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For para-athlete, a long road back to racing triathlons

Beth Bragg

As next Sunday's Alaska Gold Nugget Triathlon approaches, hundreds of girls and women will ponder the part of the race that has nothing to do with swimming, biking and running. Socks or no socks? Clip-in shoes or running shoes for the bike? Each choice can impact transitions, those often chaotic, time-sucking moments spent switching from one activity to the next.

Anchorage's Judy Abrahams faces transition choices no other racer has dealt with in the 31-year history of the Gold Nugget. Crutches or walker? Leave her leg with her bicycle when she drops it off at the Bartlett High parking lot the day before the race, or wait till race day to do that?

The last time Abrahams competed in the Gold Nugget, in 2005, she was a top-10 finisher. This time, she will be the triathlon's first para-athlete, an amputee who lost her leg as the result of a 2006 bike-car collision.

Swimming laps Saturday at the UAA pool, Abrahams, 39, didn't look any different than swimmers in adjacent lanes, although she was moving faster than the others. The only thing setting her apart was the poolside walker parked at the end of her lane.

The walker was the winner in the walker-vs.-crutches debate over how best to get from the swimming pool to the parking lot, where rows and rows of bicycles await.

"Crutches on wet tile ... I don't know how many times I've almost eaten it," Abrahams said. "The walker's a little slower, but at least I won't slip and eat it."

Once she finishes her 500-yard swim and walks to her bike, Abrahams will put on a prosthetic leg with a custom-made foot for bicycling that allows her to clip onto the pedal. Between the 12-mile bike and the 4.1-mile run, Abrahams will grab an Allen wrench, unscrew the bike foot and replace it with the regular foot she uses for walking and running.

All the while, the clock will be ticking on her race.

"My transition times were never fast before," Abrahams said with a laugh, "so I just have a good excuse now."

AMPUTEE BY CHOICE

Abrahams (pronounced Abrumz) was once an elite triathlete who finished 25th in her age group at the 2005 Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, the Super Bowl of triathlons.

She intends to return to the elite level of racing, something she never dared dream in the early years after her accident, before the biggest transition of her life.

In 2011, five years after shattering her leg, Abrahams chose amputation over constant pain. She has no regrets.

"I hadn't had a pain-free day since the day of the accident, and at some point it reached the point where it hurt to do anything," she said. "If I cleaned the house, I couldn't walk for several days.

"A doctor in Colorado told me, 'You've got a perfectly good foot. I wouldn't do it.' But if you can't be weight-bearing on a bone, the bone starts deteriorating, and my bone started to deteriorate. I said, 'I'm done.' I couldn't do anything with my family: 'We can't go out and have fun 'cause Mom's gonna get hurt.' Well, that's bad."

Friends in the triathlon community watched with trepidation.

"We all as a collective group were like, 'Wow, what are you doing?' " said Rebecca McKee, who has known Abrahams for years and recently became her coach.

"The thing I'm most impressed with is she has made the transition of, 'I am a new person, and I am competing in a whole different way.' We're just setting baselines right now, and she's not putting any (performance-related) stresses on herself."

AIMING HIGH

Not that performance doesn't matter to Abrahams. As she began life as an amputee, she did so with new goals that show she hasn't strayed far from her old competitive self.

"She's very much interested in the Paralympics," McKee said. "We're going pretty big-scale here. We're looking at ways to get her exposure and support -- the running foot she needs (to become a world-class competitor) is a $15,000 item."

For now, Abrahams would be happy with a leg that fits. An engineer with an oil company, she spent much of last week with Wil Sundberg at Alchemy Orthotics and Prosthetics searching for one that won't slip, leave bruises or otherwise create pain and discomfort to the stump that remains below her right knee. She has contended with bursa, bone spurs and even pain in the opposite hip. That latter happens if adjustments to her prosthetic make her taller or shorter on the right side than the left.

She still doesn't have a leg with a permanent socket -- she'll get that once she and Sundberg find the right fit.

"I'm probably on version 12," Abrahams said. "I try it out in the office and see how it's fitting, and if it feels good going out of the office, I try certain things outside of the office and then go back in."

Not all stumps are created equally, she said -- and not all amputees are triathletes, Sundberg said. The combination of an unusually shaped stump and the physical work required to be a triathlete has made it difficult to find a trouble-free leg.

"For me, the shape of my stump doesn't fit in (a socket), so we have to do a lot of custom things," Abrahams said. "My stump has been changing every day since surgery."

Her body has been changing too. After her accident -- she was coming down Rabbit Creek Road on a beautiful September day when a car hit her at an intersection -- Abrahams gained 50 pounds, reaching a high of 180.

She finally started swimming again, but it wasn't until the amputation that she was able to return to a regular schedule of training and competing and the weight started to come off. She's about 140 pounds now.

FIRST-DATE JITTERS

The first thing you notice about Abrahams isn't her leg, or her lack of a leg. It's her personality. She has a high-pitched voice that sounds a bit like a little girl's, and that goes perfectly with a welcoming, sunny attitude.

"Her personality has always been like that," McKee said. "I truly believe that's probably what's gotten her through this."

Abrahams' injuries included a shattered leg -- broken fibula, broken tibia, destroyed ankle cartilage -- and a crushed upper jaw. Her leg and foot needed three surgeries right away and five or six more over the years, and her jaw needed a bone graft and three implants to replace front teeth that were knocked out.

And so it was that Abrahams was toothless and on crutches when, not long after the accident, she went on her first date with Shane Ferreira, who is now her husband.

Ferreira picked her up in a huge Dodge truck set on big wheels, and Abrahams stood next to it on her crutches wondering how she would manage to climb in. He took her to Moose's Tooth for dinner, and Abrahams sat at the table with no front teeth wondering how she would bite into a piece of pizza.

"And I got a second date out of this!" Abrahams said. "Woo-hoo!"

Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

 


By BETH BRAGG
bbragg@adn.com