Ironman competitor battles back

MICHELE MANDEL -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:18 AM ET

They said anyone else would have likely died that day.

Tara Norton was cycling quickly downhill at 40 km/h when her front tire suddenly dropped away and she was hurtling head first into the asphalt.

"I can remember the sound of my face hitting the road," recalls Norton, 34, "and I can remember seeing the pavement right in front of my eyes as I crashed and skidded to a stop."

In one terrible instant, her life and her Ironman hopes seemed about to come to an end.

The registered massage therapist had been competing seriously in triathlons since 2002 and had turned professional in 2004, training 35 hours a week. Her ultimate goal became competing in the Ironman World Championship, the gruelling 3.8 km ocean swim, 180 km bike race and 43 km marathon held every October in Kona, Hawaii.

"At first I though the Ironman was crazy -- that it's just too ridiculous," she laughs in her Annex kitchen. "But sure enough, I caught the Ironman bug. I love the mental and physical challenge. A lot of it is mental and I think that's why Ironman athletes peak at a later age than other sports."

To enter the world championship, competitors must qualify at one of the Ironman races leading up to Kona. Norton made it in 2003 and finished as the first amateur Canadian woman. In 2004, she was there for the first time as a pro and was the 25th woman in the world.

Leading up to this year's race, she finished seventh at Ironman Arizona in April, missing qualifying for Kona by one place. Now she was training harder than ever to secure a spot for the Worlds at July's Ironman USA in Lake Placid.

On May 18, she was out with a friend on a four-hour training ride in Oakville when the front forks on her bike suddenly snapped in two and she went careening into the road.

Her husband, Bruce Greenwood, could barely recognize her when he got to the hospital. Norton's face was a bloody pulp, the right side of her broken jaw higher than the left and her chin so torn away that he could see the muscles exposed.

'PUT BACK TOGETHER'

"The doctor said she's very lucky to be alive," he recalls. "The only reason she hadn't died or been paralyzed was the strength she had in her neck and shoulders. The doctors were reassuring that they'd be able to put her back together but they also made it clear it wouldn't be a short process."

She had broken her neck and nine facial bones including her jaw, palate, right nasal bone, right orbital bone and left sinus bone. Her teeth were a mess: Most were loose, some were broken and one front tooth was completely knocked out at the root. A passerby at the accident found it for her and doctors managed to reattach it.

Her darkest moment came after surgery when the doctors had just finished telling her how miraculous it was that her neck injury had not been more serious. Part of her feared they may have missed something. "I was actually afraid to go to sleep. I wondered if I would wake up in the morning."

Her self-proclaimed sherpa and number one fan never doubted his wife's full recovery. "Her mental toughness is just something I've never come across in anybody I've met before so I knew this was just going to be another challenge."

Yet others wondered if she would ever be able to get back on her bike after such a terrible accident. Certainly no one imagined she would heal fast enough to continue competing this season. Not only did she have to recover from serious injuries, but she was missing out on valuable training time.

Lake Placid was little more than nine weeks away.

But just eight days after surgery, Norton was training indoors and nine days later, she was back on her bike outside. She was just not ready to give up on her dream, even if it meant fighting the fear of crashing again. "I was thrilled to be back out doing what I love, but I was scared at the same time. If I was to fall now, I don't know if I would survive that."

To the amazement of many, she not only made it to the starting line at Lake Placid, but she won her spot for Kona.

Last month, the woman who narrowly cheated death competed in her third Ironman World Championship, finishing 26th of 54 women and ironically, having her personal best time on the bike portion of the race.

The 2005 season is done but she's already planning for next year with a new coach and a new dream. "My goal is to get on to a podium in an Ironman race," Norton smiles.

But she knows she has already won the best trophy of all.

"I have a new perspective on life and really appreciate what I have," says the incredible athlete, gazing at her husband. "I remind myself every day that I am one lucky girl."


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