironmans, which to the uninitiated are super-sized triathlons.

An ironman competition, for example, more than doubles the distance of a traditional triathlon swim to 2.4 miles (3.8 kilometres) and more than quadruples the bike ride to 112 miles (180.2 kilometres). The footrace is a marathon-length 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometres).

Most of Sanden’s foot-race segments these days are accomplished with a handcycle, but not always.

At the Great Wall of China Marathon in 2011, the edifice’s notoriously cracked, uneven steps rendered a cycle useless for much of the race so she covered 14 miles (23 kilometres) on foot.

Having completed a marathon on every continent and the North Pole, she will enter the South African Challenge at the end of this month, competing in seven marathons in seven African countries on seven days.

“I’ll be doing the last of the seven on my birthday, when I turn 63,” said the mother of two grown children.

Fermin Camarena, who had a stroke 14 years ago that left half his body paralyzed, said that during his years of rehabilitation, he heard many stories about the female marathoner from San Clemente who had overcome paralysis and was helping others do the same. He finally met her one day while pedaling his bike with his one good leg down the Pacific Coast Highway as she was riding her cycle in the other direction.

“She told me who she was, and it was like meeting Santa Claus,” he recalled with a robust laugh.

One of only a handful of disabled USA Triathlon-certified coaches, Sanden works with disabled and nondisabled alike, but never charges the disabled, or para-athletes as she calls them.

“Everything they say about her is true,” said Camarena, 63. “Beth is the type of person who can light up the world, even when it’s foggy.”


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